A journey through football journalism
How Simon Hill went from writing team line-ups by hand to being 'Just a Gob on a Stick'24 October 2017 | Bonita Mersiades
As a youngster, Simon Hill was so obsessed with football that he would write – by hand – the starting line-ups of every team in England. Not just Arsenal, Liverpool and his beloved Manchester City, but the Crewes, the Halifaxes and the Burys too.
His dad thought it was amusing. His mum took the practical attitude that most mother’s would telling him that writing all those names in his notebook “won’t get you a job when you’re older!”
Not only did the obsession lead to a job, but one where today, as a familiar voice for every A-League and Socceroos fan for more than a decade, Hill is considered the pre-eminent football commentator in Australia. His practice of writing the starting line-ups by hand as a kid was also indicative of what was to come, with the same professionalism evident in the level of research and attention to detail he puts into his job.
Hill says once he realised he'd never be a professional footballer, he always wanted to be journalist, and preferably a written journalist.
“I wanted to write for newspapers. I did a course specifically on written journalism, and looked for jobs with papers.”
Hill’s first job was writing match reports for Portsmouth’s youth teams. But be it ever so humble, one thing led to another.
He was rejected for a job as a copywriter – which he applied for because it was the closest thing he could see to journalism in recession-ridden England in the early 1990s – and instead landed a job as a sports reporter with an FM radio station in South Wales.
After two years on the beat of everything from football to rugby to cricket and more, he moved to the regional networks of BBC before heading to the big smoke in London to join BBC Radio 5 Live and the BBC World Service.
From radio, he transitioned to television just as BBC News 24 was beginning – along with a new sports channel at commercial station ITV. Hill was headhunted by ITV, just as he also had an offer from ESPN Singapore. He opted for ITV.
“It was an exciting time. They [ITV] bought the rights to the Championship, the League Cup, the Champions League. Plus they were paying double the money of BBC.” He laughs. “Of course, no surprise considering their financial model, they went bankrupt within twelve months and I was out of work.”
Hill says he spent the early part of 2002 freelancing with SKY, EuroSport, Rai, Canal+ and ESPN before heading to the World Cup in Japan and Korea – not as a journalist, but as a fan.
“On the back of that trip to Japan and Korea, I tagged on five days for a quick visit to Australia,” he says.
“I hadn’t been there, and my best mate from the BBC, Rob Minshull, was working at SBS.”
Around the same time, SBS was looking for a football commentator. Minshull urged him to apply.
“I was reluctant at first, but he kept on and on about it so when I got home I put together a showreel and sent it through with a CV.
“Lo and behold, to my surprise, they were interested.”
But it wasn’t without a big decision. At the same time SBS had begun the visa application process – but without any guarantees of a job - Hill also received a contract offer from SKY Sport in the UK.
“It was a huge dilemma for me. Here was SKY Sport, the pre-eminent broadcaster in the UK, with a written offer in front of me while I was waiting to see whether I’d even be able to work in Australia.
“At the time I was single, I had no kids, I had no reason to stay in England on a personal level, so the SBS offer was a good opportunity. Many people thought it was a massive gamble to turn down the SKY Sport offer, but I did.”
Hill says he agonised over the decision so much that for two days after telling SKY that he wouldn’t be taking the job, and still no news from Australia, he thought he made the biggest mistake of his life.
“I thought I might have killed off my career,” he says.
As it turns out, he didn’t.
In January 2003, six months before the revolution that would see management change at FFA, Hill was co-hosting the iconic World Game show with the late Les Murray and Andrew Orsatti. He says he saw the national soccer league in its last throes, and was in the commentary box for the NSL's last ever game, the grand final between Parramatta and Perth Glory.
Ironically, it was another sport – cricket – that helped boost Hill’s profile in his new country. Through serendipity, SBS happened to have the rights to the 2005 Ashes Series and had been auditioning people to front the series for months before turning to Hill. SBS management figured they were better off promoting one of their own, rather than bringing in someone new to the station.
Like any Englishman of his generation, he fondly remembered the 1981 Ashes Series in which Bob Willis and Ian Botham dismantled the Australians, so Hill was a bit wary of being an English host for an Australian audience of the biggest rivalry in world cricket.
“It was one of the best things I’ve ever worked on. It was a fantastic series. We covered it in a very different way and the public really reacted well to it.”
A few months later, Hill was back behind the microphone for that game between Australia and Uruguay, the World Cup Qualifier in Sydney on 16 November 2005. With a highly emotional Craig Foster in the co-commentary position, Hill held it together enough to declare “He scores! Australia have done it!”.
There's nothing like proving your mum wrong.
Simon Hill’s book, Just a Gob on a Stick, with a Foreword by Tim Cahill, is released next week. It tells the story of his love of the game, how he got into journalism, his experiences, his exposure to some of football's characters, and his thoughts on many of the issues surrounding the game today. It is available for a RRP in print of $35 and is published by New Holland Publishers.
simon hill, football journalism, football books, just a gob on a stick