James Lawton: Liverpool laments loss of legend Hughes

Click to follow
The Independent Football

When Emlyn "Crazy Horse" Hughes lost a long, brave fight against cancer yesterday it was more than 20 years since he had last charged into a football match. But that didn't lessen the sense that the world was suddenly a much older and less exuberant place.

When Emlyn "Crazy Horse" Hughes lost a long, brave fight against cancer yesterday it was more than 20 years since he had last charged into a football match. But that didn't lessen the sense that the world was suddenly a much older and less exuberant place.

There were, despite the boundless bonhomie of television appearances that made him a household name, more popular players within the game - and certainly there were many with greater natural talent and savvy. No one, however, played with more passion, or a deeper willingness to learn, and that was the supreme distinguishing mark of a player who, when the last cheers died, could provide a thunderous answer to the hardest question in football.

When he was asked to show his medals, Crazy Horse could point to two European Cups, two Uefa Cups, four League titles and the FA Cup for Liverpool. He also captained England 23 times in 62 appearances. As a storming midfielder and then a powerful and ever more assured defender, Hughes seemed to define professional commitment.

It was that ability to push himself to extraordinary limits that overwhelmed the imagination of his great admirer and sponsor, Liverpool manager Bill Shankly, who offered £25,000 for his services after watching him play his first game for Blackpool as a teenager. "Christ," said Shankly, "the boy is a phenomenon."

He was that, but he was also raw and headstrong and it was the genius of the Kop that produced the instant nickname that likened him to an Indian war chief.

Of all the tributes that flooded in yesterday, few were as acute as the one from his former Liverpool team-mate Ian St John, who was nearing the end of his brilliant 10-year-stint at Anfield when Hughes was unveiled by a triumphant Shankly. "At one of the first team meetings after Emlyn arrived," St John recalled yesterday, "I pointed out the boy had to hold up a little ... I was playing in midfield then, alongside Emlyn, and I pointed out that we both couldn't go charging into situations ... if we did it meant that, if things went wrong, I was having to run 60 yards. Emlyn could do it, I couldn't, but the point was he was a wonderfully honest player and he was willing to learn.

"Now you look at his achievements and you see a truly great career - and maybe most impressive of all was that when he left Liverpool he went on to win with Wolves the last major title that had eluded him, the League Cup. You know, when a player reaches the end of his time with a great club, the fire can burn low very quickly. But it didn't with Emlyn. He never lost that need to win. He never lost his honesty. When he was young he listened and learned, and then later he never forgot what it was to be a real professional."

Tonight, Anfield will stand for a minute's silence before the League Cup tie with Middlesbrough, and it will be time to consider some of the best days of the Shankly legacy. The manager failed in his attempt to steal Hughes from Blackpool, but just over a year later he moved in again and made the deal at £65,000. "That first time I thought I might have caught Blackpool at the right moment. They had just avoided relegation and I could see all their directors were smoking cigars."

When Shankly eventually signed Hughes, he immediately whisked him away to Anfield and was unperturbed when someone drove into the back of his car. It was no great problem, Shankly told the bemused offender. He had Emlyn Hughes in the car and he was unharmed.

So the full-hearted boy born in the shipyard town of Barrow, son of a ferocious England rugby league international, Fred, was added to the lexicon of Shankly legends. Reservations about the recklessness of the new star soon receded, consumed by the sheer strength and gathering conviction of his play.

Hughes's progress didn't automatically increase his popularity among some of his team-mates. Tommy Smith, another cornerstone of Shankly's team-building, was known to be aggrieved by the loss of the captaincy to Hughes and it was also true that, like many outstanding performances, Crazy Horse's outgoing manner sometimes concealed singular personal ambition.

However, the sheer force of Hughes's competitive personality meant that when it came time to perform, no one was more central to the spirit and the effectiveness of a great team. His Anfield and England team-mate Phil Neal said: "His will to win every game rubbed off on us all, he was a magnificent captain for both Liverpool and England. He could talk you into winning on the drive to the ground. I saw him several times during his illness and he was still the Crazy Horse. He got great support from his wife Barbara and the kids. I never saw him down. He was always sparkling, he was always looking forward, and that's why it's so sad he had to battle at the end of a short life."

John Barnwell was manager of Wolves when he made the best signing of his career. "We needed a fresh face, a person with a big personality and with a big football background. He gave us two or three magnificent years. The greatest thing about him was his enthusiasm, his self-belief. He could make a better cup of tea than anyone, he could play snooker better than anyone, and his opinion was always better than yours. That was the character of Emlyn."

When Hughes first began to play for England, St John offered his last piece of advice. The Scot had noticed than whenever his young clubmate won the ball he looked up for the signal from Bobby Moore and immediately played it to the great man. "I said that passing to Bobby Moore could never be a bad thing in itself, but I also pointed that he was in the England team on merit and that he had to show that he truly believed he was worth his place. He had to exert his own game a little more. He didn't need telling twice. It's a sad day today because you looked at this kid Emlyn charging around the field, full of life, and you had to fancy that he would go on forever."

Once, at the peak of Merseyside football power, when Everton boasted of the brilliant midfield axis of Alan Ball, Howard Kendall and Colin Harvey, Liverpool won a mighty victory at Goodison Park. Hughes scored after a churning run from midfield. Said Shankly: "Emlyn Hughes was more than a player today. He was a force of nature. He looked as if he could run for ever."

It always seemed that way. Right up to yesterday.

Emlyn Hughes: life and times

Born: 28 August 1947

Blackpool Debut: 2 May 1966 v Blackburn (a). League apps: 27 (0 goals)

Liverpool (joined in 1967 for £65,000). Debut: 4 Mar 1967 v Stoke. League apps: 474 (35 goals). Honours: League Champions '73, '76, '77, '79; FA Cup '74; European Cup '77, '78; UEFA Cup '73, '76. Football Writers' Footballer of the Year in 1977.

Wolves (joined for £90,000 in 1979). League apps: 58 (2 goals). Honours: League Cup '80

Also played for Hull, Rotherham, Mansfield and Swan-sea. Awarded OBE in 1980.

England Debut: 19 April 1970 v Wales (a). Caps: 62 (23 as captain), 1 goal.

Media Career

Captain on television's Question of Sport and pundit on television and radio.