The name Simon Hill is synonymous with football in Australia.
Since arriving in Sydney nearly 20 years ago, Hill’s commentary has provided the soundtrack to some of the Australian game’s most iconic moments, from Socceroos qualifications to the rise of the A-League.
But how did a lad from Manchester, with a dream and a degree in Social Policy and Adminstration, go on to become the ‘Voice of Football’ Down Under?
The veteran broadcaster sits down with Football CFB to share his story.
“There weren’t any journalism degrees as such, so I had to do something else.”
His family were involved in social work in the deprived North West England of Thatcher’s Britain, so a “politically aware” Hill opted for a qualification in a discipline he knew all too well. But while studying and playing in bands, the avid Manchester City fan still dreamed of a career in newspaper journalism.
“I did a post-grad, which was the NCTJ pre-entry course in Newspaper Journalism, because I wanted to write. I had no interest in broadcasting, my ambition was to be a football writer at the Guardian or The Mirror.
“When I came out [of education] in 1991, the UK was in a massive recession and there were no jobs in journalism. There were no jobs anywhere, but there certainly weren’t any in journalism.”
Fresh from his studies and with a little experience gathered by covering Portsmouth youth games for the local newspaper, Hill began to search for employment.
“I applied for so many jobs, not just journalism, I remember having an interview at a hotel chain… I kept my eye on the graduate press just in case, and I saw this job advertised at Red Dragon for a commercial copywriter, which was basically writing adverts… I thought it’s not journalism, but at least it’s writing”
He hoped the job at the Cardiff based commercial music station would help him get his foot in the door, but that application proved to be so much more.
“I got a little letter back saying thanks but no thanks. But right at the end of that, they said we don’t think you’re suitable for that job, but we see you’ve got some experience in sports writing, and we’ve got a job here as a sports reporter… would you be interested in applying for that? I applied for that, and got it and that was the start.”
Thrown in at the deep end, Hill had to get to grips with a new city, a new career and a whole new set of skills. Thankfully, he had a great teacher in Red Dragon’s Chris Moore.
“I was still writing, because I had to write sports bulletins, stuff for the sports show, intros to tape packages… so it was familiar but different. The difficult thing for me was learning the technical side of things, how to present a sports show… Chris Moore, taught me the ropes… how to drive a studio desk, how to cut pieces of tape and fire carts… I’m talking ancient history here. He showed me the ropes and I would go in on a Saturday and watch his hands.
“You learned so much doing things on the job. It was a really great grounding not just in media, but radio broadcasting.”
That grounding earned Hill a move to the ‘big time’, moving on to Britain’s iconic national broadcaster.
“Working for the BBC is still one of the proudest moments of my career. It is held in such high esteem, so when you get asked to go and work there it really is like… wow. I remember my parents being pretty chuffed about that one.
“It was a really great training ground to polish your craft. It was there that I took my first steps in to commentary.”
The move came at a pivotal moment in the history of British football. The new Premier League was in its infancy, and Hill was given the best seat in the house to witness it all un-fold.
“When I went to BBC Lancashire in 1993, our brief was to modernise it.
The Premier League was a year old, our local club was Blackburn Rovers… they’d been promoted to the Premier League and were signing all these stars… you can imagine just how big that was for me as a junior sports reporter.
“My first ever commentary was Chelsea v Blackburn Rovers! Some guys start off doing commentary in Non-League football and mine was Chelsea / Blackburn at Stamford Bridge… And dealing with Kenny Dalglish on a day-to-day basis at press conferences… even now thinking back, I’ve got a big smile on my face. I was living the dream.”
The birth of the Premier League would change the world of football forever. The arrival of Sky Sports and their huge investment changed the media landscape created an unprecedented demand for football content. Even at a local level, that hunger for more and more coverage was felt, with Hill working on a four-hour sports show each and every night.
“There are a lot of guys my age, and I consider myself very lucky in that respect, that our careers coincided with the emergence of the Premier League. And English football just exploded. The growth was massive and all our careers rose on the back of that.
Peter Drury, Steve Wilson, John Champion, Guy Mowbray… they’re all my peers and we all emerged from BBC Local Radio.”
After eight years working in radio for the BBC, Hill made the move on to the small screen, joining the newly formed ITV Sport channel. What he thought was an exciting new chapter, ended in disaster after just a few short months.
“After ITV Sport Channel went bust, I was made redundant. I freelanced for a good six months and I put together a pretty decent portfolio. I was hosting a show called EuroGoals Plus for British EuroSport… I was working for Capital Radio, I was working on the ITV Goal Rush, I was freelancing for Sky Sports, and I was doing fine…”
A visit to a friend in Australia would change Hill’s career.
During a post 2002 World Cup stopover, he was encouraged to apply for a commentary job at iconic Aussie broadcaster SBS.
