Vince Hilaire was one of the more enigmatic characters to don a Pompey shirt when Alan Ball signed him from Luton Town in 1984. Part of a Terry Venables managed Crystal Palace side labelled as ‘team of the 80’s’ after winning the second division championship in 1979 the future looked bright for Vince.
The same year saw Hilaire named Palace ‘player of the season’ and then again the following campaign as the sky seemed the limit for both team and player.
But by the mid-80’s with the Palace potential unrealised and Hilaire similarly affected he endured a unhappy short spell at Luton Town before Alan Ball rescued him by paying £100,000 for the wingers’ services.
His four years at the club would be played on a roller coaster with Pompey twice missing out on promotion to the top flight on goal difference before making it third time lucky. But Division 1 status would last just one season with Pompey speedily relegated again at which time along with team mate Noel Blake he was transferred to Leeds United.
There was no finer sight than Hilaire marauding down one wing and Kevin O’Callaghan doing the same on the other. And Hilaire, who can still be found within Fratton Park as a match-day host retains a series of entertaining tales from his time at Pompey.
“I was fortunate to get my Pompey career off to a good start scoring a rare header at home to Blackburn Rovers” he recalls. “Though I didn’t feel a thing at the time because the ball came off my bushy afro and actually cushioned the it. It being my first game for Pompey I was not entirely sure in which direction I should run. They were days when fences separated the Fratton End from pitch-side so to run that way carried the risk of serious de-capitation.
“After a split second I decided to run towards the corner of the South Stand and celebrate with my family and friends by raising my arms in triumph. It was only when raising them that I remembered there were no family or friends there. I had actually given my tickets to Kevin Dillon. I’d like to say it was an especially proud moment but celebrating with imaginary family and friends was hardly my most rational act”
“But then who’s rational after they have just scored in front of thousands. Players aren’t rational just after they have scored and the modern day trait of punishing them for over-celebration is just plain wrong.”
“Even in my early Crystal Palace days I had this insatiable urge to talk to the press. Usually it’s the other way round and the media have to hunt out players.
“I was their dream as I would go looking for so after my debut goal they were delighted as I sought them out. I told them that there was plenty more of that to come and went on to explain that a big part of my game was coming in and getting in on the end of moves with diving headers.
“I described it as my major strength but consequently I only ever scored twice more with my upper body in the next four years. One ball against West Brom hit me on the head and bounced in whilst another against Birmingham cannoned off the post onto my shoulder and rebounded back into the net.
“It was hardly predatory stuff and I was hoping that my quotes after my debut had long been forgotten. If not I’m pretty sure those goals have been. “
Whilst Palace had been dubbed ‘team of the 80’s Hilaire now found himself at the opposite end of a the scale in a team nicknamed the ‘Ale House Eleven,’
A reference to a hard drinking, uncompromising team that included the likes of Mick ‘Yosser’ Tait, Mick Kennedy and Billy Gilbert.
“They were the kind of players who made you long for the game to come along” remembers Hilaire who was a delicacy in comparison.
“They knew no other way of playing and even in training sessions they would play as if their lives depended on it which meant even ‘yours truly’ would go up in the air.
“You do get players like that but Pompey had an influx. At Leeds when Norman Hunter was briefly manager it was amazing he had a team by the weekend because he would take part in the training sessions and kick anything that moved.
“That was what these guys were like be it a training session, pre-season friendly or an actual league game. It was a ‘take no prisoners’ attitude.”
“One of my first pre-season games at Pompey, a few months after I’d joined, was at Bournemouth and most players were in that kind of relaxed mode that was usual.
“But in particular with Mick ‘Yosser’ Tait there was no such game as a friendly and he ran around the pitch as if his life depended on it. Two Bournemouth players on the end of his robust but fair challenges ended up in hospital that day.
I knew Mick was a fierce competitor in the real stuff, but this was the first pre-season game I’d played with him and I was amazed that it meant just as much to him as any other.
“To be fair to ‘Yosser’ wasn’t the worst in training sessions because he didn’t want to kick his own players. He left that to Mick Kennedy, another one who couldn’t discriminate between kick abouts, and the real thing and who gave me so many kicks I was glad to get out on the same side on a Saturday.”
Alan Ball was equally as uncompromising in his own playing days and Hilaire says that the responsibility of management did little to mellow him. The winger who would also go on to play for Ball at Stoke City and Exeter City can vouch for the fact first hand.
“Ian Baird had an unhappy period at Fratton Park to which he mainly blamed me for the quality of my crosses” remembers Hilaire.
