For Derby County fans, there hasn’t been a lot to cheer about in the past 10 years. The club, once one of England’s top clubs have suffered badly in the last decade with relegation, receivership and play off anguish. But now there is a sparkle coming out of Pride Park in the form of 17-year-old wing sensation Will Hughes. The bleach blond-haired youngster has exploded on the scene this season with some fine performances which has started to attract the attentions of Europe’s biggest clubs including Barcelona. Hughes joined Derby only last summer from his local team Mickleover but has been the find of the year, breaking not only into the first team but also gaining recognition at international level for England Under 17 and recently Under 21 teams. He is widely regarded as an exciting prospect with the potential to become a world-class player in the years to come.
Hughes moved to Derby with his family at the age of only 2 so it seems fitting that he make his mark with his hometown club. Under the carefully tutelage of manager Nigel Clough, who first noticed Hughes during a reserve team outing and promoted him to the first team for the penultimate game of campaign last season, Hughes has flourished as a left winger. With a combination of explosive pace, close control and self belief, it’s not hard to understand why Clough was keen to see more of what Hughes could do. He gave the youngster his first team break against Portsmouth, bring him on as a substitute with just over 20 minutes left. Hughes grabbed his chance with both hands and impressed his manager so much so that Clough started him in the final game of the season against Peterborough United. Clough saw in two matches the potential this youngster had and knew that he would have to include him as a member of the first team from next season on. But Clough is clearly aware of the need to protect his player and keep him grounded as he develops.
Hughes impressed again in pre season and forced his way into the starting line up for the Rams this season where he has remained ever since. Starting 24 games so far, Hughes has been a revelation as part of a new batch of youngsters emerging at Derby. He is joined in the first team by Jeff Hendrick, Mark O’Brien and Mason Bennett in a new look Derby side that is working their way up the Championship table. Hughes has been instrumental in this rise with his wing play, assists and goals, bagging two already. Clough believes the player has an incredible future in front of him and is constantly impressed by his attitude and play whether he starts a game or comes from the bench:
“When he came off the bench at Colchester, he was very good indeed. I thought he was the star of the subs. He looked comfortable. I don’t think he gave the ball away and he made our equalizer. We are very pleased with him. People say ‘is he really only 17?’. It is like having a senior pro in the team. His composure belies his age and there are not many 17-year-olds in the country playing to the standard that he is; it sets him apart.”
The praise doesn’t just stop with Clough as Hughes international boss Stuart Pearce has also been vocal on his impression of the young left winger, shortly after his debut for the Under 21’s against Northern Ireland in November of this year, subsequently becoming the second youngest player to ever do so. Hughes didn’t look out-of-place in the international arena and could have found himself on the score sheet with a debut goal if it wasn’t for a last gasp challenge by a Northern Ireland defender. Pearce spoke candidly about Hughes after the player made his debut for England Under 21’s:
“Will’s technically a very sound player. He rarely gave the ball away in training or in the game he played [against Northern Ireland], which is vitally important at international level. He’s progressing really well.”
Pearce knows that if Hughes continues to improve, it won’t be long until he follows the likes of Raheem Sterling and Wilfried Zaha into Roy Hodgson’s full England squad. Clough too knows that the better Hughes gets the more attention he will draw to himself and the harder it will be to hold on to his prize asset. With Barcelona rumoured to be constructing a dossier on the player and both Manchester clubs sending scouts on a regular basis to Pride Park, it may be only a matter of time before Hughes moves on to bigger things. In the meantime the Derby fans will be enjoying seeing their team and Hughes in particular light up the Championship, praying that their new star can help push them up the league and towards promotion back to where they feel they belong, the Premiership.