Blog? What blog? Oh right the blog…
“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.
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.
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.
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.