Double life: a reluctant veteran's fight for survival

Stephen Hughes was a title winner with Arsenal at 21. Coventry's captain tells Phil Shaw how he recovered from the obscurity that followed
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Time has not withered Stephen Hughes, either in terms of his bright, open face or his talent with a ball at his feet. But the former Arsenal midfielder - touted as the answer to England's left-sided problems after gaining a Premiership winners' medal at 21 - receives a rude reminder that the years are flying every time Coventry City go training.

Time has not withered Stephen Hughes, either in terms of his bright, open face or his talent with a ball at his feet. But the former Arsenal midfielder - touted as the answer to England's left-sided problems after gaining a Premiership winners' medal at 21 - receives a rude reminder that the years are flying every time Coventry City go training.

"We have to get into teams of three and I didn't know whether to be honoured or insulted when I was put in with Steve Staunton and Richard Shaw," grins the now 28-year-old Hughes as the two defenders, both 36, arrive to start preparations for Coventry's must-win encounter with Queen's Park Rangers at Highfield Road today. "It seems only the other day that I was at Highbury, but careers go by very quickly."

Although he talks candidly of spells in "limbo" and "obscurity", it would be wrong to shoe-horn Hughes' story into the riches-to-rags category. If there is any chip on the shoulder about his journey from the razzmatazz of the Champions' League to a Championship relegation struggle, any lingering resentment towards Arsène Wenger for letting him go or self-pity over the injuries he has endured, he keeps it all hidden.

He declares affection for Arsenal and takes pride in their successes, suggesting it could hardly be otherwise given that he was there from the age of 13. Rather than bemoaning what he may have lost, Hughes speaks of the "privilege" of having shared a stage with Dennis Bergkamp ("the best player I've seen") and Ian Wright, Patrick Vieira and Thierry Henry, striving to apply the habits he absorbed to Coventry's cause.

According to Adrian Heath, Coventry's caretaker manager until Micky Adams succeeded Peter Reid yesterday, Hughes genuinely is a model professional. Not only is he captaining the Sky Blues for a comparative pittance, but Heath maintains he has been performing as well as any midfielder outside the Premiership.

Well enough, maybe, for a top-flight club to target him during the summer, when his one-year contract expires. His performance is sure to be monitored closely next week when Coventry visit Newcastle United in the FA Cup and he pits himself against Jermaine Jenas, a young player who did translate his promise into England caps.

"I feel I can play at that level again," Hughes says. "I've had my highs and lows, but since I was a kid I've never stopped believing in my ability.

"I just wanted to get playing again when I came to Coventry, because I sort of fell into obscurity due to injuries. That's what has happened - I've missed only three games - and I'm playing in the centre, which suits me because I was never a winger. So personally speaking it has been a great season, although a difficult one for the team."

Feeling valued and being a key member of a side are emotions Hughes has experienced too seldom since helping Arsenal win the FA Youth Cup in 1994. "From that team there's just me and Matthew Rose still in League football, and it will be good to see Matthew again in this match with QPR. Some of the team have slipped out of the game, which is a great shame. The only one I'm still in touch with is the goalkeeper, Noel Imber, who now plays for Boreham Wood."

George Graham gave the Berkshire boy a Boxing Day debut against Aston Villa soon after his 18th birthday. The next few years were, he recalls, a transitional period within the marble halls, when "old" Arsenal, symbolised by the fabled back four, merged with the "new", starting with Bruce Rioch's capture of Bergkamp and accelerating after the French influx initiated by Wenger.

"There were so many great players that it was hard not to play well," Hughes states modestly. He performed impressively enough to become captain of an England Under-21 side featuring Richard Wright, Lee Bowyer and the man of the moment, Frank Lampard. They all graduated to the senior squad, but despite Hughes' laser left foot being championed by the sections of the media, he never received the call.

Becoming a first choice with Arsenal, let alone England, proved a massive challenge. Most of his 76 appearances were as an understudy to Vieira, Emmanuel Petit or Marc Overmars. While he signed a five-year deal during the Double- winning campaign of 1997-98 - when he started seven matches and came on in a further 10 - the graffiti was on the wall when defenders Remi Garde and Gilles Grimandi were picked ahead of him in midfield and Freddie Ljungberg was signed.

"Arsène changed not just Arsenal but the Premier League as we know it, which was good for the whole English game," Hughes says. "A club like that was going to attract top players from around the globe. I spoke to the manager and he said I was never going to play regularly, which is what I craved. That said, being behind Vieira and Petit is no disgrace."

He left with medals and memories but without malice. "When I was an apprentice, people like Ian Wright were my heroes. It was overwhelming to meet them in the corridor. So to become friends and colleagues, to earn their respect and be treated as an equal, was fantastic."

A £500,000 move to Everton in 2000 seemed an ideal platform. He began brightly, then cracked a kneecap. His form suffered - pace was never his strongest suit - and he felt unsettled. "I enjoyed my time there but it was difficult. No one cared when I walked around London, but Liverpool was a goldfish bowl. You'd be having dinner with your girlfriend and someone would come up and start going on about the 'red shite'."

A return south with Watford also foundered. No sooner was he over a groin operation than he was hospitalised with blood poisoning. Parlous finances led to his release and Hughes says: "I was in limbo." Charlton invited him to train and offered a short-term deal, but warming the bench was no substitute for scoring goals and scrapping for points.

Coventry have collected too few of the latter to feel confident of opening their new stadium next season as members of the second grade. "It's going to be a fight," Hughes accepts. "We've let ourselves down too often, throwing away leads and wasting chances."

An overdue home victory would enhance their survival prospects and provide the perfect launch for Adams, who had a useful left foot himself and knows all about helping Coventry to beat the drop from his playing days. Hughes has a high opinion of Heath but will be striving, like the resilient pro he has become, to affirm his importance to the new manager. For the reluctant "veteran", another challenge starts today.

Rear gunners the 1997-98 double understudies

Remi Garde

French utility player (pictured right). Arsène Wenger's first recruit for Arsenal, he was restricted to a medal-clinching 10 games (six starts) by injury. Retired a year later.

Alex Manninger

Austrian keeper. Six consecutive clean sheets led Arsenal to award him a Premiership medal, though he did not qualify. Siena are his 10th club.

Scott Marshall

Scottish defender with three Double-year outings before Upson became the main back-up. Went on to Southampton, Celtic, Brentford and Wycombe.

Gavin McGowan

Full-back with a single substitute appearance to his name during 1997-98. Recently joined Dulwich Hamlet after stints at Luton Town, Hornchurch and Braintree.

Alberto Mendez

German-Spanish midfielder. Wenger's surprise signing from Feucht of Germany's Fifth Division started once in three appearances that season.

Isaiah Rankin

Striker's sole appearance for Arsenal came in early 1998 as a substitute for Dennis Bergkamp at Tottenham Hotspur. Present club, Brentford, is his eighth.

Matthew Upson

Versatile ex-Luton defender. Then 18, he stood in five times for Steve Bould, Tony Adams and Martin Keown. Has played for England since joining Birmingham.

Paolo Vernazza

Islington-born midfielder. Given debut at 18 as Arsenal closed on title. Joined Watford for £350,000, then Rotherham on a 'free' last summer.

Christopher Wreh

Liberian striker (pictured left) and cousin of George Weah. Won Premiership and FA Cup medals, but did not establish himself, pitching up at St Mirren by 2000.