Emlyn Hughes

Liverpool and England footballer with an insatiable will to win
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The Independent Online

Emlyn Hughes was a study in footballing fervour. One of the principal bulwarks of Liverpool's domestic and European glory in the 1970s, he made his initial impact as a youthful midfield dreadnought who rampaged among his opponents like some demonically frisky rhinoceros released suddenly from captivity. Later, having added composure, polish and a measure of subtlety to his game, he matured into a majestically effective defender, and an inspirational captain of the Merseyside Reds and of England.

Emlyn Walter Hughes, footballer: born Barrow-in-Furness, Lancashire 28 August 1947; played for Blackpool 1964-67, Liverpool 1967-1979, Wolverhampton Wanderers 1979-81, Rotherham United 1981-83, Hull City 1983, Swansea City 1983; played 62 times for England 1969-80; OBE 1980; managed Rotherham United 1981-83; married 1972 Barbara Dixon (one son, one daughter); died Sheffield 9 November 2004.

Emlyn Hughes was a study in footballing fervour. One of the principal bulwarks of Liverpool's domestic and European glory in the 1970s, he made his initial impact as a youthful midfield dreadnought who rampaged among his opponents like some demonically frisky rhinoceros released suddenly from captivity. Later, having added composure, polish and a measure of subtlety to his game, he matured into a majestically effective defender, and an inspirational captain of the Merseyside Reds and of England.

The ebullient, endlessly ambitious Hughes exuded an insatiable will to win that was almost frightening in its intensity, personifying the sporting gospel as preached by his mentor and first Anfield manager Bill Shankly. Yet for all that unbridled enthusiasm, there was a time, in his mid-teens, when the second of the three sons of Fred Hughes, Great Britain and Wales rugby league international, appeared to have no future in professional football. He joined his hometown club Barrow, then in the old Fourth Division, but got no further than the youth team and took a job as a mechanic in a local garage.

However, help was at hand in the form of an old friend of his father, Ron Suart, the boss of First Division Blackpool, who invited Hughes for a trial. Such was the youngster's energy and determination that soon he was rewarded by a part-time contract, which was upgraded to professional terms when he was 17, in 1964. At first he struggled in a midfield berth, but when offered an opportunity at left-back in one of the junior sides, he began to thrive.

On the last day of the 1965/66 season, still aged only 18, he made his senior début in a local derby at Blackburn, attracting the ire of Rovers fans with a passionately committed display and, more significantly, riveting the attention of the Liverpool manager Bill Shankly, who was watching from the stand.

So captivated was Shankly by Hughes's performance that he lodged an immediate £25,000 offer to sign him. The advance was rejected summarily, but after the rookie confirmed his promise in the first half of the subsequent campaign, Liverpool secured their quarry in February 1967. Even though the price had rocketed to £65,000, Shankly could not contain his glee, describing his acquisition as one of the major signings of all time and predicting correctly that he would captain England.

Hughes's arrival marked the beginning of the end of an Anfield era. Shankly was making his first tentative moves towards dismantling his wonderful side of the mid-1960s and the bubbly Barrow boy became the first new recruit to gain a regular place. Certainly he wasted no time in making an impact on Merseyside, being deployed in midfield in his first game at home to Stoke City and utterly dominating the Potters' gifted schemer George Eastham.

A few matches later, having been switched temporarily to left-back as deputy for the injured Gerry Byrne, Hughes earned a nickname that would stick for the rest of his life. From the day he felled the Newcastle United forward Albert Bennett with an impetuous rugby-style tackle - there was nothing malicious in the challenge, he was merely desperate to be noticed - he was branded "Crazy Horse", a label that tied in perfectly with his galloping gait and overwhelming zest.

Not that such eccentric behaviour was necessary to draw attention to a dynamic performer who made gigantic strides in 1967/68, replacing Willie Stevenson at left-half and attracting an offer from Leeds United. Shankly rebuffed the approach emphatically. Hughes's strength and stamina were prodigious and even if he committed himself to rash tackles at times, and if his savagely powerful shooting was unpredictable, his potential was awesome.

Although no trophies were garnered around the turn of the decade, Liverpool remained a major force, never far from the League table's summit, and with new talents such as Ray Clemence, Steve Heighway, John Toshack and Kevin Keegan being added to stalwarts such as Hughes, Tommy Smith and Ian Callaghan, they gathered unstoppable impetus in the early 1970s.

Hughes, whose progress was reflected by the first of his 62 England caps, playing at left-back against Holland in 1969, had his first close encounter with club glory when the Reds lost the 1971 FA Cup Final to Arsenal, an experience which left him mortified. Soon enough, though, he was pocketing winners' medals, starting with a pair in 1972/73 when Shankly's team lifted the League title and the Uefa Cup.

In 1973/74 Hughes, having replaced Smith as captain and formed an enterprising central defensive liaison with Phil Thompson, led Liverpool to FA Cup glory against Newcastle United. By this time his playing style was calmer, more reliant on anticipation than in his buccaneering days of old, and he was all the more impressive for it, his value further enhanced by the ability to turn out at full-back when needed.

Ahead of him was a half-decade of fabulous achievement, skippering the side, now guided by Bob Paisley, to another Uefa Cup and League double in 1976, to two European Cup triumphs - against Borussia Mönchengladbach in Rome in 1977 and over FC Bruges at Wembley a year later - and he pocketed further title gongs in 1977 and 1979. For good measure, he was voted Footballer of the Year in 1977, a year which would have reached even more rarefied heights had not Manchester United beaten Liverpool unexpectedly in the FA Cup Final.

The taste of an isolated defeat that afternoon offered a telling illustration of Hughes's rage to win. Ever one to wear his heart on his sleeve, he replaced his characteristic all-embracing grin with a look of such sheer desolation that in the immediate aftermath, when he bumped into the Conservative Party leader Margaret Thatcher, she was startled by the depth of his emotion. On enquiring how he felt, she was informed: "To tell the truth, love, I'm absolutely knackered."

In 1978/79 he suffered serial knee problems which limited him to 16 appearances on that term's title trail and in the following August, shortly before his 32nd birthday and having made 665 appearances for the Reds, he joined Liverpool's First Division rivals Wolverhampton Wanderers for £90,000. It surprised no one in 1979/80 when Hughes captained the Molineux club to League Cup Final triumph over Nottingham Forest and to a sixth-place finish in the top flight.

It was during his Wolves tenure that he earned his final England caps, closing an illustrious international career in which he skippered his country 23 times. Having been appointed OBE in 1980 for services to football, he left to become player-manager of Second Division Rotherham United in July 1981, and enjoyed an invigorating first season in charge, steering the Merry Millers to within four points of promotion. But he could not maintain the momentum and he departed in the spring of 1983. Later he played briefly for Hull City and Swansea City, before retiring in that November.

After leaving the game, Hughes carved a niche as a television celebrity on shows such as A Question Of Sport and Sporting Triangles and emerged as an outspoken guest columnist in tabloid newspapers, upsetting many people with his trenchant opinions.

Still, nothing could besmirch the body of work assembled over nearly 20 years of top-level football. Emlyn Hughes ranks as one of Liverpool's finest - and that's mighty high.

Ivan Ponting

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