Over six foot tall and with a shock of blonde hair, Will Hughes suffers from what statisticians call the availability heuristic – he stands out, you notice him. Stuart Pearce called him “technically a very sound player” and he was playing regularly in the Championship at 17, asked to unlock defences with a mesmeric range of passing and dribbling skills. He’s now played over 150 first team games for Derby at the age of 22, a club whose history weighs heavy in relation to recent achievements.
Pressure? Hughes shrugs with a rueful smile. “It’s a good pressure. Derby is all I’ve ever known. I was lucky enough to come through the academy and get into the first team and do well – that was always the aim from when I was young.”
The aim now is Premier League football, despite various upheavals that have dogged the club in recent years. “Everything is in place for us to be a Premier League club and we just need to get over the line, make it there and then build on that. Obviously, everyone knows the history, winning league titles, but there’s been a gap since then. But look at Leicester – you never know what’s around the corner in football and who’s to say it won’t be us in a few years’ time.”
As someone who’s been at the club nearly ten years, it’s natural that Hughes has become synonymous with Derby and as a stylish, creative midfielder, he’s also expected to set the tone of his side. Hughes laughs, “I feel like a veteran. In the dressing room, I’m a bit more relaxed, but on the pitch, I like to think I can lead the side. That’s just individual preference: some people are loud in the changing rooms, there’s nothing wrong with that, just as there’s nothing wrong with being quiet.”
This is the very definition of letting one’s football do the talking, as Hughes explains, “On the pitch knowing what to do and doing it to the best of your ability is a leadership role in itself.
Everyone has different roles on the pitch, I might be creative, someone else might smash somebody; there’s different ways of showing leadership.” That takes thought, as much as it does footballing ability, as Hughes says, “You have to play that way at the right time though; it’s about getting a mix of styles that work for each match.”
Is it harder for skilful players like Hughes to shine in a league that’s perceived, explained away even, as a slog, as rough-and-tumble? “The Championship is a slog, sometimes the media categorise it as an absolute drag, but there’s plenty of times when good football is being played. You see it in the FA Cup when Championship teams are beating Premier League teams and it’s not a shock. We beat West Brom 2-1 and we were more than a match for Leicester.”
Skilful players such as Hughes, and the man he replaced for his England U21s debut, Josh McEachran, don’t always get the recognition they deserve in a league where nous and physicality seem to count for a lot. “I’d agree with that. I’ve played against Josh before. He’s an unbelievable player, so underrated for what he does with the ball, his passes between the lines. People don’t always see it because he isn’t scoring goals every week. But he knows what he’s doing, even if it goes unappreciated by lots of people.”
Hughes’ development as a player and as a leader has been spurred by exposure to regular, tough first team football, and he feels that staying at Derby, making the most of the chances afforded him there, was crucial. As he explains, “It’s unfortunate that these days, a lot of young players are happy to be playing U23s at a big club, pick up a decent wage and go through the motions, happily not playing. They might go on loan a few times but come 24 or 25, they’ll get released and then they’ll be struggling.”
Staying focused and committed to the goal of playing for Derby was the key for Hughes: “When you’re growing up, all you want to do is play football, but then at 17, 18 the money comes and everything that comes with it. A player’s outlook on the game changes: they’ve gone from wanting to play football every week to happily playing U23 football. It’s sad, but I guess it’s individual preference. If they’re happy to do that, fine, but from 16 or 17 I’ve played regular first team football and I can’t think of anything I’d rather do. If I were on the bench for a few weeks, I’d hate it. I wouldn’t know what to do.”
Of course, Hughes is a regular when fit, but he’s had his share of injury misfortune. Being at Derby, around his friends and a club who knew him so well, helped in a difficult time. “I’ve got lots of friends round here, which sometimes I take for granted. People don’t realise that footballers move around, don’t have roots quite as much as other people. When you’re going through [a long-term injury] you don’t realise because you’re not thinking about anything other than getting fit again, but looking back at it now, having my family, my friends, people I know at the club around me certainly did help mentally. That’s the toughest thing about injury, having to deal with it mentally and having to deal with not playing. It was nothing like I’d imagined.”
