You would struggle to find a more engaging bloke in football than former Leeds United winger Vince Hilaire.
Opinionated, funny and enlightening, Hilaire – who currently combines work as a radio pundit alongside match-day hospitality duties at former club Portsmouth – possesses a veritable wealth of stories from his playing days that would soon have you smiling.
It’s perhaps not too suprising given that he was the practical joker in many a dressing room during his career.
The Londoner may have decamped some way off his ‘manor’ when he joined United in what proved to be a brief spell, from 1988 to 1990, but he soon ingratiated his way into the affections of team-mates ‘up north’ in trademark fashion.
And he confesses today that their friendship and the strong sense of camaraderie kept him sane during a bittersweet spell – on the pitch at least – at Elland Road.
A key member of the Pompey side which won promotion to the old first division in 1986-87, Hilaire – a tricky, off-the-cuff winger who cost £190,000 when he joined United in June 1988 – made a fleeting impact in West Yorkshire.
The axing of the man who signed him, Billy Bremner, and the ushering in of his replacement Howard Wilkinson, had major implications for the popular wide man.
Hilaire, despite being a regular in his first full season, found himself marginalised throughout the Division Two title-winning season of 1989-90 and though angry at the time he accepts with the benefit of hindsight he didn’t always help his own cause.
Though thankfully his memories of his time at Leeds are largely happy ones, having been privileged to work, however briefly, under one of his idols, there’s a tinge of regret.
Hilaire, a member of Crystal Palace’s infamous ‘team of the Eighties’ line-up in his formative footballing years, said: “I was a bit sorry about my time at Leeds.
“But the one thing I can look back on in my footballing career is that I was signed by two people I idolised – and I mean idolised – as players, in Alan Ball at Fratton Park and Billy Bremner.
“Only by meeting and spending time with them did you realise how similar they were in terms of their outlook on life and football.
“Straight away when Billy was interested in taking me to Leeds it was a big pick-me-up.
“There was no-one more sorry than me when in that October (1988), the club decided to part company with Billy. It was such a shame as I’d have liked to have worked longer under him.
“Howard came in and in my first season, funnily enough, I only missed a couple of games. But it was very difficult playing for Howard; he had his own ideas on how he wanted football played. To be fair to him, I wish the ideas he tried to introduce had been when I was a little bit younger.
“His ideas were what modern-day footballers take on board now. Unfortunately, when you are in your mid to late twenties, the damage has been done and you don’t change and it’s difficult.
“I left Leeds and I put a lot of the blame on the latter part of my footballing side there on Howard, it’s what you do as a footballer. But, looking back on it, there was no blame attached to him at all; it was all down to me. I didn’t realise until I left what a clever man and very good coach he was.”
Hilaire’s sense of professional disappointment was tempered by positive recollections of his time living in Yorkshire, where he enjoyed the company of a group of “hospitable” colleagues, while also lining up alongside some bona fide stars of the game – young and old.
A joke or two was, invariably, never far away in his case, and the craic in a strong dressing room – where the banter was top-class – kept his spirits up during his time on the fringes at LS11.
Hilaire, who had loan spells at Charlton Athletic and Stoke City in 1989-90 before eventually joining the Potters on a free transfer in November 1990, said: “I used to travel to training with Micky Adams and Neil Aspin and they were nice people, as they all were at Leeds. I think I would have gone mad if they weren’t so hospitable!
“I was the practical joker even when I wasn’t in the team. I’d always try my jokes out on Snod (Glynn Snodin) and Gary Speed as they would laugh at anything. I used them as my guinea pigs!
“Simon (Grayson) is another great bloke and he never took my advice as he’s moved onto great things in the game! I did my best to show him the ‘evil’ way and he took no notice of me. I used to say: ‘Stick with me and you won’t go far wrong.’ He’s now still well in the game and I’m on the fringes of it. Him and Mick Whitlow never used to listen to me!”
Hilaire, a lifelong West Ham fan, added: “It was hard not being in the team under Howard but, looking back, I wouldn’t have swapped my time there for anything. I was lucky enough to play with some great players.
“Gordon Strachan came halfway through the (88-89) season and it was a privilege playing with him and also to see the emergence of Gary Speed – God rest his soul – and David Batty.
“The Gary Speed situation brought home a lot of memories. I’m based in Portsmouth and the London area now and I tell them you often only hear when someone passes away how nice someone was. But having known the man at length, he really was as nice as people have said. It’s really sad and I’ve got some great tales of him.
“The people I spent most of my time with off the field were Gary, David Batty and John Sheridan. I loved John, he was the best passer I ever played with – a magnificent player who had a certain way and character, which can make it difficult (with some managers).
“With Gary and David being that much younger it was easier to implement ideas with them, whereas with me being longer in the tooth and John being the way that he was, it was a bit difficult (under Wilkinson).”
Hilaire hung up his boots in the mid-90s after winding down his career in the non-league with Waterlooville and then Bognor Regis. But now he gets his footballing fix in the media, with his portfolio including working for Sky and the BBC, along with commercial radio stations in the south.
Never short of a word or three about football, his enthusiasm for the greatest game hasn’t been diminished since he grew up as avid Hammers fan in his native East London, Hilaire cherishes his time on the airwaves and clearly relishes holding court on match-day duty at Pompey.
Being the student of the game that he is, Hilaire, now 52, remains genuinely proud to him represented one of the game’s leading institutions in Leeds United.
He said: “Since retiring, the Leeds fans will be pleased to know I’ve watched nearly 1,000 games – and I’ve been the best player all the time! I should have retired earlier!
“Where football is concerned, I always, always take the plus side out of it. If you are too negative, you put a downer on things. It’s the greatest game in the world, it gave me a great career and I’ve met so many lovely people. I’m privileged to still be a small cog in it, I’m hanging on in there.
“I really love the radio work and also do the hospitality at Portsmouth as they think I can talk a little bit!
“Anyone will tell you I’m a bit of a football anorak and I could have recited, from about 1968, most of the players who have pulled on a Leeds United shirt. It’s just unfortunate even to this day – and a lot is due to Don Revie being someone the southern media diddn’t warm to – that not enough credit was given to a lot of players who were all brilliant footballers, and I mean brilliant – forget about everything else.
“It’s easy to see why I was just so privileged to play for Leeds and under Billy. In my second training session, I was being put up at the Hilton in Leeds and remember going back and thinking: ‘Do you know what, the best passer in our session today was Billy Bremner with Norman Hunter not far behind’.
“Mind I do remember Glynn saying to me: ‘Watch Norman’, who was the assistant-manager, in the five-a-sides. He never gave the ball away, but just went around booting everyone!
“I remember Ian Baird saying to me more than once: ‘Did you see Norman try and top me there – and we’ve got a game on Saturday!’”