As a Derby County season ticket holder I’ve been able to watch 18-year-old Will Hughes week in week out and I have to say its been an absolute pleasure. Throughout my ten or so years watching the Rams I can honestly say he is one of if not the best young players I have seen.
Born in Surrey, England Will Hughes moved to Derby aged just two. He attended Repton School in Derbyshire where he impressed whilst playing for the school football team. He went on to join local side Mickleover (a decent non-league side with a good youth set-up) aged 13 before later moving to Derby County in 2011 as a first year scholar. Hughes made his debut for the club’s reserve side as a 70th minute substitute in a 6-1 Central League win over Walsall. He would only go on to play two more matches for the reserves as he was noticed by first-team boss Nigel Clough after an “outstanding” performance against Port Vale.
Hughes made the first-team squad for the penultimate game of the 2011-12 season, however later made his full debut as a 90th minute substitute in a 3-2 defeat against Peterborough. Hughes was gradually given more chances in the first team and impressed with every performance. He scored his first goal in September 2012 in a 5-1 victory against Watford. Hughes’ second was quickly to follow as he blasted in a 20 yard equaliser at the hands of Millwall. By this time his performances were nothing short of outstanding. This seventeen year old lad who had seemingly come from nowhere had slotted into the side and was arguably the best player. His ability was awarded with a call-up to the England under 17s squad in February 2012 for the Algarve Tournament where he was joined by Rams teammate Mason Bennett.
A year later and Hughes was promoted to the England under 21s side and became the second youngest ever player to make the grade (the first being Theo Walcott). After just over one season at first-team level Hughes had become one of the hottest prospects in the Football League or even in the country.
Hughes featured in our list of 100 Best Young Players to Watch in 2016.
Style, strengths and weaknesses
This season Will Hughes has been predominately used as a central midfielder although he would be more than capable as centre attacking mid or on the left hand side. If I had to single out one of Hughes’ many attributes as being his best I would have to go for passing. He is one of those players that seems to notice a pass that nobody else can. He is particularly effective around the edge of the box where he is able to slot a ball through the opposition’s defence. With the ball at his feet he is more than comfortable, he has quick feet which allows him to shimmy past players. In a BBC interview in December 2010 Hughes said he based his style of play on Barcelona’s Xavi and Iniesta, he is a huge way away from that standard but at times the resemblance is there.
England u21 manager Stuart Pearce described Hughes as “technically a very sound player”.”He rarely gave the ball away in training or in the game he played (against Northern Ireland), which is vitally important at international level. He’s progressing really well.”
Hughes isn’t afraid to play the ball backwards and is often looking to play a one two. He enjoys to dribble at defences but at times he seems afraid to take a shot, preferring to pass the ball on.
Hughes has the ability to put in a cracking tackle but at times seems reluctant to really get stuck in. At Derby however this hasn’t been so much of a problem as he has often been one of three centre mids so he has been able to not always track back. He lacks in strength, which for a lad of his physique is not surprising. Despite this he is not particularly quick, these are aspects of his game that he has already admitted to be working on. Bearing in mind he is only eighteen Hughes certainly has time on his side to improve.
The January transfer window of 2013 brought much speculation on the future of Hughes. Clubs such as Manchester City, Arsenal, Liverpool and even Spanish giants Barcelona had a dossier compiled on the player. Fulham were another side heavily linked with wanting Hughes, manager Martin Jol said, “There are probably ten clubs in the Premier League having a look at him. He’s one of those wonderful talents, so he’s always on lists”. At one stage Manchester City reportedly had a £7m bid rejected. The end of the window came with a huge sense of relief as Derby had managed to hold onto their man for at least until the end of that campaign.
Since, Hughes has signed a contract extension tying him to the club until June 2016. Whether this is a tactic to increase his price as he would have to be bought out of his contract, remains to be seen. Derby chief executive Sam Rush has said he expects Hughes to still be at the club by next season, and I hope he will be too. Bearing in mind a reported £7m bid has already been rejected in January I expect it would take £10m for the Rams to part with their man. Furthermore, if Wilfired Zaha can cost £15m I see no reason why £10m wouldn’t be a reasonable price for Hughes.
If Derby can manage to hold onto Hughes until 2016 it will give him the opportunity to develop as he would be guaranteed first-team football. There is a danger that a young talent at a huge club can simply find himself on the bench making the occasional substitute appearance here and there and this is what I fear may happen to Hughes. At Derby he would be able to flourish into the fantastic player he is capable of being and make his move onto the world stage when the time is right.