Finally gone, albeit initially only for four months, but gone all the same. In a January window in which we’ve been constantly reminded by Neil Warnock and Mick Jones just how difficult it is to sign players, we have at last our own footballing miracle – we’ve found another club that’s struggling so much to recruit bodies that they’ve been reduced to assuring themselves that taking Danny on board is at least a reasonable idea.
As things stand, Dave Jones will have to brace himself for all manner of abuse from the stands when he brings his Sheffield Wednesday side to Elland Road in the early Spring, I for one would now call for moratorium on all abuse, for Dave has repented. In taking Danny to Hillsborough, it’s as if he’s volunteered to taken a personally selected form of karmic retribution upon himself, his club and its season; by April he will have suffered enough, we should just let him be.
But who saw this coming back in the summer of 2004? Out of the ashes of the post-relegation fire sale, the arrival of Pugh represented one of the few great hopes for the new season (another was Simon Walton – remember him?). At a time when the shadows of footballing fossils like Julian Joachim, Brian Deane, Craig Hignett and Steve Guppy were darkening the outlook at Thorp Arch, the prospect of a young product from the Scum Academy, who lest we forget had 3 Champions League appearances to his name, provided a little ray of sunshine in the fight to burn off those omnipresent storm clouds.
Kevin Blackwell, a bold, innovative, overwhelmingly qualified coach (according to his CV, not my observations), made Pugh his first signing, securing him as patronising bonus gift to supplement the ridiculously stingy transfer fee paid for Alan Smith; the equivalent of the free crappy plastic toy you may often receive as an after-thought when you buy a McDonald’s Happy Meal. But hey, Blackwell was convinced, Pugh was young, played for Scum and so as a general rule of thumb, he had to be good…didn’t he?
Fans bought into it; we applied the ‘rule of thumb’, Blackwell’s line in compelling Churchillian bullshit was still new, and the club’s catastrophic collapse had merely left us punch drunk wrecks, grasping out desperately for positives, rather than the fully schooled cynics of today.
Pugh also seemed able to ‘talk the talk’ too. Upon arriving he declared:
“High standards have always been expected of me at Manchester United since I’ve been there, and hopefully that’s what I can bring here and carry it on.”
While discussing his Old Trafford links and how that may affect his relationship with supporters, he then bullishly claimed:
“If I have half the impact of someone like Gordon Strachan then I will have had a great start.”
Having half the impact of Gordon Strachan would be a start? Time to start living the dream again, people!
Pugh was the future, almost the default option for those looking for a fresh name to accompany a fresh start, with which to adorn those utterly dreadful, fresh, cheap and tacky Diadora shirts…applying revisionism may shame those guilty of such naivety – hello Lauren and Leah! – but hey, we were all a little younger and less schooled in the ways of mediocrity, so we shouldn’t judge these souls too harshly!
In fact, for a couple of months, those Pugh shirts actually looked like sound investments; in only his second game, a typically underwhelming 2-1 defeat at Gillingham, Danny scored his first goal, then he did it again…and again. Indeed, by the middle of October his goal tally stood at 6 from 14 games, his latest being enough to secure a home victory against Preston.
Then it happened, the real Danny Pugh revealed himself…or should that be hid himself? He started to disappear, game in game out. The great young hope became peripheral, then benched and ultimately exiled. Even the astonishing coaching dossier of Kevin Blackwell could provide no answers to cure the man of his chameleonic ability blend in seamlessly with the grass. The following season he took a route common to many footballers who are looking for their careers to die out of the spotlight – Deepdale.
Yet, something miraculous happened at Preston, a renaissance! Pugh began playing regularly and even managed to attract the attentions of footballing luddite, Tony Pulis. Suddenly he was at Stoke City, then he was in the Premier League…and playing (every now and then) – was this another youngster let go too hastily? Well, naturally it didn’t last as Danny limped back out of the limelight and doubtless contented himself day to day with just trying to get his head on balls launched into the “mixer” in practice matches against first teamers.
