Football: Petit problem looms large for Hughes

Arsenal's loss after the influx of foreign stars may become Fulham's long-term gain. By Clive White
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The Independent Online
FOR THE sake of Stephen Hughes, one hopes that five years from now (or maybe next month) when England count the cost of the foreign invasion to its shores during the 90s, his will not be the case that is held up as a classic example of the damage that was done to the country's young talent.

Hopefully, Fulham, by then, will be pace-setters in the Premiership and Hughes will be a permanent fixture not only in the Cottagers' side, but also that of a successful England. If he is, it will be in spite of the obstacles placed in his way during the last couple of years rather than because of them.

As it is, he finds himself today preparing to face Northampton in the second leg of a Worthington Cup tie at Craven Cottage, rather than recovering, along with all the other onlookers at Highbury last Sunday, from another titanic struggle with Manchester United. Who knows, with Emmanuel Petit injured, he might have even played in it. Hughes, for one, would not have bet on it though.

In an ideal world Hughes would now be emerging as the answer to England's problem on the left side of midfield, gaining from the experience of playing regularly alongside a world-class midfielder like Patrick Vieira, while drawing on the extraordinary knowledge and expertise of one of the world's great managers, Arsene Wenger. As Hughes himself said: "I'm convinced I would now be a lot better player if Arsenal, say, had bought Vieira and not Petit."

That, in a nutshell, is the crux of the problem: a suffocating wealth of foreign talent. "It's no good for English football and it's no good for the England manager, said Hughes. He would be the first to admit he has learned enormously from the foreigners, no one more so than the man primarily responsible for forcing him out of Highbury: Petit. Hughes regards him as the best midfielder in the Premiership.

"You have a picture of your complete midfielder and both [Vieira and Petit] come near to it," he said. "I may have little bits in my game, like goalscoring, which might be better than theirs but their overall game is fantastic. They protect the back four, they are strong, they win balls, they keep possession and they can change the tempo of a game. They also complement each other - Manny's a better passer but Patrick gets more tackles in."

However, there is only so long one can sit there and learn and Hughes's backside has almost taken root on the Arsenal bench these past 12 months. After making 17 Premiership appearances, albeit 10 of them from the bench, in Arsenal's Double year, he felt "a part of it" and was looking forward to last season, so much so that he agreed to sign a new five-year contract. But when Wenger changed the formation and opted to play people out of position when Petit or Marc Overmars were unavailable rather than play Hughes, "he upset me. I could have gone in there and played well. They were the times when I really thought: `Hughesy, it's going to kill you, but enough's enough, you're gonna have to go'."

And yet, unlike a certain other person, there will be no bile vented in the direction of his French manager in a Sunday tabloid, if and when Hughes decides to make his move to west London permanent in two months' time.

"He's absolutely fantastic," he said of the man who has unintentionally halted his progress. "His man-management is unbelievable, he's very clued up. His coaching is first-class, too. He does a lot more specific stuff than most British managers. He will have you dancing in and out of hoola- hoops and you think `this is rubbish', but come the Saturday you will suddenly realise the value of the exercise. He knows his players so well, like when to rest the older ones. He'll take one look at them during the daily warm-up and say to Lee Dixon `you do this', and to, say, Nigel Winterburn, `go for a swim'."

Talking to Hughes in the idyllic setting of Fulham's 24-acre new training ground in leafy Motspur Park, it was hard to believe that he was stepping down in class. What many Premiership clubs would not give to have as their headquarters the old University of London sports ground, particularly after Al Fayed's money has finished with its renovation. We sat in the old stand overlooking what used to be the running track where Roger Bannister, Chris Chataway and the like took middle-distance running into a new era.

Hughes is in no doubt that he, too, could be in on the start of something grand, having chosen a loan deal with Fulham in preference to a move to any one of four or five Premiership clubs who came in for him during the summer. "I didn't really set my heart on anything and I always trust my instincts, nothing really stood out. Fulham wanted to buy me permanently but I turned it down, so they said, `if nothing you really fancy comes along, why not join us on loan', so I have.

"The club is going to be in the Premier League sooner or later. It's already bigger than some clubs in the Premier League financially. It's no secret that I nearly went to Liverpool in the summer only for the deal to fall through at the late stages. That would have meant moving from one massive club to another. Instead I've gone from one massive club to a club with massive ambitions."

At the moment, one senses he is finding it hard to cut the umbilical cord. After all, he has been a Gunner since he was 13 and he is now nearly 23. "It's been a bit of a culture shock. I've been used to training and playing with some of the best players in the world who can bring out the best in you. I'm used to the Arsenal way of playing, little movements that came as second nature - I miss that."

Should he decide to make the move permanent, he knows that with Kevin Keegan's former association at the club, he is unlikely to be overlooked just because he is in the First Division, and takes heart from the recent call-ups of Kevin Phillips and Michael Gray. "Everybody's talking about how there's no left-sided players around and that upsets me - look at me, I'm over here!"