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Will Hughes reveals how 'rubbish' Barcelona rumours shaped approach

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Will Hughes started his career at an incredibly early age, playing eye-catching football with flair. Rumours circulated that the then-teenager would sign for England’s biggest clubs, or even Barcelona. Here, he explains how that formed his humble, grounded attitude and why he became the industrious player he is today.

This interview was originally published in the Palace v Manchester City programme. You can purchase 21/22 programmes by clicking here.

Will Hughes does old school football well. He does of a central-midfielder what every fan wants: crunching challenges, 90 minutes’ running, jeering the opposition crowd and celebrating – immediately – with his own.

He shuns social media, rarely plays the trick-heavy style easily within his repertoire and conducts himself engagingly but without fanfare in the press.

Paradoxically Hughes’ style is compared – by himself and others – to Spanish entertainers like Andrés Iniesta and Xavi. He was linked with the biggest names in world football, Barcelona included, by the national papers aged 17, when his professional career began to flourish. He was competitive, too, at a number of sports and had to single-mindedly prioritise his football career at a young age.

Combined, Hughes’ experience contains all the ingredients for an existence unlike his own: luxury football, weekly headlines and, perhaps, a little outward overconfidence.

None of those are true of the now-26-year-old, and it doesn’t take much backstory to see why.

Hughes made his senior debut aged 16 and seven months, coming on to face Peterborough for Nigel Clough’s Derby County. He played two more times at the end of the season before cementing his place, then 17, in the first-team, playing 35 Championship games in his first full season.

He reflects: “I probably took it for granted at the time – the lads I was around, the manager I had, Nigel Clough, and the players were of an old-school ilk. They kept my feet grounded and if ever I was out of line they’d put me back into place and it gave me a grounding to be humble. I think that played a massive part in it.

“It’s hard to put into words but it’s that old school vibe: you have to work your guts off in training and you’ll get told if you’re out of line. If you’re doing something wrong they won’t hesitate to tell you, but at the same time they’ll put their arm around you and give you advice if you need it.

“I remember my first session with the first-team when I was about 15. It was completely different to Under-18s football. I went over there [to the first-team] and didn’t track one of my runners. The gaffer absolutely hammered me. I thought: ‘Right, this is men’s football now.’

“From then on he had that balance of telling you when you’re in the wrong but at the same time putting an arm around your shoulder and giving you advice.”

If Clough Jr’s approach was anything like his father’s – stories abound of Brian’s ego-popping tactics – then Hughes’ humility over his next few months at Derby is understandable. As Scholar of the Year and Football League Player of the Month, Hughes, with his Iniesta-like ability, began to be linked with all manner of Premier League and European clubs.

Barely a year earlier he was an Under-18, and now the headlines talked of Catalonia.

“There’s always going to be an element of it going to your head because you’re so young and have just been thrust into the limelight,” he says. “You’re hearing stories of going to so and so, going here, going there. The players I had around me and manager I had around me told me the best thing for my development was playing games. That’s what I was doing at 17 regularly, week in, week out in the Championship.

“Nothing actually came in front of me to go. There was interest, but at 16/17 playing week in, week out there’s going to be interest in anyone… Rumours fly around here, there and everywhere and 90% aren’t true. Even if something had come up I probably wouldn’t have gone, because players get lost.

“That Barcelona [rumour] was part of the 90%. Anyone can make up a rumour and put it in the paper and people are like: ‘Ah, he’s doing this.’ Absolute rubbish. I could make up a rumour and put it in the paper tomorrow; it’s that simple. But that was fabricated.”

Perhaps this explains Hughes’ attitude towards the media: he’s not remotely hostile, giving plenty of time and insight for this interview, but he has never sought to build his own brand.

“It’s not my cup of tea,” he says. “Crack on, by all means. But it’s just not my cup of tea. I want to come in, work hard and enjoy my life off the pitch.

“I don’t mind [interviews] at all. It’s part of it. Fans want certain insight to the players they’ve paid to come and watch, which is absolutely fine. I think they’ll see me working 100% on the pitch and that’s all they can ask for. They know. They’re not stupid, they can see if a player’s trying their hardest or not.”

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Anyone can make up a rumour and put it in the paper and people are like: ‘Ah, he’s doing this.’ Absolute rubbish.

Will Hughes

This attitude – accepting public life without embracing it – incidentally brought Hughes acclaim of his own, as one of the main figures on Watford goalkeeper Ben Foster’s social media. For the uninitiated, Foster regularly uploads behind the scenes videos onto his YouTube channel, The Cycling GK, which has over one million subscribers.

Hughes found a novel, but ultimately fruitless, way around inclusion: “Initially I only started swearing on it because I didn’t think he was going to post it [Foster did, and Hughes’ interactions became a bleeped-out running joke]. That was the premise behind it. But then it just snowballed and people wanted to see, so I had to go along with that character to play up to it.

“I think he’s an exception… He’s an exception with how he goes about it. Fos is a top, top guy and I’ve not met anyone like him in football. He’s so full of energy.”

And it’s this, the humour and camaraderie of team sport that lured Hughes from tennis to football, that the midfielder thrives off. He prefers unscripted moments with a crowd – or swearing at a teammate – to filters and fawning.

“On the pitch it’s natural,” he says. “It’s your emotions. It’s not scripted; it’s how you’re feeling on the pitch. The adrenaline and everything. It should be a given that players give 100%, but nowadays it’s not. People know that, so the least the lads and I can give and are giving is 100%. The fans can see that from every player.”

Derby supporters who followed Hughes through his fledgling career may be surprised by his tone today. This is a midfielder, after all, known as ‘the Spanish player’, who could tie a marker in knots more comfortably than he could harass a belligerent striker.

While Hughes’ off-pitch approach may not surprise those who know him, his on-pitch one has had to change. It started with a knee injury in summer 2015.

“My knee injury played a big part in me changing what I prioritised on the pitch,” he explains. “I’ve never been quick but over five or six yards I could get away from players before my injury. I never really got that back. I’ve never had issues with my knee since but it’s natural you’re going to lose something.

“You have to adapt your game to get into teams – you can’t be stubborn unless you’re ridiculously good in your position. You have to, at some point, adapt to situations and adapt to get into the team. I certainly did that.

“I don’t think it hit me straight away that I couldn’t do it [play like before]. But when I went to Watford and was playing with better players in my position I took a step back and went: ‘How am I going to get in the team here? I need to be more aggressive.’

“[Then-Watford manager] Nigel Pearson was a big factor in that – I had him twice, first at Derby. He sat me down and said: ‘You need to get that part in your game to play midfield,’ because he was playing with two [centre-midfielders] at that point. You have to have a bit more about you when you’re playing two in central midfield. So I think from then onwards it’s stuck with me and become part of my game.

“It was never natural to me. [My style] was more wanting to get on the ball, creating, and I didn’t see the other side as that important. Especially nowadays in this league you definitely have to have that and it’s something I enjoy now. I find it quite satisfying.”

What started with a knee injury in summer 2015 continues today under Patrick Vieira. Hughes is 27-years-old, after all, not yet in the prime of his career as a midfielder, and there’s still more to develop.

“He [Vieira] wants us to press, wants us to be aggressive and that’s been a big part of my game and the team’s game. I think we’ve been really good at that – it’s one of the advantages we have as a team.

“I learnt a lot from the manager – it’s difficult not to with what he’s achieved in the game. I’m playing with some unbelievable players here that I’m learning off as well.”

For a man who discovered how to handle the press at 17 and was forced to redesign his style four years later, perhaps that’s no surprise.