Vince Hilaire: The Big Interview

Vince Hilaire scored 24 goals in 168 games for Pompey in a memorable four-year stay on the south coast
Vince Hilaire scored 24 goals in 168 games for Pompey in a memorable four-year stay on the south coast
Oli Hawkins was on defensive duties against Blackpool on Saturday Picture: Joe Pepler

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Talented footballer and TV addict – that was how Vince Hilaire could best be described before his November 1984 switch to Pompey.

Only half remained true following his Fratton Park arrival, though.

Thankfully, for Blues fans, the pacy winger’s on-field ability was clear for all to see as he formed a major part of the club’s iconic 1987 second-division promotion-winning side.

But as for quiet nights in front of the television, the former England under-21 international could forget it.

The Gremlins saw to that.

Hilaire said: ‘I have to say, I still am a big TV addict.

‘But when I came to Portsmouth you couldn’t be a part of the team if you were that way inclined!

‘You either socialised or you met the players in the morning at training to not be involved in any of the conversations.

‘As a group, we nicknamed ourselves the Gremlins.

‘You were just as likely to see us in and around town as you were at Fratton Park on the pitch.

‘We all met up with supporters for a drink and they told us what we did right and wrong – it was a different time back then.

‘For three years our Christmas parties were a military operation – we had an itinerary from the morning all through the next day!

‘Alan Ball, the boss, knew that.

‘Christmas parties were always monitored by our result, so we knew if we got a win immediately before the Christmas party, Bally would basically give us carte blanche for a couple of days.

‘You could be rest assured that we were bankers for a home or away win!

‘You wouldn’t believe it, though, it was the most experienced players organising it.

‘Paul Mariner, Mick Channon, Micky Kennedy, Blakey (Noel Blake) and myself – I was the entertainments manager!

‘Kevin Dillon and Kevin O’Callaghan were only happy when they were arguing with each other and moaning, though, so whatever you did they were never pleased.

‘But we made sure our Christmas do took in as many restuarants and bars in Portsmouth and Southsea as possible.

‘You could always tell who we were, because we had blue sweatshirts made up with ‘Gremlins’ written on the back and ‘Vikings’ on the front.

‘It was an eventful club to be at.’

A instant hit with his team-mates off the field of play, Hilaire took little time to endear himself to the Fratton faithful with his on-pitch exploits, following a £100,000 switch from Luton.

Indeed the chant: “He’s here, he’s there, he’s everywhere” showed an appreciation for the new arrival’s impressive work-rate.

Thrown straight into Pompey’s promotion-chasing second division side, Hilaire was on the mark with a diving header on his Blues bow in a 2-2 draw with Blackburn Rovers at Fratton Park.

He was a fixture in the side from that moment onwards, as Alan Ball’s side went close to reaching the top flight in 1985 and 1986, before getting it right at the third time of asking in 1987.

Hilaire said: ‘I scored at the Fratton End on my debut and the rarity of it was that it was a header.

‘In those days I did have the added help of a two-foot Afro which was in fashion vogue then!

‘Most of my headers I had my eyes shut anyway, so I can assure people I wasn’t aiming for the top corner – it looked a lot better than what I meant it to look like!

‘Looking back, though, if we had taken our chances in that first season and gone up in 1985, I could have seen us staying in the top flight for longer than the one season we did have up there.

‘We would have been better suited and in a better financial state to bring in other players to compete.

‘The following season (1985-86) we missed out again but when all is said and done, we got there in the end in 1987 and it was a great adventure for those three years.’

When overdue promotion did arrive, Hilaire was at the centre of things for the wrong reasons.

Playing in a Pompey side loved by the Fratton faithful for both their attacking swagger and no-nonsense approach to the game, the winger’s sending off at former club Crystal Palace put promotion celebrations on hold in a 1-0 defeat at Selhurst Park.

The following night, though, promotion rivals Oldham lost 2-0 to Shrewsbury, prompting Hilaire to ‘come out of hiding’ as the Blues returned to the top flight of English football for the first time in 27 years.

