Football: Ginger spice inspires Baggies

Home-town hero Hughes provides the goals to keep Albion on course for the top flight. By Phil Shaw

WHEN MOST of his current team-mates were serving their footballing apprenticeships, Lee Hughes earned his living laying roofs. These days he is busy raising them with his beloved West Bromwich Albion.

Hughes, 22 years old but a full-time professional at The Hawthorns for only 18 months, goes into Saturday's visit from the First Division pacesetters, Norwich City, as the leading scorer in the English game.

Six goals in four starts may not put him in the Dwight Yorke price-band. Yet add that haul to the 14 he chalked up during his first season after a pounds 250,000 transfer from Kidderminster Harriers, and it is easy to understand why the ginger-haired Hughes has joined Wolves' Robbie Keane and Birmingham's Dele Adebola as the most coveted strikers outside the Premiership.

For the time being, the big clubs are wasting their time. A Baggies fan since he was a boy growing up in nearby Smethwick, Hughes is in no rush to leave. The Albion manager, Denis Smith, is under no pressure to sell.

Despite the fact that he inherited Hughes when he succeeded Ray Harford, Smith is entitled to share the credit for the player's development with Kidderminster's Graham Allner. Harford, having plucked him from the Conference, used him exclusively as a substitute.

Not until Smith's first home match, on Boxing Day, was Hughes' raw talent used in Albion's starting line-up. The footnote became a fixture in the second half of the campaign, when he began scoring regularly alongside Andy Hunt.

Hunt's move to Charlton left Hughes to work on building a rapport with Micky Evans. A 20-minute hat-trick in Evans' absence at Port Vale last Saturday confirmed the impression that, whoever he plays with, Hughes is what Glenn Hoddle terms a natural finisher (at 5ft 10in he is more of a Michael Owen than a Dion Dublin).

The first goal was notable for the power of the shooting. The second was a triumph of persistence and composure as he stumbled before steering the ball past the goalkeeper after pouncing on a defensive error. A header, after he reacted fastest when his shot came off the bar, completed his first treble since leaving the roofing trade.

As the supporters with whom he used to stand chanted "Hughsie, Hughsie" in the way Old Trafford once lauded a Welsh warrior, the beaten manager was shattered if not surprised. John Rudge had tried to sign his tormentor before Albion, who rejected Hughes as a teenager, made him an offer he could not refuse.

This most local of heroes - he celebrates a win with a Balti curry and still turns up to watch Kidderminster training - reflected on his feat in a manner that belies the image of modern players as mercenaries with no feeling for their clubs.

"It's hard to explain what it feels like to score a hat-trick for a team you've followed all your life," Hughes said. "It was unbelievable. All I ever wanted to do was play for the Albion.

"When I was 15 they told me that I wasn't good enough which was horrible, especially as I lived five minutes from the ground. When they gave me a second chance I jumped at it. Some people moan about training, but I'd run all day for a job I love doing."

Hughes insists he is "enjoying life too much to think about playing for anyone else", but Smith is increasingly asked how much it would take to persuade him to part. "I spent most of my time at Oxford United selling my best players to keep the club afloat and it was very disheartening," he said. "I don't have to do that here.

"Lee's a bubbly character who comes in with a big smile on his face every morning. But he's also a handful for defenders. If we provide him with the service, he'll put the ball in the net."

It is a sore point with The Hawthorns crowd that the club practically gave Steve Bull to Wolves. Hughes might have been lost to their rivals, too, having had a trial at Molineux during Graham Taylor's reign. Once bitten, Albion are clearly intent on building a promotion side around him.

His current spree has prompted them to promise to review his contract again, only weeks after he agreed an improved four-year deal to replace the original three-year contract he signed last summer.

It has also had the historians checking when Albion last scored nine times in their opening three League games. The answer was not in the Cyrille Regis era, or even the age of Jeff Astle and "Bomber" Brown, but way back in 1932.

By coincidence, the attack then was led by one Billy "Ginger" Richardson, whose 39 goals in a season has never been beaten.

Hughes is more likely to break defenders' spirits than Albion's record. However, if he reaches his own target of 25, his valuation could well go through the roof.

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