Ricky Hill’s Remarkable Journey
When Albert Johansson died homeless, penniless and abandoned by his family in West Yorkshire two decades ago, almost no one in Tampa Bay paid any heed. But the obscurity of his death cannot negate the global impact of his life. Indeed, Johansson’s trailblazing odyssey on the other side of the Atlantic half-a-century earlier triggered worldwide ripples of repercussions that still, to this day, reverberate through the soccer field at Downtown St. Petersburg’s Al Lang Stadium.
“I was just 5-years-old, watching a small black and white TV. The year was 1964,” recalled Rowdies head coach Ricky Hill. “I still remember it like it was yesterday. I asked my older brother, ‘Who is that? Who is that?’ I was so excited! Albert Johansson was the first soccer player I had ever seen who looked… like me.”
Albert Johansson shattered England’s racial barrier and became the first person of African heritage to play in the FA Cup final. Ricky Hill was – and of course, still is – of African heritage himself.
“Watching that soccer game forever changed my life,” Hill added.
It forever changed Tampa Bay’s sports history as well.
Coach Hill’s story began a generation earlier: “This has never been reported anywhere, but my grandparents were originally from India,” he revealed. “My family name is actually ‘Sukie.’ But after immigrating to Jamaica, they worked the land that belonged to a gentleman named Mr. Hill. Mr. Hill didn’t have any children of his own, so before he died he asked my grandfather to adopt his surname. And that’s how our last name became ‘Hill.”
His father grew-up in Jamaica in a large, sprawling family with four brothers and five sisters. “He was the only one who married a black Jamaican,” Coach Hill reminisced. “All the others married Indians. So even during family gatherings, my household always looked, well, a little different from the rest.”
In the aftermath of World War II, England was in ruins, its population decimated. Third world immigrants flocked to the island nation to help it rebuild. Among the many immigrants were Coach Hill’s mother and father.
It wasn’t easy.
“My father was a character and wasn’t always around, but my Mom did an amazing job of raising us,” said Hill. “She worked days, nights, the weekend – whatever it took. She was my hero and inspiration. You have to remember, this was a different era. My parents were welcomed to England with signs that read ‘No Blacks, No Dogs, No Irish.’ In that order.”
Coach Hill worked hard, too. From odd jobs to selling soccer programs at nearby Wembley Stadium, supporting the Hill household was a family-wide affair. “We all chipped in,” Hill recalled. “Selling programs at Wembley Stadium was actually scary, because I was only 13 or 14 at the time, and my pockets were filled with change. I was afraid someone in the stands would rob me, but nobody ever did.”
While at Wembley Stadium, young Ricky Hill would often find himself distracted by the drama and pageantry of the soccer matches. “I loved being there! And I used to fantasize that one day, I would be playing at Wembley Stadium myself.”
Just eight-or-so years later, he was.
Ricky Hill made his professional debut at the tender age of 17 with the Luton Town Football Club in 1976. Ever the showman, he scored in his first-ever match.
“When I was only seven-years-old, my school teacher told me that only two out of 100 players would ever have a shot at playing soccer professionally,” Hill said with a smile. “I looked him dead in the eye and replied, ‘I am going to be one of the two.’ Turned out, I was right.”
With his stylish play and God-given athleticism, Hill quickly emerged as one of England’s most popular professional athletes. He made 436 appearances with Luton and scored 54 goals, winning the 1981 Second Division Championship and the 1988 Football League Cup against English powerhouse Arsenal F.C.
He also became just the fourth black player to represent England on the global stage, becoming a starting midfielder for the English national team.
“I heard ugly racial slurs from fans wherever we’d compete, but over the course of my entire career, I never heard one single racial slur from an opponent or a teammate. Not once,” said Hill. “My white teammates became my brothers. They never showed me anything but love – and I loved them back.”
Curiously, Hill also insists that the epithets hurled at him from the bleachers weren’t all the byproduct of bigotry. “I’m adamant that not everyone who shouts racial abuse is a racist. The other club’s fans were trying to get my head out of the game, and it was my responsibility not to let that happen. I used the abuse as extra motivation.”
Ricky Hill moved to Tampa Bay in 1991 to serve as the Rowdies’ player/coach. In 1992 he was recognized as Coach of the Year. Two decades later, after guiding the Rowdies to victory in the 2012 Soccer Bowl Championship, he was recognized as Coach of the Year again.
But during those 20 years, Hill also pursued many coaching and managerial positions in England (he lost count of the actual number). Scottish soccer legend Sir Alex Ferguson was the only person who bothered calling him back.
“Other than a four-month stint with Luton in 2000, there simply haven’t been any opportunities,” Hill said, sadly shaking his head. “It’s frustrating. It’s disappointing. But I also realize that I am a first-generation black coach in the UK. All the old stereotypes that kept black players out of the league for so long – we don’t like the cold weather, we won’t work hard or we can’t head the ball – must be dispelled all over again. But until we’re given an opportunity, there won’t be a track record of a successful black coach. Look, I recognize that many coaching appointments are based on personal relationships. It’s not just a black and white issue. Opportunities are limited. But when you’re a first-generation black coach, these limitations are magnified. There’s been such a terrible disparity of minority opportunity in the UK coaching ranks and nothing has been done about it.”
Coach Hill has urged his European counterparts to look to America for guidance.
“The United States is a shining example to other nations when it comes to racial equality,” said Hill. “When you think about America’s history and see where it is now, it’s remarkable. And I’m not just talking about electing a black president. More than any other nation, America has recognized its wrongs head-on and worked hard to make things better. The Rooney Rule [for minority coaching opportunities in the NFL] is a great example of what we should try in Europe. I personally advocated for the adoption of the Rooney Rule in 2003, but my words fell on deaf ears. You see, in America, you have a tradition of successful black men and women in all walks of life – entrepreneurs, sports, politics and business. In England, that doesn’t always exist. England is very polite about racism. They sort of pretend that it isn’t happening – even when it is.”
Now in his mid-50s, Coach Hill hopes his lifelong journey will inspire Tampa Bay’s youth to transcend racial divisions, work hard and dedicate themselves to fulfilling their biggest dreams.
“Playing soccer professionally was my boyhood dream. Dreams are so important – especially to children. I urge all of Tampa Bay’s young people: Set your dreams as high as you like. Take whatever steps necessary to make your dreams come true. Feel it, dream it, taste it, grab it. My own path wasn’t easy, but I never gave up. No matter your race, no matter your obstacles, don’t EVER give up on your dreams.”
And with that, Coach Hill turned his back and returned to Al Lang Stadium in pursuit of his current dream: Leading the Rowdies to their third Soccer Bowl Championship in 2014.