“But one day he said he was going to go and have a chat with Alan Ball about his problems-and one goal in 20 odd games did kind of constitute a problem.”
When he came back from Bally’s office I asked him how it went and Bairdy seemed quite pleased saying that the gaffer had listened confidentially and intently to him.
“About ten minutes later Bally entered a packed dressing room and began to address us in that trademark high pitched tone with the word ‘gentleman’ which always spelt trouble.
“Gentleman” said Bally: “I was in my office early this morning thinking of ways I can improve this football club when I hear knocking at the door and in comes our striker.
“By this time Bairdy was starting to fidget nervously.”
“Bally carried on never naming the player, but inferring so strongly that nobody was in doubt:
“He tells me gentleman that he has problems and needs help.
He’s got problems? I have a striker who I brought in good faith for a club record fee from Leeds who can’t score for toffee.”
By this time Bairdy was writhing. But my grin of mirth was soon wiped away too as he went on: “It might help if our number 11 could get his finger out of his backside long enough to run faster than his defender and cross the ball in the general direction of the goal.”
“I wouldn’t have cared because it was water of a ducks back but I was deliberately minding my own businesses and had never been near the Gaffer’s office.
“Assistant Graham Paddon used to spend most of his time apologising for Alan Ball’s blasts at us.
“Paddo was the exact opposite to Bally and as lovely and mild mannered as they came. Once Bally had ripped into us, he would wait for the little man to depart before assuring us: “You know he never meant that so don’t take it to heart.’
“The only two people he never gave that reassurance to was Kevin O Callaghan and Kevin Dillon. Mainly because he knew that where those two were concerned Bally meant every word.
“It was the biggest team of drinkers I easily encountered had to be the Pompey team of the mid 80’s.They drank hard and played the same way.
“Not surprising alcohol was a factor when we finally made it to the promised land of the old first division in 1987, after near-miss heartbreak the previous two seasons.
“Oldham’s 2-0 defeat at Shrewsbury on a Tuesday evening confirming our promotion was the green light for a mammoth session.
“Though we still had a chance of taking the title from Derby on the final weekend of the season, the chances steadily evaporated without a ball being kicked.
“Most of the players disappeared into the Pompey pub on the Wednesday morning and weren’t seen again till the weekend.
“The home match against Sheffield United was almost a sideshow, and though we took the lead we ended losing 2-1. Luckily the joyful pitch invasions from fans showed they didn’t hold it against us. Besides which Derby beat Leeds 2-1 so the efforts in the Pompey pub weren’t too harmful except perhaps to a few livers”.
Hilaire’s direct approach of running at players would certainly earn Pompey their fair share of penalties but he is indignant that all were gained fairly.
“There’s a lot of comments regards players diving of late and I can remember from my playing days a particularly irate former England captain Mick Mills accusing me of similar.” says Hilaire.
“In fact I was a major factor in the former Pompey apprentice deciding to call it a day.
“The game in question was a Carling Cup tie between Pompey and Stoke City at Fratton Park. We won 2-0 and Kevin Dillon scored both our goals that day from the penalty spot.
“Both penalties made by ‘yours truly’ and both conceded by Mick Mills who at this time was Stoke’s player/manager.
“Mick went in the press afterwards and said I had definitely dived for the first, though admitted to catching me for the second.
“He destroyed my character to anyone that was prepared to listen. In fairness afterwards we both had a good laugh about it.
“To this day I’m convinced both were penalties but I can always remember Mick’s sigh as he clicked my heel for the second.
“I just head this anguished yell of ‘oh no’. After we kicked off again he came beside me and said: ‘That’s me finished-if someone like you can fool referees all day long then I’ve got no chance’.
“The final insult for Mick was yet to come however when I was voted man of the match”.
Fratton Park was surrounded by ugly looking fences during Vince’s time at Pompey, a product of the times, but nevertheless a godsend for wide players who were almost on top of the crowd.
“Much like today players like myself who are stuck out on the wing would always tend to come in for a fair bit of flack and I was no exception” remembers Vince.
“It was usually wise to just pretend you hadn’t heard and carry on playing. But I was a bit braver when I played at Fratton Park because of those high fences.
“One afternoon I went across to take a throw-in and this guy lets rip shouting I’m a useless so and so-only in more colourful language.
“I couldn’t resist looking up and quickly replying: ‘That’s not what you missus said last night.’
“My last view of him as I went to take the throw was him clambering at the fence in fury.
“By the way now I’m more accessible as a match day host at Fratton Park I’d just like to say that if the guy is around today it wasn’t true about your missus”.