He said: ‘We were an attacking team but the fans related more to the other side of the game – let’s just say we didn’t take too many prisoners.

‘With players like Mick Tait, Mick Kennedy, Billy Gilbert and Noel Blake, we were not there to be messed with and up front Micky Quinn would kick his grandma to score a goal.

‘We always knew that we would lose some games but if you are going to lose, you go down fighting – we literally went down fighting.

‘I would love to be able to blame Alan Ball for whipping me up into a frenzy before that game (Palace).

‘But to this day I don’t know what I was thinking when Andy Gray picked up the ball to take a throw-in and I just charged at him.

‘I trooped off thinking I had let the fans down.

‘But luckily Shrewsbury did the business for us so I came out of hiding the next day.’

For the Gremlins, that prompted a celebration to rival any of their festive get-togethers, with the effects clear for all to see in their final-day 2-1 defeat at home to Sheffield United.

Hilaire said: ‘It took us three seasons of being at the top and missing out to get promoted.

‘I would have put a bet on us losing to Sheffield United because the celebrations went on until about quarter to one on the Saturday afternoon when someone said: ‘We’ve got a game!’

‘I couldn’t believe it when we actually went 1-0 up, but it didn’t matter, the job was done.

‘That was what the fans wanted – they wanted us out of the division, so that was great.’

Sadly, though, Ball’s men found the going tough in the top flight and as expected by most of the Fratton faithful, made an instant return to the second division.

There were some moments to savour, though.

Hilaire said: ‘We spent so much time and effort trying to get into the top-flight that we didn’t worry about getting there until we were there – I know it sounds a bit silly but the preparations were too late.

‘It was a wait-and-see job which I thoroughly understood.

‘There were some high points, though, I remember going to the Dell and winning at Southampton – we just wish there were more Pompey fans there to see it.

‘I also scored against Southampton in the home game – once again it was another goal where I had my eyes closed as I thought I was going to be clattered by my former Palace team-mate John ‘Budgie’ Burridge who was playing in goal for them!

‘Overall, though, our home form wasn’t good enough.’

A big crowd favourite, Hilaire admits his summer departure from Pompey to Leeds in 1988 was a difficult decision to make, following a four-year stay that saw 24 goals in 168 games.

He said: ‘I was lucky to play for two of my heroes in Alan Ball and Billy Bremner (Leeds boss).

‘It was hard leaving Portsmouth but it was also hard leaving Palace.

‘If you pushed me between the two I would say that I had my best years as a player at Palace but at Pompey I found out there was more to life than football.

‘As a human being, Pompey was my best footballing experience.’

Now aged 50, Hilaire’s love for the Blues remains evident in his role on the club’s hospitality staff.

VINCE HILAIRE ON...

...BALLY’S TEAM TALKS

Whenever we visited a team up north, Bally would give the same team talk.

He’d say: ‘Teams hate us up here because we live in the best part of the world. They are jealous – we have the best weather, the best restaurants and get all the films first.’

We’d ride into town like bank robbers, claim the win and leave them to be jealous.

...NATIONAL SERVICE

I got called up to an England senior squad on one occasion and played for England ‘B’ and the under-21s.

You think at the time that you are close, especially when players in your team like Bryan Robson, Glenn Hoddle, Terry Butcher and Kenny Sansom become regulars.

It is what it is, though, and it wasn’t to be.

...MAN CITY TO BUTLINS IN ONE PHONE CALL

After Leeds, Alan Ball got in touch with me and took me to Stoke.

He said: ‘This is a great club, lovely place to live, we will go places here.’

Two months later he got the sack – and I hated it at that club.

Sure enough, as I was leaving he called me again as manager of Exeter.

I walked in his office and he said: ‘Come down here and join me little man, you’ll love it – Devon’s a lovely place.’

I had nowhere to go when I left Exeter but Bally was again on the phone.

He had just taken over at Man City – I couldn’t believe it, what a swansong!

He turned around and said: ‘You can take my summer coaching job at Butlins, it’s £100 an hour.’

With that, my career ended at Butlins!