EASTLEIGH forward Ryan Hill has already done battle with Virgil van Dijk, gone head-to-head with Dominic Solanke, experienced life in a Premier League academy – he knows how important this season is to realising his and the club’s ambitions.

The 23-year-old joined Eastleigh in the Autumn last season after impressing at National League South side Hampton & Richmond, another rung back up the ladder climbed by the nippy attacker.

When he signed for the Spitfires, he found himself just trying to apply his talents to any role manager Ben Strevens saw fit – spells on either wing and brief showings in a more advanced position.

He showed glimpses of the quality that lay there within. A brace and assist in an ill-fated FA Trophy tie at Wealdstone, a superb low winner in a bit of a grudge contest against Yeovil.

But by his own admission, it wasn’t what Hill wanted to produce. He wanted to have a bigger impact on games, cause his opponents a bigger nightmare, show that he has the potential to be a bigger player.

“This year, I’m not afraid to say it, I want to be one of those players the boys can call upon,” Hill told the Daily Echo, “someone who leads by example in the attacking end of the pitch.”

He added: “Last year it was my first season in the National League and when I look back at it now, as tough as it is to say I probably wasn’t happy with how I played.

“Every game I play I make sure I do my job for the team in terms of defensively, but I don’t feel like I scored enough goals, like I was involved as much as I wanted to be.

Daily Echo: Ryan Hill celebrates with goalscorer Harry Pritchard during the televised Boreham Wood clash (Pic: Tom Mulholland)Ryan Hill celebrates with goalscorer Harry Pritchard during the televised Boreham Wood clash (Pic: Tom Mulholland)

“In the off-season I went away and spoke to a few people I trust and told them I'm going to work so hard, I knew how Joe Tomlinson would come back (to pre-season) and how fit he would be, so I spoke to him in the off season and whatever he was doing, I said I’m going to do more.

“I was looking at how influential (Ben) Housey was last year and I wanted to do something similar to that.”

The work hasn’t gone unnoticed to Strevens – aside from the opening day defeat to Wrexham and Saturday's late win at Wealdstone, Hill has started every National League game of the season, getting his first goal of the campaign against Dover.

Daily Echo: Ryan Hill celebrates scoring his first of the season against Dover (Pic: Tom Mulholland)Ryan Hill celebrates scoring his first of the season against Dover (Pic: Tom Mulholland)

It doesn’t tell the full story of his impact, with his non-stop pressing and tenacious effort already being the provider of a handful of goals and goalscoring opportunities.

His improvement extends to physical stature too, so much so that stand-in skipper Andrew Boyce pointed out Hill’s change when speaking to the Daily Echo earlier in the season.

“Being someone who isn’t the biggest lad,” Hill added, “me and Boycey always joke that I have to be horrible to play against otherwise the big centre-halves will think they can bully me.

“In my head, it’s like ‘no chance’.

Daily Echo: Eastleigh and Ryan Hill came from two behind to defeat Woking (Pic: Tom Mulholland)Eastleigh and Ryan Hill came from two behind to defeat Woking (Pic: Tom Mulholland)

“Although results haven’t all gone our way, I’ve definitely been way more involved than I was last year, making runs off the back of defenders and just facing them up in the final third.”

Despite a slow start due to a much changed squad and plenty of gelling required, Eastleigh are chasing a play-off appearance for the first time since 2018-19 after narrowly missing out last year.

And Hill will again want to find ways to improve his output, with a late one-on-one opportunity to finish the Stones sent low at the keeper Saturday.

Although he'll always look back at his Premier League 2, the highest level of academy football in England, time with Stoke City fondly, he admits he thinks senior football is the real deal.

Daily Echo: Ryan Hill playing for Stoke at Crewe Alexandra during pre-season - 2017 (Pic: PA)Ryan Hill playing for Stoke at Crewe Alexandra during pre-season - 2017 (Pic: PA)

He revealed: “Obviously I loved it, it was brilliant, I came from non-league to playing in some of the biggest stadiums in England, it was good for me.

"But if I’m honest under-23s is nothing compared to the National League.

Daily Echo: Ryan Hill is a former Stoke City product (Pic: PA)Ryan Hill is a former Stoke City product (Pic: PA)

“I played against van Dijk, Solanke, Nathanial Clyne, Joe Gomez etcetera, but at the end of the day playing in the National League three points is three points, contracts are on the line, jobs are on the line, it’s way more important – it’s what I call proper football.

"I learned a lot off of some top players, and I played with some guys who are now in the Stoke first team, but for me it doesn’t compare to National League football.

“It’s all or nothing.”