Over six foot tall and with a shock of blonde hair, Will Hughes suffers from what statisticians call the availability heuristic – he stands out, you notice him. Stuart Pearce called him “technically a very sound player” and he was playing regularly in the Championship at 17, asked to unlock defences with a mesmeric range of passing and dribbling skills. He’s now played over 150 first team games for Derby at the age of 22, a club whose history weighs heavy in relation to recent achievements.
Pressure? Hughes shrugs with a rueful smile. “It’s a good pressure. Derby is all I’ve ever known. I was lucky enough to come through the academy and get into the first team and do well – that was always the aim from when I was young.”
The aim now is Premier League football, despite various upheavals that have dogged the club in recent years. “Everything is in place for us to be a Premier League club and we just need to get over the line, make it there and then build on that. Obviously, everyone knows the history, winning league titles, but there’s been a gap since then. But look at Leicester – you never know what’s around the corner in football and who’s to say it won’t be us in a few years’ time.”
As someone who’s been at the club nearly ten years, it’s natural that Hughes has become synonymous with Derby and as a stylish, creative midfielder, he’s also expected to set the tone of his side. Hughes laughs, “I feel like a veteran. In the dressing room, I’m a bit more relaxed, but on the pitch, I like to think I can lead the side. That’s just individual preference: some people are loud in the changing rooms, there’s nothing wrong with that, just as there’s nothing wrong with being quiet.”
This is the very definition of letting one’s football do the talking, as Hughes explains, “On the pitch knowing what to do and doing it to the best of your ability is a leadership role in itself.