Once back in the UK, he sent off a CV and a showreel and gave it no more thought. In that time, he was offered a job at Sky Sports to work on Sky Sports News as a presenter, and verbally accepted the offer. Then the call came from SBS…
“I had a massive decision to make. Do I go and work for Sky, or do I travel to the other side of the earth and work in a country, and for a network that I knew nothing about.”
The events at ITV had “left a sour taste”, his hopes of a long-term stint at the UK commercial broadcaster disappearing in just a few short months.
“Before going to ITV I’d actually been offered the opportunity to go and work for ESPN Star in Singapore, and I turned it down to go to ITV… so when this came about I thought, if I don’t accept this now, I’ll be here for the rest of my days.”
So Hill took a leap of faith.
He had spent his whole career imbedded in a country that lives and breathes football, where the beautiful game was treated like a religion to its legions of loyal followers. Little could have prepared him for the hostile new frontier he was about to encounter.
“I was aware that it wasn’t the major sport here, I wasn’t that stupid, and I’d read Johnny’s (Warren) book, so I knew a little. It was more so that I was thinking apathy, that they weren’t bothered about it, but what surprised me was the antipathy towards it.
When I first arrived, obviously I had to ship all my stuff over from the UK, and it took about three months to arrive by boat. When it finally arrived at my apartment in Sydney I got some removals guys to help me move and unpack all the boxes and furniture, and one guy who was helping me opened one of the boxes and started taking out all these books.
Obviously being a football journalist, I’ve got a lot of football books, and he said, ‘you’ve got a lot of soccer books mate’ and I said ‘yeah, that’s what I do, I’m a football journalist’. He just went ‘a game for poofs.’
“That was my first little insight in to the hostility that the game had, and still has.
“There’s still a big prejudice around the game. It’s seen as not Australian enough; ‘a game for foreigners’. There’s a lot of negative stereotypes around football in this country, but that’s a legacy of a media that has been dominated by the other sports.”
Hill arrived in the dying days of the National Soccer League, and the domestic game in Australia was “nowhere”. He was tasked with covering the game outside of Oz for The World Game, and commentating on the odd Champions League fixture.
But whether down to fate, serendipity or just a bit of good luck, Hill once again found himself in the right place at the right time.
Within 18 months of landing Down Under, he was behind the mic as the Socceroos qualified for a World Cup for the first time in 32 years, and the success led to the formation of an exciting new national competition; the A-League.
The two combined to revolutionise the domestic game, and Hill knew he had to be a part of it.
“I remember watching on FOX and thinking “wow, this is great!” compared to what had come before, it felt like the early days of Sky Sports and the Premier League. They’d put resources behind it, they packaged it really well and it looked like a major sport for the first time since I arrived in Australia.”
For nearly 15 years, Hill would lead the coverage of the A-League for Fox Sports, cementing his place as one of Australia’s most beloved broadcasters. In June 2020, amidst a global pandemic, he was let go in disappointing circumstances, to the consternation of fans, peers and players alike.
As we sit and reminisce about the incredible things he has achieved across a stellar career, the experienced commentator can’t prevent a smile from breaking across his face.
“I did everything I wanted to do and more besides, much more. I called football on every continent on the planet. Went some incredible places that I never dreamed that I’d visit…
“I called Premier League games, European games, an FA Cup Final for the World Service, a European Championship Final for the World Service, an African Cup of Nations Final for the World Service. I’ve been very, very fortunate and when I look at younger people starting out in journalism, I fear for them a little bit because the money and the commitment doesn’t seem to be there at the moment.
“If I was to look back on my 23 year old self and be told that I would have had all these achievements and experiences, I probably wouldn’t have believed you.
“With my current situation, I’m hoping that’s not the end of it, if it is the end of it… I can have no complaints.
“I hope the story’s not finished.”
Despite the challenging times the game in Australia, and Hill himself, are currently facing, he remains optimistic for the future of football Down Under.
“The game will always survive here, because it, contrary to belief, it is the biggest sport in the country.
“We have two million participants, which dwarfs all the other codes, so we will always have the strength in that base. Our difficulty has always been translating that in to bums on seats and eyeballs on TV for the professional game, both men’s and women’s.
“What it needs is a network to take it on that’s going to give it a little bit of love, give it some TLC because it needs it.
“There’s no silver bullet to resurrecting the A-League and the W-League. It’s hard work, it’s endurance and it’s commitment and passion to the sport. That’s what we need, and hopefully we will get that.
“Everything, long term, is in our favour.”
With new broadcast deals for both leagues set to be announced at any moment, and it looking increasingly likely that FOX will play no part in the sport going forward, fans are hoping that we will see Hill return to his rightful place behind the microphone, lending his instantly recognisable voice to all of the triumphs and tribulations of football in Australia, as it heads in to a new era.
You can catch Simon every week on The Global Game on 1170 SEN Sydney, and the ‘Shim, Spider and so much Moore’ podcast, available wherever you get your audio fix.