Palace date with destiny as Hughes makes up for lost time

First Division Play-off final
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The Independent Online

Is the First Division play-off final the cruellest contest in football? Listening to Crystal Palace midfielder Michael Hughes it's hard to imagine how players deal with the enormity of defeat. "There's only winning and losing and the difference between the two, well, there's nothing like it. It's simply vast," says Hughes. "You're either consigned to another year in the First Division or you're in the big time.

Is the First Division play-off final the cruellest contest in football? Listening to Crystal Palace midfielder Michael Hughes it's hard to imagine how players deal with the enormity of defeat. "There's only winning and losing and the difference between the two, well, there's nothing like it. It's simply vast," says Hughes. "You're either consigned to another year in the First Division or you're in the big time.

"We've had a good season, we've come this far and to come from where we were is an unbelievable achievement. But it doesn't mean anything if we don't win. We might as well have finished fourth from bottom. We're desperate to win it, absolutely desperate. We don't want to go through what we've gone through this season, all the hard work, and not get what we want. We've had a belief, just a couple of weeks after Iain [Dowie] took over that it's our destiny to go up. And that belief is incredible."

The joy of beating West Ham United next Saturday and winning a place in the Premiership would also be. But so too, in failing, would be the disappointment. Hughes knows much about the latter. In the PFA Footballers' Who's Who - the players' handbook - there is no entry for him. It's like the season before this one didn't exist and for the Northern Ireland international, with more than 60 caps, that was the case.

This time last year he was unable to play. A contractual dispute between Birmingham City, the club to which he was loaned at the end of the 2001-02 season, and Wimbledon, his club at the time, developed into a bitter stalemate in which he was trapped for 14 months with no football, no income. "I was powerless and angry," Hughes says. "No one wanted to take responsibility."

Eventually his contract ran out, his torment ended and he joined Palace. It's made him desperate to make up for lost time. "I got a new lease of life out of it," he says, attempting to find something from the appalling way he was treated by the clubs who reneged on their deals. "I've always had the desire, but perhaps not as much as I do now." Aged 32, he knows he's only got "three or four more years left and I badly want to make a mark and come away with something to look back on, something to be proud of".

There's great pride in what has been done at Selhurst Park since Dowie arrived in December. Then it was relegation, not promotion, that was being discussed. Palace were fifth from bottom before finishing fifth from top and defeating Sunderland in the play-off semi-finals to reach Cardiff. Over the two legs the benefits of Dowie's punishing training schedule were obvious. Palace were stronger, fitter, faster and determined. "I'd heard a few stories on the old football grapevine that he liked to train his players hard," says Hughes who knows Dowie better than most, having roomed with him in a friendship stretching back a decade - "I could never sleep because he snored so much" - on international trips.

Morning and afternoon sessions, warm-ups lasting 45 minutes, boxing, swimming - Dowie has worked his players. "I half knew what to expect," says Hughes. "Although I never quite expected what we got." As he speaks, pondering whether Dowie will "ease it down a tad" before Saturday, he notices the equipment being set out for training. "No, I'm wrong," he chuckles. "Looks like there's some running."

Hughes is not surprised at Dowie's success. "He's always been the type to stand up and speak his mind," Hughes says. "Sometimes he was outrageously wrong but he would still stand by his convictions and wouldn't change his mind. Even if there were 25 people saying 'no, that's rubbish'. He always had that strength of character about him. He was always a leader."

And one who has made a "massive difference". "I've come on leaps and bounds," says Hughes. "He always worked very hard, always a hundred per center. The most surprising thing is the intensity. We work very hard on Monday and Tuesday, take Wednesday off, Thursday is intense, Friday intense. Everything is done with a passion."

It's a shared passion. Hughes, a revelation in central midfield, has become Dowie's unofficial on-field lieutenant - spreading his message to exciting young players such as Wayne Routledge, Julian Gray and Andy Johnson who are all "good footballers with amazing pace". There's always more to come," Hughes says. "The thing with the big man and John [Harbin, his assistant] is that there's always improvement - no matter how fit you are, how good a footballer you are. And that's what they get across. If you can improve by 0.01 per cent, no matter how small, it's still worth doing."

Dowie has been preaching to the converted. "He's given us leadership, direction, he's pointed the way," says Hughes. "And we've picked up the baton." Promotion, he adds, would be "deserved". "If we go up it will be brilliant but we've worked hard for it. Calling it a dream is too strong a description but it will be fantastic." If it happens it will be earned at the expense of one of his former clubs, where he spent three happy seasons. It means little. "I couldn't care less if it was West Ham or anyone else," Hughes explains. "Don't get me wrong I loved the club, loved the fans. But it's just another team in our way."

He then tells a story about when he was a teenager at another of his former clubs, Manchester City. "I had just broken into the team and we got to the quarter-finals of the FA Cup and lost." And I was just saying, 'well, we'll do better next year'. But the chance didn't come around again. And that's what I'm trying to impress upon the young players here. You have to strike while the iron's hot. You have to take your chances. It could be the difference between having a fantastic career and a mediocre one." It's clear which one he desires. After all he's been through, it's his date with destiny.

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