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      Happy birthday, Will Hughes: Setting standards & the Crystal Palace culture


      When Will Hughes – who turns 29-years-old today (17th April) - sets out to do a programme interview, he can’t help but speak his mind. As he sits down, he jokingly prepares us for ‘all the clichés’, but it soon becomes clear that this won’t be the case. While on the pitch he is a modern Premier League midfielder, off it Hughes is a self-professed member of the footballing ‘old school’.

      This interview originally appeared in the Crystal Palace v Liverpool matchday programme. You can shop for programmes by clicking HERE.

      A first-team player at 16-years-old and now with more than a decade of top-level action behind him, Hughes is part of one of the strongest Crystal Palace squads in years, both in terms of ability on the pitch and their bond off it. It’s a sense of community and togetherness that he can sum up in far simpler and more direct terms:

      "There are no.... how do I phrase it? No k***heads.”

      That just about sums it up. In a Premier League dressing room, packed full of characters from every conceivable background, culture and nationality, there is a unity fostered in south London.

      “It’s difficult [in football], because there are so many different players from different places with egos and different personalities,” Hughes says.“It’s one of the best dressing rooms I’ve ever played in. No k***heads – are you going to put that in the programme?!

      “Everyone gets on with each other, everyone talks to each other. It is an enjoyable dressing room to be in.”

      The meeting of different cultures is an opportunity to learn from one another both on and off the pitch.

      “You have got people from all over the world,” he explains. “You learn so many different things. When I broke through at my first club, it was very British-based. Then you come here and there are people from all around the world, and it’s so nice to find out about different things and learn so many different things.”

      There is a reason why players like Hughes are so valued at Premier League football clubs. They set a culture of performance and dedication, something those at the very top look for throughout the club.

      On The Rest is Football podcast, Chairman Steve Parish made his thoughts abundantly clear: “I think your culture at the training ground is the most important thing.”

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      It's got to come from the players to maintain those standards.

      Will Hughes

      Hughes agrees. “I would go along with that. For fans, they mainly see what happens on a Saturday at three o’clock – although nowadays it could be any time during the week – during the 90 minutes, but it happens all the way through the week.

      “The culture, the standards, the values of the club which relate to the team. How they train, how they act. It does relate to results.”

      Over summer, Palace lost two influential club servants who help to set that culture: Luka Milivojevic and James McArthur. Hughes says that it was important that other players step up to replace them.

      “You’re always going to miss players and characters like that. Macca and Luka were big voices around the changing room, so of course you are going to miss that to some extent. But we’ve still got experienced players that have come through – Schluppy, Wardy, Tonks – and so there is still guidance through that.

      “But it is generational – it’s changing football now. That is the way it is going. But it’s also got to come from the players to maintain those standards.”

      As an experienced player, Hughes can step up and influence the behaviour of the Academy players when they make the journey across Copers Cope Road to train with the first-team. He is chatting on the back of a training session which saw several youngsters called up to join the senior squad, and knows how important it is to take your opportunity.

      When he was just 16-years-old, he made his debut for Derby County against Peterborough United. It was a firm squad using tough love to bed in a talented youngster, with Nigel Clough and co. helping to shape the young Hughes into a professional footballer.

      “The characters in that dressing room were very big characters. Like I have said before, it is sink or swim. That has moulded me into the person I am today. It has helped improve me massively from a mental point of view.

      “I mean, you’re a product of your environment. When I was brought through there, that was exactly what it was. It was an old-school mentality, but I’m so glad I came through in that situation.” So how does Hughes nurture the young talent coming through in a changing footballing world? “It’s a bit of both,” he says of the balancing act between tough love and support.

      “They have got to integrate themselves, but of course you want to help them and if they ever want to have a word with you then I will always be there for them. “But you have also got to tell them how it is. I think football nowadays is a bit soft in a sense with younger players, but the lads we have got here have been brilliant.

      "They take criticism on the chin, they want to learn and their attitude and quality has been top.”

      It’s not just the Academy players. Hughes also picks out 19-year-old Matheus França, who arrived from Flamengo in his native Brazil without speaking a word of English this summer. “His English has come on brilliantly. He has come on leaps and bounds since he first came, and that has only been a short period of time.”

      Hughes surpassed 50 Crystal Palace appearances this season, but knows that competition for places is higher than ever with the arrival of Cheick Doucouré and Jefferson Lerma over the past two summers – additions which he says, despite overcoming the language barriers, will drive things forwards in the midfield department.

      “The standard is really high, and I think that is the best way to be,” he says. “You don’t want to be in a team where you are starting and there are only two or three midfielders.

      "You would get complacent, so we keep each other on our toes and if one is not performing we know that the other man is going to come in and take your place, so it keeps the standards high in matches and in training.

      "Jefferson is brilliant. He is a warrior, a fighter. What you see in the matches we also see in training. He wants to win. He is very competitive and a brilliant addition.

      “Even if English isn’t your strongest language, you learn words that you would use on the pitch and it comes quite naturally. Off the pitch, you learn to know what they are saying through various ways of communicating.

      “I am my own player. You have to adapt your game on occasion but at the same time you have to realise why you are in the team and play your own game as well. Each of us has got our own qualities, and when we are playing with each other it blends together, so it is nice.”

      Looking to the future, Hughes knows the whole squad will be pushing one another on to move upwards into a stronger position.

      “International and European players are more than used to playing a couple of times a week – I think on a lot of occasions the top players are playing even more than Championship and League One teams. We need to rotate players as well and we’ve got a good enough squad to do that.

      "We’ve got players that can cause a lot of damage so we have to utilise them as well, so it’s a balancing act.

      "We know it’s going to be tough... but we know at Selhurst Park we can give anyone a game.”

      In a dressing room like the one at Crystal Palace, where all players – young, old, experienced, new arrivals, Academy or more – are pulling one direction, that is not a bold claim: in south London, the Eagles can take on any opposition.

      Just ask Will Hughes.