Football: Hughes puts the pain to one side

Football: Spurs are not the only team involved in tonight's Worthington Cup semi-final to boast a French influence
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The Independent Online
WIMBLEDON'S ANSWER to David Ginola would soon find himself being carried off in agony tonight if he attempted just one of the Frenchman's twisting runs. And yet despite being only 80 per-cent fit and unable to cross the ball in certain situations (something of a drawback for a winger), Michael Hughes remains arguably the biggest threat to Tottenham Hotspur reaching their fourth League Cup final.

Hughes has been struggling along with a double hernia for almost the entire season, but so important is he - even in this shape - to the hopes of the south London club that not until Wimbledon are out of the running for silverware will he have the operation done. At the moment it is scheduled for 22 March - the day after the Worthington Cup final, by which time he hopes to be too well anaesthetised with champagne to care one way or the other.

If Wimbledon are to conjure the victory needed at Selhurst Park after a goalless first leg in this semi-final, it may well be to Hughes whom they will look. Except when he is cutting in on goal to unleash the kind of shot which ought to earn him more goals, he is not one of those attacking midfielders who automatically grab one's attention, like Ginola. But he has an uncanny eye for the main chance, that little pass played with perfect timing, precision and, not least, weight, that can kill the opposition.

Hopelessly prejudiced though he is, Joe Kinnear was not completely off his head when he suggested recently that Hughes should be a contender for Player of the Year. The man himself looked deeply embarrassed about the suggestion, replying: "Well, you know the gaffer - there must have been somebody looking to buy me." Yet there is definitely something exceptional about this much underrated player.

As he said with a wisdom which could apply to himself in his present condition: "A good player can control a game without exerting too much effort. I like to think that when I get the ball, 80 per cent of the time I can pass it to a team-mate."

That may sound like a very minor boast but, at the pace at which the English game is played nowadays it is actually quite an achievement. He owes his ability to do that to three years playing in Ginola's homeland for Strasbourg, where Franck Leboeuf was a team-mate, which he believes improved him as a player by 30 per cent. The French club obviously saw a quality in him which Peter Reid, the then manager of Manchester City, did not, when he agreed to sell him for pounds 600,000.

The irony is that Hughes did not really want to go, but he was so hurt by Reid's indifference as to whether he stayed or went that, like so many players, he bid a sad farewell to Maine Road. The players whom that club have let slip through their fingers does not bear thinking about, if you are from the blue half of Manchester.

I suppose it could have been a case of mistaken identity, and certainly some of the French fans must have thought so when they saw the local paper's headline: "Hughes from Manchester joins Strasbourg". But instead of the Welsh bruiser they got this scrawny Irishman - or at least that's what he became after three years of eating just chicken, fish and pasta and without any sauce. Not even ketchup.

"We only played one game a week, so we were out on the training ground all the time practising," he said. "We did lots of close work, six or seven-a-side, so it was bang, bang, bang stuff, and you got used to the bodily contact because they always go man-to-man. As soon as you got the ball you were under pressure. For the first six months I didn't know whether I was coming or going, but I got used to it in the second season and really enjoyed it.

"Our coach was Gilbert Gress - who coached Switzerland last season - a long-haired guy who used to go completely mad on the touchline. It was all about attack, attack, attack. You had to work hard but I enjoyed it and it definitely improved me as a player.

"That's one of the differences I've noticed coming back. Because we have so many games here we aren't out there training as much as the Continentals. The crowds may be less passionate but there's no way they are less professional - in fact they are definitely more professional.

"I played just behind the front two, so it was one of those positions that are a bit of a luxury where you don't have to defend so much but are expected to score goals and get a lot of assists. If I had to say which game suits my style better I'd say the French, because I like playing in that position and we don't really have it here."

Eventually the professionalism became too much for him. "I know it's our profession and we're lucky to be able to do something we enjoy, but it's just too much out there. It's football, football, football. By the end of the week your head was ready to explode from it. I remember, after one game when we had beaten Auxerre 2-1 away, the coach was really happy and told us: 'Right lads, that was great - you can have one beer each!' The French boys thought they'd had a real result."

Je ne regrette rien. Hughes returned to England, with West Ham, not only a better player but with a French wife, Marie, and an ability to speak a foreign language "almost fluently". He and Leboeuf helped one other in that direction. "I knew he'd do well," said Hughes. "He was a class player there and he's a class player here. Outside of France he wasn't known but all the coaches knew him. Getting into the national side definitely opened a few doors for him."

His career at Upton Park followed a similar pattern to that of his new team-mate, John Hartson. Outstanding in the first season but indifferent in the second. For such a quiet, unassuming man he can be a real devil on the pitch, and after a couple of suspensions which caused him to miss some important games Harry Redknapp would not have him back in the team.

Even now he is just coming back from a one-match suspension and already has nine bookings to his name this season, which is a lot even for a Wimbledon player. But at pounds 1.6m the prudent Kinnear never spent money more wisely. Hughes' quality, one senses, has been the catalyst for change at Wimbledon. "We're starting to play more football. We mix it up a bit. We're also attracting good players to the club like Hartson. We're a buying club now, you know."

They're no longer the underdogs they were 11 years ago when they humbled Liverpool in the FA Cup final at Wembley. And Kinnear much enjoys the fact that their club's record buy (Hartson at pounds 7m) is bigger than that at his old club Tottenham.

The ban on English clubs prevented them from competing in Europe last time. It is their destiny, they feel, to return and put matters to right. And who better to lead them into the uncharted territory of Europe than their man from Strasbourg? But first they must deal with Spurs and a certain native Frenchman.

'For the first six months in France I didn't know whether I was coming or going, but I got used to it in the second season'

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