Liam Hughes – Jack of all trades, mastering one?

Blog? What blog? Oh right the blog

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“Any bit of competition is healthy because it makes people work harder in training and on the pitch.”

There’s always a ‘Hughsey’, isn’t there? What team would be complete without one? I’ve deliberately selected this quote, not just because I hope it proves prescient, but because I think it sums up the culture of the club under Money and the value our very own Hughsey brings to the squad.

Liam Hughes was one of a crop of young, hungry and passionate youngsters who was given a few sub appearances in the ingloriously bleak 2010/11 season by a certain M. Ling. Following an unspeakable result against part-time nonsense from the West Country, the demise of the Ling (ahem) ‘Dynasty’ and Jez’s ascent to the throne, Hughes found himself – like so many of our promising bright young things – making his full debut in a redemptive draw against Grimsby and went on to feature regularly throughout the rest of the season.

What a happy fellow

Added to this were two goals: the opener against York (how I miss them and our bizarrely good head-to-head record) and a crucial goal in a draw against Altrincham (whatever they are), winning plaudits and consternation along the way for some tireless running, some rough-around-the-edges finishing and a first touch that flitted between the sublime and the ridiculous, often in the space of 30 seconds.

Back then Hughsey was considered a centre-forward and when offered his first pro contract by Jez, toward the backend of his debut season, it was assumed that this would be the role in which he would blossom. Faith in potential seemed to be going well, particularly with a lovely equaliser against Luton in November of the 11/12 season and another in a vaguely conciliatory draw against Bath, but then followed another barren spell. It was around this time that his propensity for occasional lapses in thought and a perception of his limitations began to circulate amongst the United faithful.

Fast forward to the beginning of the Money era and it was Hughes’ versatility that was being lauded rather than his abilities as a goalscorer. Before leaving on loan for Corby he subbed in goal in a loss to Nuneaton and during his spell away, where he hit the back of the net regularly, he also found himself playing as a goal-scoring centre-back. All of this couldn’t help the more sympathetic of us thinking that perhaps it was a lack of identity that was holding young Hughes back (as with a pre centre-back McAuley), rather than the limitations of his ability.

The time for smiling has clearly passed

One of the aspects of the new club structure which is keenly emphasised by Money and Jez (probably not a great name for a law firm) is how much coaching has gone into the squad. It’s now starting to become fairly obvious as to who is benefiting from this the most. This isn’t just because players who are not pulling their weight get dropped quicker than a hot coal but also because we are beginning to see players like Hughes, Berry, Pugh and Dunk add new facets to their game, whether that be the set-pieces and improved crossing of Dunk or the ability (however divisive this is) to play out of position. For Hughesy it’s the competition he is now adding in the centre of midfield.

Upon signing another contract extension, not long after a Man of the Match performance against Stockport from the middle of the park, Money talked up Hughes’ potential as a physical, burly Marouane Fellaini-type attacking midfielder (“without the hair”, harked Money in a rare ‘joke’).

This, given his physical presence, should be possible (within his limitations as a Conference/lower league footballer, obviously). He really should win lots of headers and perhaps doesn’t because his towering height at age-group level meant that he’s probably never had to challenge for the ball until now. He also has an excellent touch on the ball when he’s applying himself and not thinking too much about how he does it. Similarly, he is a good passer of the ball when he isn’t trying to be too stylish or play up to imaginary cameras, such as an incident at Dartford where he managed to tamely play a six-yard pass straight off the pitch while trying to impart some Federer-esque ‘cut’ to the ball.

Here’s a fun game called ‘find the coffee stain’

Comparisons with a player like Fellaini, no matter how off-the-cuff or how nurturing their intention, might have created an unrealistic expectation when what he should be concentrating on is… concentrating – keeping his mind on the game and not trying to do too much too stylishly while making the most of his height, his considerable technique and his willingness, nay eagerness, to drive play forward. Maybe what we’re really looking for is Liam Hughes, not an unrealistic facsimile of a player higher up the tree.

His contract runs until 2015 and this season really needs to be one in which he is pushing the new signings hard for selection. Money has shown great faith in a lad who, it is often forgotten, has only just turned 21 and, if the rumours are to be believed, has already attracted the attention of a number of clubs higher up the tree. If he can keep his eye on the ball, define (simply) what he wants to be and funnel the advice of the hugely supportive coaching staff, I’m going to look forward to the player he can ultimately become.

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3 Responses to Liam Hughes – Jack of all trades, mastering one?

  1. Neil Weston says:

    Once again a really good read. I’ve only watched the U’s sporadically in recent years, but still listen to the majority of the games via the radio commentary.

    Its amazing how much Liam Hughes polarises the opinions of the fans. I have to include myself amongst those who has been critical of him when I’ve seen him play. However, he’s not the worst player to have ever played for this club or graduated from the youth team by a long way. You hear some of the criticism in the stands or read it on the internet and you can help thinking ‘give the lad a break.’

    On the positive side, he works hard and can cover most positions in the team. He seems determined to carve out a career as a professional footballer and would appear far more determined that some of those who have come through the youth ranks in recent years, who havent made the expected progress as a result. Many players over the years, whether youth team graduates or experienced signings, have been criticised by the fans for being ‘lightweights’ with frustrating inconsistency of skill and little or no determination and work-rate to back it up. Liam’s determination and work-rate are arguably his most obvious attributes at this stage of his career, yet he is criticised just as much, if not more so than some of those types of players who have turned out over the years.

    I’ve seen a few of his central midfield performances and certainly against Braintree away last season, I felt he offered a strength, presence and determination that made the midfield more solid than I’d seen it on other occasions.

    He’s only 21, still developing and progressing and nobody knows how far he’ll progress if given the opportunities he needs. He could become a Paul Wanless type with an added goal threat or his determination to improve could allow him to developing his skills that allow him to become a more complete player than that.

    How helpful Richard Money’s attempts to talk him up in public have been is highly debatable. Has he raised expectations unduly, or is his praise of Hughes and implied criticism of the fans just another factor in the series of bizarre spats that he has with the fans via the press every so often.

    On the flip side, versatile players will always run the risk of being labelled jack of all trades, master of none and Hughes is no exception to that.

    I’m a little surprised how often the manager turns to him, at times in apparent preference to players who are more experienced, obvious choices in certain positions. Using him at right back in one pre-season game being one example in preference to say, Rory MacAuley. Also, the fact that he’s frequently selected, or used as substitute, in preference to Andy Pugh in various attacking positions.

    I was also surprised to hear Hughes, and indeed Luke Berry, were starting at Welling in preference to Delano Sam-Yorke and Nathan Arnold. But that links to a more general issue I have about whether we are going to be overly defensive in away games, rather than go with 4-4-2 and take the game to the opposition, in the manner of a confident, promotion-chasing side.

    In conclusion, I’d say Hughes is a promising player, who is versatile and determined and on that basis is a valuable asset to the squad. Whether he is always the most appropriate option to be called upon in preference to others in the squad, particularly for a starting spot in the team is questionable, I feel.

    (Apols for the lengthy response)!!

  2. Pingback: The Money Maker – he’s a coach, not a manager | The U-logy

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