In Profile | Will Hughes
By Kevin Affleck
Troy Deeney knows the Midlands football scene like the back of his hand so when he speaks about the Hornets signing one of the region’s hottest prospects it’s worth listening and worth listening good.
"I like this signing," tweeted the captain after the Hornets signed Will Hughes on a five-year deal. "Always rated Will, very clever player."
If various interviews on YouTube are anything to go by, Hughes is a grounded and humble individual who doesn't need his tyres pumping up, but there are plenty of other admirers queuing up to do the inflating if any self-doubt creeps in.
"He's a good player," said Harry Redknapp when in charge of QPR in 2013. "He's going to be a big player, for sure. He's a young talent with the ability to go right to the top. I've been very impressed with him. He's a player for a top Premier League club."
Arsenal, Liverpool, Manchester United and Everton have all reportedly sent scouts to Pride Park to check on Hughes in the last six years – he’s 22 but he made his debut at just 16 – but Watford, who have been watching him for at least two seasons, are the first club to take the plunge and convince Hughes he can be a Premier League regular. He didn’t want to move too early in his career and, like so many, become a bit-part player.
“I’ve been linked with every team under the sun since I was 16 but I haven’t really wanted to go anywhere,” said Hughes in an interview last season. “I think some of the young players now are happy to pick up the money, sit on the bench for Under 23s, wish their career away. They don't think long-term that at 23, 24 they could be without a club, struggling. I couldn't think of anything worse.”
How refreshing that is to hear.
To that end he signed a new three-and-a-half-year contract at Derby in January and has spoken several times about wanting to play Premier League football with the club he joined at the age of 12. So whatever Gino Pozzo and Scott Duxbury said to him and his agent to lure him away, when others had failed, worked a treat. He now agrees, following a long apprenticeship in the furnace of the Championship, that it’s time to kick on, to really test himself.
Hughes says he tries to model his game on Xavi and Andres Iniesta no less, particularly when it comes to retaining possession. He's an expert at recycling it and could do for Watford what, say, Tom Carroll, another England Under-21 international, has done for Swansea. His left foot will give the Hornets nice balance in midfield.
"Will rarely gave the ball away in training or in the game, which is vitally important at international level," said Stuart Pearce, the former England Under-21 manager, once. "He's progressing really well."
Like any young player, Hughes is not the finished article and still has areas of his game to improve but, not 23 until April, he’s got plenty of time on his side and room for growth. Watford are buying a readymade player but also one whose best years are very much ahead of him.
"I think he's still got a lot more to do and more to show,” Steve McClaren, the then Rams boss, told the Derby Telegraph during his second spell in charge. "He needs to establish himself and control games more. He's mature now - he's not the kid on the block any more. He's growing up and that needs to reflect in his performance."
One area he could do with cleaning up is, would you believe it, his discipline. He was rivalling Jose Holebas for yellow cards at one stage last season, which is a surprise for a player with such a velvet touch. By the end of December, he had 10 cautions, including a run of eight in 12 games.
"It is something he has got to learn," said McClaren. "Will reminds me a little bit of Paul Scholes in terms of he has got to learn how to tackle, when to go in and when not to, and where on the field to do it and where not to."
Hughes is a quick learner and a student of the game as well as a bright lad. He was privately educated at Repton School, whose alumni include Roald Dahl, Jeremy Clarkson, tennis player ‘Bunny’ Austin and three Archbishops of Canterbury. He clearly comes from a good stock. There can't be too many footballers with A-levels, let alone A-levels in politics and business studies.
Away from the classroom, he is keen to add goals to his game. A return of 12 in 187 games is not really commensurate with a player with his gifts, although, in his defence, he has spent a fair amount of time on the left of a midfield diamond or in a deep-lying role. "I still think I can score more and it is something that I know I can add to my game," he said in an interview in 2014.
He still looks back rather fondly on the one he got for Derby against Brighton in the 2014 play-off semi-final. “I could play for the next 20 years and that will still be my best ever goal – I don’t think it’s going to get much better than that,” said Hughes in an interview with the Daily Mail.
It's not all been plain sailing or a bed of roses for Hughes. He suffered the injury all footballers dread, the one to the anterior cruciate ligament in his knee, in August 2015 and spent eight months on the sidelines.
“I knew straight away it was serious,” he told The Guardian. “You never think it’s going to happen to you. I couldn’t walk for a good few weeks after surgery. You’re pretty much bed-bound. I went from confusion, to anger. You start to think: ‘Am I ever going to get back to where I was?’ I was very paranoid.”
He got through it and came out the other side thanks to the support of the club, his then housemate Josh Lelan, who plays for Crawley Town, and by throwing himself into more studying by learning Spanish, a skill which will come in handy on the training fields at London Colney.
Steven Gerrard is his hero, Robbie Fowler is the one former player he'd like to see in the England side right now, and the 2005 Champions League final between Liverpool and AC Milan is the one game he'd love to have played in. It probably doesn’t take a genius to work out he’s a Liverpool fan, so it will not have gone unnoticed by Hughes that Watford host the Merseysiders on the opening day of the new season. It's another former Red who he credits with giving him his big break at the age of 16.
"I have a lot to thank Nigel Clough for, not only did he give me the chance but he helped me out on a personal level," said Hughes of his first Derby manager. “Off the field he taught me a lot of morals, like how to act and be yourself. Not to get sucked into the bubble of football.”
Watford appear to have signed a good egg as well as a very good technician. Rather than being a jump up, Hughes feels the Premier League might even be better suited to his smooth-passing style than the helter-skelter world of the Championship. Some players look better in a better league with more accomplished and like-minded players around them.
"I have spoken to a few people about the Prem and they say it is more of a chess game, more tactical, which probably suits me," he said last season. "But at the same time, funnily enough I enjoy the battles on a Tuesday night away at Rotherham. They are quite satisfying really, what English football is all about."
Now, once the European Under-21 Championships finish, he’s about to see what the fuss about the Premier League is all about. “Can’t wait to get started,” he tweeted. “Buzzing for this.”