Will Hughes’ fledgling Derby career to date has been a remarkable journey. From making his first team debut at 16 years old as a late substitute in a 3-2 away defeat to Peterborough United to helping totally control the game for Derby in a crushing 1-0 defeat to QPR at Wembley in the 2013 Play Off Final, his career has been well documented, done to death in some respects, but it is only now that his vital importance to the Rams’ midfield is apparent.
Hughes has been a familiar face in Derby’s midfield over recent years. His class was obvious from the start, breaking into Nigel Clough’s side at the tender age of 17 years old after impressing in numerous substitute appearances towards the end of the 2011/12 season. He was a regular starter in the Derby side of 2012/13, scoring his first goal on the 1st September 2012 during a 5-1 victory at home to Watford. That goal was a scuffed tap in but since then he has never looked back, with every goal since seeming better and better, although that is not where his value lies.
The likes of Barcelona and Man City were reported to have been scouting Hughes over the last few years, with Derby fans largely agreeing upon this being down to his genius footballing brain and level head. Despite being only 20 years old, those who have watched Hughes’ performances see that it is evident just how good he already is with many in the stands and local media commenting that he plays like an experienced 29 year old midfield general, which can help to explain his impressive 122 first team appearances for the Rams already. He possesses flair, creativity and the occasional bit of magic (see his backheel for Derby’s first goal in the Play Off Second Leg in 2013 at home to Brighton), however his real value lies in his ability to boss the midfield and show strength and positional awareness usually attributed to the likes of Paul Scholes or a much calmer Roy Keane. A good example of all of these attributes is either of Derby’s 3-1 home victories over Leeds United in 2012 and 2013, with Hughes bossing the midfield and taking the game by the scruff of the neck.
Watch Derby’s midfield this season and it is apparent that these skills are hardly abundant anymore. Hughes damaged anterior cruciate ligaments (yep, ANOTHER ACL injury for the sport) in his right knee in the first half of Derby’s opening match of the 2015/16 season away to Bolton Wanderers and was set to be out for 6-7 months, a huge blow for both the player but also the club, seeking to finally be promoted after two years of agonising heartbreak. In response to Hughes’ injury (and Craig Bryson who was injured in the same match), Derby broke two club transfer records on the final day of the August transfer window, spending a combined £10m on Jacob Butterfield (£4m) from Huddersfield Town and a surprise signing in Bradley Johnson (£6m) from Norwich City to bolster the midfield area, making what was already considered to be the strongest midfield in the league – boasting George Thorne, Jeff Hendrick, Jamie Hanson, Bryson and Hughes – even stronger and turning Derby into a Championship ‘Galacticos’. However, despite this considerable firepower, Derby’s midfield has rarely got going to the power it really should do – with the exception of a 4-2 thumping of Wolves at the iPro Stadium in October 2015.
It is widely agreed amongst Rams fans that the midfield lacks the tenacity and creativity of Will Hughes to drive it forward and give support to talisman Chris Martin. Too often this season Derby fans have been witness to a slow, tempered build up in midfield during an attack, allowing opposition to regroup in numbers and stifle any creativity going forward. This has led to frustration in the crowd and a growing confidence in opposition teams who seem to have figured Derby’s slow, cautious approach out in recent months, leading to scrappy wins, tedious draws or incredibly frustrating losses – losing 1-0 to rivals Nottingham Forest in November 2015 is a prime example of that, when the team just never got going. There are many factors for this loss of form and drive throughout the team, Chris Martin’s unusual record of 1 goal in 12 games is no accident or coincidence, the saying around the iPro is “if Martin plays well, the team plays well”, however the opposite also applies. If Martin does not get the service or support from midfield, he will not hurt the opposition like everyone knows he can, with Hughes out of the side this support is hard to come by. Jacob Butterfield does well to try and replace Hughes’ driving runs and Bradley Johnson is hardly shy of putting in a strong tackle if needed, but the creativity and flair of Will Hughes is so apparently missing when Derby aren’t quite on form, with the midfield all too happy to pass backwards and sideways, much to the disappointment of the front three and the crowd – be it home or away.
During the awful collapse of Derby’s season towards the back end of the 2014/15 season, Hughes was really the only player to come out of the whole debacle with any dignity, his maturity shining through when attempting to drive the team on to avoid another loss. A prime example is Rotherham away in a bizarre 3-3 draw, with the Rams 3-1 down, Hughes switched it up a notch and drove the Rams on to recover a draw, having a big hand in creating goals for then-loanees Tom Ince and Darren Bent. It was his ability and determination that led to there being any hope of a Play Off spot at the end of it at all, with his reaction to a 3-0 home defeat to Reading on the final day of the season showing just how much it meant to him and how much he had put into trying to salvage anything from that shambles.
Hughes is a player with an already huge reputation in the sport and surely a future Premier League regular – hopefully with the Rams. His big money move is sure to manifest itself eventually but it’s a credit to his maturity that he is sensible enough to improve and learn at Derby, instead of wasting away in the backwater reserves of a Premier League team, as so many others have done.
Featured image: All rights reserved by Dan Westwell.