Football: Learning to live with football's bogeyman: Dave Hadfield lived next door to Charles Hughes - and survived

IF Charles Hughes was a real demon he would never have given me back my ball.

'No, young man,' he would have lectured grimly, 'the long ball's the thing. You should be reaching at least to next-door-but- one.'

In fact, I remember him as the most benign of neighbours, willing to let me look through his obscure European football magazines and to return Frido balls from the shrubbery, even if it was a botched sideways pass that put them there.

It has been difficult, therefore, to square that Charles Hughes, the tanned, young PE teacher who batted for Farnworth Cricket Club across the road, with the Charles Hughes who was apparently destroying English football; the man variously depicted as The Teacher From Hell and the Doctor Death of the Beautiful Game.

But, 30 years on, here they both are, welcoming me to Lancaster Gate for a morning of discussion of football, philosophy and how many back gardens a well-struck pass should clear.

In his capacity as the FA's Director of Coaching, Hughes carries the responsibility for the teaching of footballers and for the teaching of the teachers. To many, he appears to be exceeding his brief by attempting to impose a national style of play.

Hughes left Bolton - he now lives in rather grander style in Iver - to join the FA's coaching staff and managed the Great Britain Olympic and England amateur sides from 1964-74.

He has a print-out of his results over that period ready for me. Played 77, won 48, drawn 17, lost 12, and that against teams often not far removed from full international standard. 'We must have been doing something right,' he says.

If the Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton, then the respectable record of Hughes' sides over that 10-year span was ensured on the playing fields of Leigh Grammar School. It was there that he devised the strategy that has become so notorious and, he maintains, misunderstood: few passes good, many passes bad.

If Hughes is barely recognisable now from the leathery outdoors man I remember from the early Sixties, then it is probably because he has spent much of the intervening 30 years in front of video screens, collating and analysing endlessly, in the way that those who cling to the romance of the game find so unpalatable.

His conclusions are well enough known. The vast majority of goals are scored from moves involving five passes or less. Therefore, the most effective style of play is the direct football that gets men into shooting positions within that five-pass limit. Definitely not - repeat not - by hoofing the ball upfield. He is somewhat insistent on this point, using quotations from his own books to back him up.

'Long, optimistic, inaccurate passes also put players out of the game. It is usual that a present of space is made to the opposition since the attacking team is invariably stretched end to end.' (Tactics and Teamwork, 1973)

'Critics of direct play say that it is all about playing long balls forward to the exclusion of all else. This is simply untrue.' (The Winning Formula, 1990)

'Nobody has been able to come in here and say that anything in my books is wrong,' he says. 'These are the facts.' Predictably, he has been busy analysing the World Cup in the United States, and the same principles hold true.

'Which team do you think scored 11 goals, with none of them involving more than three passes? Brazil] And who scored one from a move consisting of 14 passes? It's not who you would think . . . the Republic of Ireland]' (John Aldridge's against Mexico, as it happens.)

Far from the success of Brazil - not to mention the absence of England - undermining him, he feels positively vindicated by events in the United States. Brazil, it seems, play the brand of direct football he has always advocated - and here are the figures to prove it. 'I don't know whether they have read my books, but I think they might have done,' he says.

But what of Norway, the team most closely associated in the popular imagination with his methods, especially after his hypothesis at the time of Graham Taylor's demise that they had absorbed his lessons better than England?

In America, they rarely kicked a ball with sufficient anger to clear the most modest of suburban hedges and there was a collective sigh of relief as they slunk unnoticed away from the tournament.

They had the right tactics, Hughes maintains - his tactics - but not the self-belief to go with them. The question of why a side equipped with the winning formula should lack confidence in it is left hanging in the air.

Hanging in the air, preferably from the gates of neighbouring Hyde Park, is where Hughes' critics would like to see him. The professorial air and the intellectual certainty have conspired to create a public image that grates with football and its media.

His reaction to his appalling press is unapologetic, superficially unconcerned and anything but cowed or humbled. Like Prince Charles and John Major, he says, it comes with the job. Like them, he has 'the strength of character' to withstand it.

'I don't hold it against the media,' he insists. 'They have been mischievous at times, but I understand that they have to write a certain sort of story about me. It has never even crossed my mind to walk away from the job.'

One of the many criticisms laid at his door is that, as a failed player, he has no business instructing the more gifted. The extent of his professional career was a few games in Blackburn Rovers' A team, not far from his home town of Clitheroe, and a couple in the reserves.

'If you ask me whether I would like to have succeeded as a player, then the answer is yes. But that was my level, and playing is one thing and coaching is another. What I am, and what I still think of myself as, is an educator.' Education is like apple pie - you cannot actually be against it - but it is the nature of the syllabus that seems to stick in the throat of those who taste in it the essence of dull uniformity.

And yet the literature which accompanies the Hughes method is full of the sort of stuff that enlightened opinion has been calling for all these years: technique, technique and more technique, and precious little mention, until the middle teens, of tactics or full- scale games.

This is the foundation of good football, Hughes says, and any talent is the richer for passing through this mill. Even the mavericks? Even Gascoigne, even Best? Yes, they would both have been better players and better people for this grounding, and Hughes pulls out another strange political analogy to support his argument.

'People used to say how well George Brown had done without any formal education. I say he would have done far better if he'd had one. It's as if I'd said to you all those years ago, 'you're a bright lad, but I shouldn't pay too much attention to what they tell you at school. And when you go to university, I'd take what the professors tell you with a pinch of salt'. It's the same with footballers.'

The Hughes philosophy of football education is much in demand abroad. This month alone, 55 coaches from everywhere from Jamaica to Thailand are paying upwards of pounds 1,400 each to attend courses at Lilleshall. Hughes' books and videos sell like hot- cakes. 'If it's all rubbish, why does anyone want to know?' he asks.

But the England coach, Terry Venables, is waiting - 'we don't see eye to eye about everything, but we look for common ground' - and it is time to go.

'He's had other people up here with him,' Hughes' personal assistant says on the way down in the lift. 'He's tried to explain it all, but somehow it gets twisted and comes out wrong.'

(Photograph omitted)

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