In the last four decades, Luton Town has gone from the second tier to top-flight to non-league and back to the second tier. There has even been a league cup success over Arsenal during this timeframe. A lot of ups and downs. In the last four decades, a lot of players have been called Legends thanks to individual performances or team related honors (including this year’s great escape) in an era of an overreaction but one man deserves that tag more than most. That man is Ricky Hill.
Ricky was a part of the 1980’s team that won the League Cup (a game he played after four months out) and a promotion to the top flight of English football. He was also a major part of the clubs highest ever league finish under John Moore. He’s possibly the most skillful player to ever grace the Kenilworth Road pitch in Town colors and the three England caps he earned is derogatory to the talent he displayed on a consistent basis. But Luton Town was not a ‘fashionable team’ with a lot of media pressure so therefore he was often overlooked as was Brian Stein. To be only the second Luton player to ever represent England (Syd Owen being the first) while at the club should tell you everything you need to know about a midfielder who could literally do everything.
With a background like that, you would expect the club to look to keep Ricky around as much as possible. It could be as an ambassador, or in a possible coaching role as a figurehead for the young players, yet his only return to the club since leaving as a player in 1989 was a four-month stint as manager in 2000. It wasn’t as successful as Ricky would have liked but it was also only four months in a time period when the club was spiraling out of control. No manager, despite their talents, would have been able to steady the boat at that time.
Since then he has not been back. In contrast, Mick Harford has returned a number of times in numerous roles including manager, assistant manager, and most recently director of scouting. The fact that Ricky had to move abroad and ultimately to the USA to get a chance seems to be an absolute travesty of justice.
Maybe as someone who had the pleasure of interviewing Ricky in 2013, I’m biased, but having sat down and talked to him for over an hour it was obvious his knowledge of the game was second to none and if you were lucky enough to catch a Tampa Bay Rowdies game during his managerial stint you were very rarely left disappointed. Their attacking football ethos, something he would have learned from a young age and coming up through the ranks at Luton, made them easily one of the must-watch teams in the NASL at that time. He was rightly awarded coach of the year, making it the second time he’d won the award with the first coming in 1992 during his first stint with the club. He even won an NASL Championship in 2012 beating the Minnesota Stars after rallying from a 2-0 first-leg deficit to draw 3-3 and win it on penalties.
Before that, he took San Juan Jabloteh Football Club in Trinidad and Tobago to an unprecedented four trophies from five different competitions, including the Caribbean club championship for the first and only time in the club’s history. The side also became the first Caribbean side to beat the reigning MLS Champions, before losing the two-legged tie on aggregate goals. He also won the coach of the year during his time at San Juan Jabloteh before being replaced by Steve Rutter after he returned to England. Steve inherited that all-conquering side, apart from Cornell Glen who was bought by New York Metro Stars immediately after scoring a hattrick against Chicago Fire in the Concacaf Champions League quarter-finals, but unfortunately ended the season without a trophy before also returning to the UK after one season.
So why isn’t Ricky a more prominent figure around English football or the US game?
The snobbery of English football fans will say he’s never won anything despite the above-mentioned Honors, but there are many managers who have won less yet gotten multiple more chances at different clubs or at youth academies. As Ricky told us “the snobbery that you rightly suggest happens when people look at my record and say oh well it was abroad, hasn’t hindered Steve (Rutter) in any way as on his return to England he became ‘head of coaching Education for the FA’, then an assistant in Portugal for a Premier League side before becoming assistant at Luton where he is lauded for his role in helping the Town go up into the Championship.”
The United States is even more baffling considering the accolades mentioned above at the Rowdies. The Atlanta United job was recently available and while you applaud the Franchise for giving Stephen Glass a chance after managing their reserve team, you can not say he has any more experience than Ricky considering his side failed to qualify for the USL playoffs the previous two seasons under his management. Despite no promotion or relegation, it’s not like MLS doesn’t promote from the so-called ‘lower leagues’ when it comes to jobs.
It’s not from lack of trying either with Ricky telling me on Twitter “since I left Tampa in 2014 there have been numerous new (MLS) franchises that have started up. To date, I have never received a phone call despite people expressing my interest in perhaps having a conversation. A number of my NASL peers are now enjoying roles in the MLS.”
From his days in the NASL Ricky tells us “there is Marc Di Santos, Giovanni Savarese, Gary Smith, and Manny Lagos all working in the MLS as head coaches or Director of Football in Manny’s case. Adrian Heath, who was in the USL with Orlando which was classed as a lower league than the NASL at the time, has rightly enjoyed two opportunities at the MLS level and is doing great things. Meanwhile, I have been put forward to St Louis on three separate occasions and not received a phone call. Aside from Preki who has coached within the MLS, winning the title, the other coaches hired again do not have anywhere close to my playing or coaching resume. I took over from Paul Dalglish in Tampa (2011). It hasn’t stopped Paul moving onto Ottawa, Miami, and ultimately General Manager of The Miami USL franchise right now.”
Unfortunately for Ricky he once again has to leave his homeland to find opportunities as he makes the move to Jamaica to head up a recruitment and development program of the Jamaica Football Federation targeting male players 15 to 17 years old. Upon hearing that news I was baffled at why Luton wouldn’t offer him something similar. Maybe it’s not something that suits him at this time but considering he told fans on twitter “It has always been the clubs prerogative, they have never expressed the appetite or inclination” surely means there is some level of interest, at least from one side of the aisle. If the possibility was there who better to teach your future stars?
Some will say it’s easy to point at the color of his skin as the reason behind a lack of chances, but if you don’t then what can it possibly be? He is an award-winning coach with honors to his name and the fact he is going to Jamaica, with no disrespect to the job he will do, you have to wonder how he isn’t playing a more prominent role within a team in a more prominent league. “The disproportionality in coaching hires is there to be seen by all,” he tells us. Here is someone who has had a successful history in the country who just happens to be black, yet has been overlooked even for a conversation whilst the game of soccer continues to grow and grow. Black lives matter is not only about social inequalities and Historical injustices, but it is also about equality of opportunities for black minority ethnicities in all industries. One is left to ask why someone with Ricky’s proven history of success within the game is somehow still on the outside looking in?