Indeed, Hughes is eloquent about pressure more generally. As fans or watchers of the game, it’s impossible to understand exactly what it’s like to have your every move dissected, poured over, lionised or criticised, week in, week out. Hughes is smart enough to realise that many fans would have little sympathy, but explains,
“I’m not asking for sympathy, I’m not saying there should be any, but the outside world doesn’t realise the bad or annoying things that come with being a footballer. They look at the good things, the money, and don’t get me wrong, that’s brilliant, but they don’t realise the other things players have to go through – the injuries, the pressure, the speculation.” It’s even harder to deal with when assumptions and a lack of connection remove players from fans: “People try and stay in the shadows a bit more, they don’t want to be the centre of attention.”
“Back in the day, players used to go for drinks and the fans would drink with them, but if you did that now, you’d be wary of people taking a picture of you to sell or to get a few retweets on Twitter.”
And that disconnect, coupled with the money in the game and the constant press coverage, means that it’s harder than ever to get oneself across accurately, as Hughes says: “Players get stereotyped as arrogant, overpaid. No matter what most of us are like, one or two people will always spoil it. To let it go over your head sometimes it’s hard. If someone’s talking about you in a negative way, it’s not nice. But you learn over time to ignore it more.”
But the bond of football is born of a shared experience, good and bad, reserved for those talented and dedicated enough to make it: “Only players know the emotions they go through after a good game or a bad game. You have to go through the bad times to appreciate the buzz of a good game, it’s something I can’t replicate outside of football, that natural adrenalin buzz you get from playing well and winning. But you need the lows to appreciate the highs.” And a certain maturity that comes from age and, in Hughes’ case, early exposure to the pressure. As he says, “As you get older, experiences stand you in good stead and I think I can say now that I’m used to it and I deal with it in a good way. If you read the good things and listen to the good things, you’re on top of the world. If you read the bad things, you want to sit in a dark room and cry. It’s all about getting the balance.”
The conversation turns to England and style. Hughes smiles again, “I could talk about this for hours.” Anyone watching the U21s of late will have noticed an evolution in their football, with a greater focus on passing and retention of the ball, and less reliance on pace and physicality. Hughes is excited and agrees that things have developed.
“We’ve tried to change it over the last few years. People say we should play an English style, other people say we should try to copy the likes of Spain or Germany. Until you win something you’re never going to be right”
Are England moving in the right direction, though? “There are better countries out there, the way they play, their ideas, but I do think that we are improving. We’re on the right track but we need to be patient. Some of the youngsters coming through are unreal, but it’s about how we nurture them, how we protect them.” The future, though, as evidenced by the performances of the U21s and the encouraging start former U21s boss Gareth Southgate has made as the senior side’s Head Coach, is bright: “Everything is in place to do well and I think it will come eventually. We’ve got players that suit a more continental style, but it won’t happen overnight. There are other countries who are very good at football – we are one of them too, but there are fine margins. It’s not massive stuff we’re doing wrong.”
Hughes is a student of the game, as is clear from speaking to him. Who does he admire? “I idolised Steven Gerrard when growing up. I probably base my game on Iniesta. If I had an eighth of the skill he has, I’d be happy. I look at what Dele Alli has done too, how he’s coped with that move, not only starting well but staying at that level week in, week out. No one expected him to do that well, but he’s been unreal.”
And in the football of the past? “The 90s – I’m going off videos more than live footage because I was born in 1995, but the rivalries there were – Arsenal and Manchester United – you don’t seem to get that anymore. There were also more iconic players then; there still are, but I think in this day and age it’s frowned upon to have too much personality. It would be great to have a Keane vs Vieira.”
“If Dele Alli stays at Tottenham for ten years and there’s an Arsenal player who’s like that, it might happen. But players move about so much in modern football that there’s not many rivalries like that.”
And what about goals for the future? Hughes is understandably, realistically equivocal, given the uncertain nature of his sport: “Some people like to think about where they’ll be in five or ten years’ time; from a footballer’s point of view, though, I think that’s a very naïve thing to do. I think you can set broad, long-term goals: you want to be playing in a certain division, you want to be in the first team. But I think if you consider things in any more detail than that you’re being naïve because things in football change very quickly.” Would he stay in England? “Playing abroad appeals to me, but there are things I want to do in England before that becomes a serious possibility. But later? It’s something I’d consider if anyone wants me.”
And with that, we wrap up. Hughes is off to spend time with his new dog, a golden retriever puppy who he clearly adores, before getting on with the life of being a professional footballer. Grounded, articulate, thoughtful, sublimely talented: if Hughes is part of the future of English football, the future of English football looks bright.
A feature from Pickles Issue 13. If you enjoyed this story, you can order a copy of the issue here. Packed full of great writing, artwork and photography features, Issue 13 celebrates the best in football culture.