Last week Andy Hughes joined twitter; the strength and warmth of the reaction towards his arrival amongst Leeds fans surprised nobody. It represented a first opportunity for most supporters to express to him their appreciation for his efforts throughout his spell at the club and many, many did so, but what it also did was highlight the huge void his departure has left behind.
While far higher profile players have departed Elland Road during and after Hughes’ spell at Leeds – players like Howson, Gradel, Snodgrass and Delph to name but a few – there is an argument to be made that Hughes, a man commonly perceived to be a limited footballer and ‘bit part player’, is on some levels at least, missed as much, or maybe even more so than his contemporaries, and in common with most of those others who’ve moved on it would be hard to argue that he’s been adequately replaced.
Looked at from a purely technical perspective, such an argument seems nonsensical and foolhardy in the extreme, but to judge Hughes merely on his ability would be to criminally under-estimate what he brought to the table. During the promotion season, Hughes started 33 games – Leeds won 32 of those; he also played a variety of roles, most prominently that campaign as a right footed left back – would anybody denigrate his performances in light of Lee Peltier’s displays in similar circumstances this season? Could anybody herald his replacements under Grayson in the form of George McCartney and Danny Pugh as a forward step?
This is not to say Andy Hughes should top Neil Warnock’s January shortlist – he shouldn’t; he was the perfect man for the club at the time he signed and to re-sign him would be both a retrograde step and would risk tainting (at least a little) our memories of his time with us. What Leeds do need though, maybe every bit as much as the striker that the manager covets, is someone very much from that same mould; of greater ability yes, but of exactly the same attitude and personality; for all those players who have arrived since January 2011, none have been able to offer that.
That is what set Andy Hughes’ apart from so many other Leeds players; from the start he had an attitude to the game and to the club that perfectly dovetailed with those of the supporters. While Dennis Wise may be questioned on many levels, it is undeniable that he had an appreciation of the importance of personalities in a successful team; it was after all such an important part of what made him a critical cog in the Chelsea side of the 1990s. It’s not insignificant then that he chose to make Hughes his first fee commanding signing, nor is it that Hughes agreed to a move without hesitation on the day that Leeds were docked 15 points by the Football League in return for the granting of their ‘golden share’. At the time Hughes said:
“Dennis Wise told me the challenge and the position the club was in. He wants fighters and I felt the challenge of playing for Leeds United and Dennis Wise was too good to turn down…”
It was a statement that defined Hughes’ spell at the club; his motivation was the honour and challenge of playing for Leeds United. At a time when a player didn’t have to be special to play for Leeds, Hughes still appreciated how special it was to play for the club – his spell was never about advancing the career of Andy Hughes but forwarding the cause of Leeds United – the kind of ‘side before self’ archetype dear Billy would’ve loved. He held an intrinsic understanding of what the supporters want, he knew that whether there were 20,000 or 30,000 at Elland Road, every one of those supporters in the stands would give anything to enjoy his privileged position in the starting XI and he never forgot it. He just got what it meant to pull on that white shirt and played just as if he was one of his compatriots on the Kop.
“If you give 100% for the fans, they’ll take that; if you’re not good enough they’ll accept that”
It was as though he was living our dream; he was almost apologetic at times about how fortunate he felt to represent Leeds United, but never for a moment gave the impression that he’d forgotten that. It was if he was one of our own, a fan offered the chance of a game and doing everything possible to justify the opportunity – week in, week out. There were times when his performances stank, when infield balls seemed to defy all physical laws and sail into the East Stand; most players would’ve been barracked for such sins, Hughesy merely elicited a fond chuckle.
In essence, Hughesy felt like one of our own; while many clichéd remarks are trotted out ad infinitum about the crowd at Elland Road being worth an extra man, Andy felt like the Geldard’s extra man – our hopes, desires and passion, embodied out there on the turf. At a time when the supporters and chairman had never been so at odds, Hughes was our connection with Leeds United; when we won a game, come the final whistle, we shared it with him, when we were awful, you could see it in his eyes, his body language…I can still recall that 3-0 home reversal against Swindon; while the rest of the team made hastily for the tunnel, he stayed out there, his body language all apologetic – we felt it, he felt it.
It’s that connection that made Hughes special with supporters; the fact that for once you could not say about a player, “he doesn’t realise how lucky he is”. That’s why that photograph will always be the iconic image of promotion day; while a superb photo exists (that dominated the back pages) of Bradley Johnson celebrating, held aloft on the pitch, it’s that long range shot from the Kop of Hughes that will forever be immortalised in LUFC folklore as the image of that day; every emotion captured in that one majestic pose – we all understood the enormity of that result and so did he.
On the day he left, in his 20 minute interview on Yorkshire Radio – probably the most emotive I can ever recall – Hughes reaffirmed everything we believed about him and bought into…
“To play for Leeds United and to CAPTAIN Leeds United…to say I’ve done it and for the ability I’ve got, I’m a lucky, lucky boy”
Here spoke a man who talked our language, who could galvanise a fan base; a vital cog in any successful side – but where is his replacement?
Where is our ‘go to’ guy in times of crisis now? The player who’ll lift the team, either by word or action? On our worst days, when Hughes wasn’t motivating by mouth, he was prompting by his actions; while he couldn’t turn games with goals, he knew that chasing down hopeless causes or putting in a big tackle could rouse the masses – it could be the difference between Leeds drifting towards defeat and sparking a reaction.
Do we get that now? I don’t see it. On our good days we’re fine, but when we’re being bossed, where are the fighters? Experienced heads are all very good, but if we’re merely trying to hold on and contain sides – what good is that for a promotion charge? My thoughts over the summer were that Jason Pearce was going to be that leader, but he didn’t even merit the captain’s armband, and besides, while centre backs can inspire through resistance, they can’t lift a flagging side with a thundering challenge or by manically running an opponent down or chasing a lost cause – in their position it’s too risky.
We need a character to lift the dressing room through their passion and antics, but who can also drive the team through their actions on the pitch. We need more hearts on sleeves, it’s about knowing that promotion is as much about battling as ability. Match winners are critical, but so too are game savers.
I’ll leave the final words to Hughesy:
“There are times when you need players who can do the stuff they (the match winners) can’t; the grinders…”
Let’s have a game changer and a game saver in January please, Neil.