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      Michael Hughes: From Harry's Hammer to Palace's promotion hero


      Most players only make one or two standout contributions to the game in their careers – but Michael Hughes will be remembered by both Crystal Palace and West Ham United supporters for a multitude of defining moments in both south and east London.

      A cult hero for both club and country, Hughes’ career began with semi-professional Northern Ireland outfit Carrick Rangers, from where the attacking midfielder was scouted as a teenager by Manchester City and then moved to top-tier French team Strasbourg.

      At the age of 23, the opportunity to return to domestic shores arrived with an offer from Harry Redknapp’s West Ham – which Hughes reveals the story behind below – and it was in east London he scored one of the most impactful Premier League goals ever: a final-day strike against Manchester United in the 1-1 draw which denied Sir Alex Ferguson’s Red Devils the 1994/95 title.

      Making his move to West Ham permanent by becoming the first-ever British player to change clubs for free on a Bosman ruling, Hughes later enjoyed spells at Wimbledon and Birmingham City, before a switch to Palace which – as he himself admits – was hotly disputed, but led to a remarkable chapter in his career.

      The Northern Irishman’s time at Selhurst Park concluded after four seasons as a die-hard fan favourite, captaining the Eagles in the top-flight and amassing almost 150 appearances for the south Londoners.

      Catching up with Hughes – now based back in Northern Ireland – there was plenty of subject matter, then, for us to delve into ahead of Palace and West Ham’s meeting at London Stadium this weekend…

      Michael, how’s life treating you these days?

      Not too bad! I’m not doing too much – a wee bit of coaching for a couple of the young boys over here, just Under-16s and Under-17s.

      I’m developing a wee property business over here as well, so I’m busy enough – but not that busy, not that stressed, which I think is the most important thing if you can help it at my age, to be honest!

      Going back to 1994, how did your initial move to West Ham come about?

      I’d left City to go to Strasbourg – there were a few players who'd moved from England to Italy, and a few that moved to France too, but it wasn't something that happened a lot back in those days. Being so young, I thought: well, why not? Let’s have a go and see what happens.

      I went out there, and it was just new for me. With my personality type, anything new is exciting – I tended to get bored quite quickly with my environment and things – so it was exciting. I really enjoyed playing for Strasbourg.

      I had a couple of years over there but the manager that brought me in subsequently moved on, and it just felt different. It just felt strange for me, and a new manager came in and his ideas were slightly different. It didn't feel as comfortable, I wasn't playing as well, and I just felt that I wouldn't mind a wee change.

      West Ham had reached out at that time, around Christmas time. They were struggling a wee bit in the league and they were looking for reinforcements, so they spoke to the club about the potential of me going there on loan, which appealed to me at the time.

      Harry [Redknapp] came all the way out to Strasbourg and met up with me. We went for dinner, which I thought was a really nice thing for a manager to do, but I’d kind of made my mind up anyway before I met him that I fancied it. That's how the loan came about, and I ended up signing for them on permanent basis.

      I really enjoyed being at West Ham. I enjoyed the atmosphere. It felt, at the time, just like a homely club because of where it was located, because of the support. It was the East End and it was a family club. There was the ‘West Ham Way’, which was to get the ball down and play football and keep it on the deck.

      And I knew a few of the lads there already: Keithy Rowland, who was there from Northern Ireland set-up. I’d played with Ian Bishop at Manchester City for a brief period of time when he was there, and Trevor Morley and people like that. When you know someone, it makes things in life a wee bit easier, to go somewhere and settle in.

      Hughes celebrates his historic goal against Manchester United in 1995
      Hughes celebrates his historic goal against Manchester United in 1995

      You scored a famous Premier League goal against Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United in 94/95…

      West Ham fans probably wouldn't remember me for anything else apart from that!

      Man United supporters still, to this day, blame me for losing them the league that year. They say ‘you cost us a title!’ but I’m like ‘hold on, I didn’t cost you a title – if anybody cost you the title, it was [West Ham goalkeeper] Luděk Mikloško, he was the one that made about 20 saves in the last five minutes! Blame him if you're going to blame anybody!’

      But yeah, I suppose from a personal point of view, that's one of my favourite memories and probably the most outstanding from my time at West Ham.

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      Palace was, honestly, just one of those places you just turn up to the training ground, and there's an instant attraction.

      Michael Hughes

      You had spells at both Wimbledon and Birmingham subsequently, but how did the chance to join Palace in 2003 arrive?

      I hadn't actually played any football for a year, through somebody's fault or another, and probably you could say I was partly to blame in that situation too.

      In some ways it was rejuvenating, insofar as my body got the chance to probably rest and recover for that year. An opportunity came to go to Palace through the physio at the time, Steve Allen – ‘Wiggy’, as we called him.

      He knew I wasn't playing and I was looking for a club, so he said to [Palace manager] Steve Kember: ‘Michael’s not got a club. Why don't you bring him in for a few weeks and have a look at him, see what you think?’ So that's what happened. I came up and did a pre-season.

      Palace was, honestly, just one of those places you just turn up to the training ground, and there’s an instant attraction. I don't know what it was. It just felt like the place where I wanted to be.

      Having come from Wimbledon and having the Selhurst Park connection too, it felt like fate. Don’t get me wrong, I loved Wimbledon – it was completely different, but a very special club – but when you went to Selhurst Park and the stadium was full of Palace fans, it started to shine through with its real atmosphere.