But then he re-emerged back into our collective consciousness; Leeds fans still reeling from the loss of Gradel were still in a state of sorrowful despair – how exactly could Max’s pace, hard graft and goals could be replaced following his deadline day sale to Saint Etienne? In ‘Planet of the Apes’, when Charlton Heston goes looking for answers to the planet on which he has landed, Dr Zaius warns him: “Don’t look for it, Taylor! You may not like what you’ll find.” I felt the same when all was revealed…
Pugh was coming back; we’d lost Gradel and Grayson had lost his mind, and we had to travel to the far reaches of the country to watch it all unfold – the prospect of Pugh emerging onto the pitch at the AMEX evoked memories of when it all fell apart before, only this time the vision was of an apologetic footballer in a Macron kit in a shiny new South coast arena, as opposed to Dave Bassett in a shabby leather jacket in Carlisle.
But he did it again; he sowed the seeds of doubt. That night he and Aidy White linked up on the left and looked a competent, at times even a progressive pairing, inconceivable as that may sound – it was instead Leigh Bromby’s night to be the defensive martyr following a 3-3 draw. Next up Portsmouth, Pugh’s return to Elland Road and a goal, then onto the Keepmoat, another goal in televised 3-0 rout. Doubts were beginning to surface – Maybe Danny had developed his game since he left us at what was still a pretty young age? He had been plying his trade for a Premier League club for several years, so there had to be something about him? After all, look at George McCartney, Gary McSheffrey, Ugo Ehiogu, Shane Lowry…
Alas, after Doncaster he was barely seen – or at least noticed – ever again. Amongst a line-up that increasingly read like a team of footballing nobodies, he still managed to stand out as being anonymous. The only two memories that remained of him on the pitch in the 15 months were taken from the Madejski Stadium and Turf Moor; at the former, for 90 minutes only, Pugh transformed himself into the most risible of hardcases, somehow escaping with a solitary yellow card from two challenges so mistimed that they even made Michael Brown blush. This exhibition of a hitherto unseen ability to inherit the persona of a psychopath was seemingly enough to persuade Neil Warnock to spare him from exclusion on the fabled ‘retained list’ – what other reason could there have been? – though the bewildering ineptitude of the decision soon became clear as he and Robbie Rogers were both made available for transfer ahead of the August window as the manager scrambled for funds.
By that time, Danny’s career was already more or less over with, his tenure only lengthened by a lack of desperate takers in the transfer market, though at least that allowed us one final Pugh moment that perhaps more succinctly sums him up better than any other.
Turf Moor, a miserable night, a lamentable Leeds showing, yet an unlikely point is in the offing. Suddenly in the dying minutes, Adam Drury pulls up injured, Pugh is summoned from the touchline, his instructions to just keep things solid in an effort to see the game out – within 30 seconds a ball is played out wide to Trippier, a leaden footed Pugh’s lost him, a cross to Charlie Austin.. thank you and goodnight!
In all, Danny Pugh scored 8 league goals in his two spells at Leeds, but the lot of them were scored before he’d seen his first October out during each spell; his was a contribution wholly at odds with Bates’ – if Ken was all about “slow arousal” for long term benefits, Pugh seemed to favour flashing the vajazzle then hotfooting into nothingness so rapidly that his presence almost appeared mythical. Perhaps in the end, his most enduring contribution was that his arrival as a replacement for Gradel at least took the edge of the shock of discovering Luke Varney was to be groomed as the new Snodgrass!
The closest I’ve ever been to Pugh was as the squad disembarked their coach ahead of a training session on the pre-season tour of Cornwall and Devon. While all the other players, big names and youth players alike were stopped and pestered for autographs and photos, Pugh passed by completely untroubled, he even slowed, looking almost apologetically for some kindly fan to offer him some attention, or maybe even an acknowledgement of recognition – nobody obliged…enjoy him Sheffield Wednesday.