Hughes a clever boy as he plots Palace safety

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Michael Hughes knew what he was supposed to say. The Crystal Palace midfielder should have insisted that the despair at conceding an injury-time equaliser against Southampton last Saturday had been forgotten. And come tomorrow, he should have said, he would not be distracted by news from elsewhere as Palace attempt to avoid relegation on the Premiership's final day by winning at Charlton and hoping Norwich and Southampton fail to beat Fulham and Manchester United respectively.

Michael Hughes knew what he was supposed to say. The Crystal Palace midfielder should have insisted that the despair at conceding an injury-time equaliser against Southampton last Saturday had been forgotten. And come tomorrow, he should have said, he would not be distracted by news from elsewhere as Palace attempt to avoid relegation on the Premiership's final day by winning at Charlton and hoping Norwich and Southampton fail to beat Fulham and Manchester United respectively.

Hughes, however, is as honest off the pitch as he is on it, which has made him a crowd favourite at each of his clubs - Manchester City, Strasbourg, West Ham, Wimbledon and Palace - since his League debut 17 years ago.

"I'd be a liar if I said what happened [last] Saturday wasn't still in my mind," Hughes said. "I know I should be sitting here and putting on a big positive face and saying that doesn't matter any more, but it's very hard to get something like that out of your mind. If we'd hung on, Southampton would have been more or less doomed. We could have got rid of one of our challengers."

He added: "I don't think I spoke to anyone for two days after the match. I had some friends down watching the game and I said: 'I don't want to be rude, but I think it would be better if you went. I'm not going to be very good company'."

Hughes believes Palace's failure to keep their concentration has cost at least 10 points this season. Indeed, if the current table were based on scores at 75 minutes, Palace would be five points clear of the drop zone. "We need to learn to see games out, be a bit more switched on as a team, talk more, make sure opponents don't pick balls up in dangerous positions," Hughes said.

Will he be aware of what is happening in the other matches tomorrow? "It will be very hard not to be," Hughes admitted. "We've obviously got to go to Charlton and try to concentrate on what we have to do because there's no point in listening out for other results if we're losing. But I think at half-time we'll obviously hear how the other teams are doing.

"You always seem to get a vibe from the crowd. You hear a cheer for no apparent reason and you think: 'What's that for? Has something happened'? If it's from your own supporters you get a little boost.

"I like to know if we need a goal, or if we need a couple. I don't like to come in after the game and think: 'We needed another goal but we didn't go for it. We thought whatever we had was enough'." Hughes' career has been revived after a miserable 16 months during a dispute between Birmingham City and Wimbledon. Having moved to St Andrew's on loan in 2002 with a view to a permanent transfer, both clubs refused to pay him after he suffered an ankle injury. Hughes spent the following season without a club before Palace came to the rescue.

He played a key role in last season's promotion campaign and has been outstanding as Dowie's men have doggedly fought against relegation. "I've enjoyed this year," Hughes said. "The load has been easier because there have been fewer games. There are good teams and good players in the Championship, but there are so many games and that takes its toll. I've enjoyed having a season playing more or less one game a week.

"As you get older you start to look after yourself a bit better. I feel as fit as at any stage of my career. At 33 I still feel that I've got another three or four years left. I take a lot of pleasure seeing players like Teddy Sheringham still doing the business at 39. You might be a bit slower over the first 10 yards, but in the head you get quicker as you get older. You realise that it's not a question of how fast you can run, it's how quickly you can see situations and how quickly you can pass."

Has this been his best season ever? "I was talking to my dad last night and he seemed to think so. It's the first full season I've had in the Premiership playing in the centre of midfield. I've normally played on the left, where you tend to rely on other people to involve you. I've enjoyed being in the thick of the action."

Hughes has experienced relegation once before, with Wimbledon five years ago. Having broken his leg in the penultimate Premiership game of the season, he watched the final match, a 2-0 defeat at Southampton, on a television in a bar at The Dell. Wimbledon went down after Bradford's remarkable last-day victory over Liverpool.

"I remember David Wetherall scoring for Bradford," Hughes said. "Southampton had scored a couple of goals in the first half and we'd just been thinking: 'Oh well, it doesn't matter. We don't need to win because Liverpool are going to do us a favour anyway'. It was something that we had never envisaged all season. We were never really in trouble because we'd had a decent start.

"Looking back, it's wrong to think that way. You have to think about your own game. You can't rely on other people to get you out of situations. That's what's frustrating for us at the moment. Our destiny was more or less in our own hands until 30 seconds from the end of the game last week."

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