      I enjoyed that pre-season and the lads were very welcoming. I wasn't anywhere near as fit as them because I'd missed so much training. Aki Riihilahti was always very chatty, but was always having a bit of a laugh and a joke about my fitness at the time. He would beat me running backwards in training! It just felt like a good bunch of lads.

      When you go to a club, you look at everything. You look at the set-up, you look at the support structure, but the most important thing you look at is your goal: ‘I’m not coming here to make up the numbers, I'm coming here to try and do something, to try to get this club back into the Premier League.' Were there players at the club who could take us to where we wanted to get to? The answer, in my opinion, was ‘yes’.

      There was Andy Johnson, of course, who was just coming through at the time, but there were just good players overall – good, hardened professionals who had been around a long time and had lots of experience. You felt like this was a squad of players who could achieve something. In the end, that's what happened that season: we won that promotion.

      It was just an opportunity that was too good to turn down. Again, it just felt like another real homely club, a very welcoming club, with good people around the place. That might not be important for other people, but it was important for me to have that kind of atmosphere.

      You mentioned there Palace’s promotion to the Premier League in 2003/04 – ironically, of course, achieved by beating West Ham 1-0 in the 2004 First Division Play-Off Final…

      There were obviously still quite a lot of players who I knew at West Ham when I'd been there, and then there was the Iain Dowie [then Palace manager] connection as well – he was at West Ham with me too.

      I guess, when you talk to people and you go from one club to another, you kind of forget that with the club that you've come from, you still have the connections, because you’re just focusing on the club you're playing for and what it means to them and your own teammates. For me, that game was that game, and if we won the game, we’d go up.

      I knew quite a lot about them, and they probably knew quite a lot about us too. But yeah, I never really thought too much about playing against my former teams, to be honest. It was just a game; play the game and try to win it.

      After that promotion, you took on the captain’s armband for Palace in 2004/05…

      At any other club I went to throughout my career, or even for Northern Ireland, I was never really considered captain material, if you like.

      As I got older, I learned to talk a lot. My personality changed. But I'll never forget it, because it was a really strange moment at Palace.

      We’d got off a bit of a rocky start [in 03/04] under Stevie [Kember]. I mean, we had good players, but we were underperforming, there's no doubt about that. Then Iain came in and he got us really, really fit basically – I mean, hyper fit! We did a lot of running – and that’s how we won those matches. We were scoring a lot of our goals towards the latter end of games.

      One game, Neil Shipperley was absent and Iain went around the changing room and said: ‘today, the captain is going to be Michael.’ And I was very surprised because it was never something I ever thought of myself as, and I didn't know whether I wanted that responsibility.

      I just went: ‘okay, well, fine, I'll take it and we'll see what happens.’ And I really enjoyed the responsibility. It made me perform better on the pitch. It just gave me a real sense of pride, a real sense of ownership and a real sense of determination to do well.

      It was something that I grew to love, to be quite honest with you. And it became – I have to be honest with this – something that I became quite selfish about and quite petty over at times. I really, really wanted to be captain, because it meant so much to me and it gave me such an extra boost.

      I tended to keep myself to myself and not really mix much or say much to people around the dressing room, so from that point of view, I wasn't captain material off the pitch, but I felt maybe on the pitch it helped me a lot.

      I really did take a lot of pride, probably too much pride, in captaining Crystal Palace and captaining Northern Ireland. It just meant so much to me.

      How do you look back on your time at Palace as a whole?

      It was a fantastic time.

      When people ask me about my career and they ask, ‘what club did you enjoy the most?’, it’s very difficult, because you have so many memories, good and bad, of every club you’ve been to, for very different reasons. Each club holds a special kind of place in your memories.

      But the thing about Palace, for me, is that we had that season. We worked so hard and got that success in the play-offs at the end of it. That was such a special moment for all of us, for everybody at the club: the players, the management, the staff, and the supporters, of course. That was a monumental achievement.

      You look back and, even though we got relegated the next season, I just felt that that was a pivotal moment, a springboard for Palace at that point to say: ‘right, we can compete here with the big boys. We can get people that can do something.’

      Nowadays, the club's really gone from strength-to-strength. I know a lot of the guys who were involved in the play-offs at that time are no longer there, apart from maybe Dougie [Freedman, Sporting Director] and the ones who are maybe still doing a bit behind the scenes and whatnot.

      But the players, the managers and the different people who have come in have taken the club to a whole new level. It's great to see. And when you look at a team like Palace, you'd never really consider them to be one of the three teams likely to go down from the Premier League. That in and of itself is a magnificent achievement and shows how far the club has come.

      It’s a credit to everybody involved there, how far they've taken the club, and it's nice to feel that, in some small way, you've been part of that success along the way.

      We’ll finish by putting you on the spot, then… West Ham against Palace at London Stadium on Sunday afternoon. How do you see it going?

      Well… listen, that's a toss of a coin, isn't it, really?! It's just a toss of a coin!

      I mean, they’re both good sides with some fantastic attacking players on both teams, really. When you have two well-matched teams like they are, then it's just a bit of magic from one of the great players on show which could turn the game for you, so it's very difficult to make a prediction.

      I’ll put it down to a draw – how does that sound?!