The Big Interview: Richard Hughes

Richard Hughes battles with AC Milan counterpart Gennaro Gattuso in Pompeys memorable November 2008 2-2 Uefa Cup draw with the Rossoneri  a career highlight for the former Scotland midfielder

Richard Hughes battles with AC Milan counterpart Gennaro Gattuso in Pompeys memorable November 2008 2-2 Uefa Cup draw with the Rossoneri  a career highlight for the former Scotland midfielder

Michael Doyle lifts the League Two trophy. Picture: Joe Pepler

Pompey fans invited to pose with League Two trophy

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He’s one of the great Pompey stalwarts of the modern era.

And when you’ve spent the nine years Richard Hughes did at Fratton Park, you’re aren’t going to short of a tale or two.

The highs, lows, pain, glory, joy and tears have flashed by in a kaleidoscope of vivid royal blue memories.

Promotion, cup memories, the Premier League voyage, Demolition Derbies, Great Escape and a bitter dispute which threatened to taint it all.

But, for the man who began his Pompey journey in 2002, there will always be one night which stands apart.

Yes, for the midfielder there really was only one Milan - the night the grand, old lady rocked like no other.

‘Milan was highlight number one of my football career,’ said the Scot who grew up in Italy a Rossoneri obsessive. ‘Number one by a distance.

‘I know winning the FA Cup was great, Liverpool in the Cup was great for me and beating Southampton 4-1 was, because I was an adopted Pompey fan.

‘But I kicked the ball around the garden pretending to be Milan when I was a kid.

‘When I left Milan and went to Arsenal as a youngster I thought I’d never play them.

‘So, for the one season of European football I had to coincide with Milan not being in the Champions League and getting them in the Uefa Cup. What’s the odds?

‘I wanted to play at the San Siro, so at first was disappointed that wasn’t the case because of the stupid format where it was two teams at home and two away.

‘But, in end, I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.

‘There would have been thousands of Pompey fans but the San Siro would’ve been half empty.

‘Fratton Park that night was jumping. The best atmosphere I’ve ever known.’

The fact Pompey did lose a 2-0 lead to draw 2-2 with Carlo Ancelotti’s side has become almost inconsequential over the years.

November 27, 2008 became a celebration, an event. And Kaka, Shevchenko, Inzaghi, Ronaldinho and Co were there to share it.

Hughes said: ‘I’m getting goozebumps talking about it. The drive into the game was surreal.

‘I’m going to play against Milan. I’m going to play against Milan!

‘I’d celebrated every goal with Pippo Inzaghi and we ended up being Inzaghied by Inzaghi.

‘I watched it the other day, and was still asking myself why no one was near him.

‘What an experience, though. The highest of the highs.

‘They were all there that night, and we were better than them.

‘As a club man it’s beating Southampton. But for me, for my moment, it was that night.’

There was little sign of the long relationship which was blossom when Hughes arrived from Bournemouth for a fee rising to £100,000 under Harry Redknapp.

A stop-start maiden campaign affected by injury (including chopping his finger off in a Portakabin door at the club’s Eastleigh base) saw seven appearances arrive.

By the end of the following season, however, Hughes could count himself a top-flight footballer. One with 15 outings under his belt and a FA Cup winner against Liverpool, which will go down as an iconic moment in his Fratton narrative.

‘A moment can define,’ said the man who made 165 Pompey appearances.

‘It gives you confidence.

‘I’m not a goalscorer, but maybe it took that goal to really give me a sense of belonging and belief.

‘Of course, scoring against Liverpool to put us in the quarters of the FA Cup was a landmark.

‘It was really memorable, but I don’t just look at that game.

‘But there were other games that season I look at which told me I could play at this level.

‘We played Arsenal and I played left midfield against the Invincibles in a 1-1 draw.

‘They were the best team in the country by a mile and it told me that was something I could do.

‘I’d probably actually look at those moments being more pivotal for me in terms of football.’

Twenty appearances were to arrive in the 2004-05 campaign, as Hughes carved a niche as a connoisseur of the arts of defensive midfield play.

That included a central role in the 4-1 win over Redknapp’s Southampton, following his controversial exit.

‘That season obviously brought the highest of highs against Southampton,’ Hughes reflected.

‘The way I played was an Italianism. I was invariably playing Premier League players who were quick and technically good.

‘So, with my role, I’d usually need to take one for the team.

‘I was stopping counter-attacks and they can be deadly. So it was being selective where I should pick yellows up.

‘(Mathieu) Flamini two-footed me against Milan. I remember getting him back. Then there was Wigan for the Great Escape. We were 2-1 up and I had to get (Mario) Melchiot waste high to stop him getting in on goal.

‘I ended up with a few orange cards, as I call them. But I didn’t ever pick up two yellows in one game for Pompey.

‘It was something I grew up with. Either the man gets past you or the ball. Never both together.’

Despite being blessed with special memories, Hughes’ Pompey career was to have an acrimonious closing.

For a man who served the Blues over such a long period as a team player, it was to be a painful exit, as a contract dispute was played out publicly.

It took two years for the situation to resolved in the period of community ownership, and the suggestion Hughes and team-mate Michael Brown refused to take to the pitch dismissed.

Now, for the first time, Hughes lifts the lid on what unfolded, and his views of former chief executive David Lampitt in that process.

Hughes said: ‘I lived on that experience for a year and he (Lampitt) was here for two years.

‘I don’t think I’d be the only person who’d question his ability to run a football club.

‘Some of the things being said were a disgrace.

‘I got pulled off the team bus on the way to Norwich for no other reason than it being contractual. It didn’t have to be that way.

‘Cotts (Steve Cotterill) said Lampitt would be ringing my dad, who was my agent. He said was going to call on the Thursday.

‘He didn’t phone and then texted him at the weekend apologising because he’d been snowed in. Wouldn’t that be the perfect time to make the call?

‘I was gutted people thought me and Browny were driving the situation. We were being dictated to.

‘We trusted the people running the club. That was the mistake.

‘By the time it was apparent what was happening I was an afterthought at a club which had been my life for nine years.

‘I’d dedicated my career to being a team player and it was being made out I wasn’t.

‘But thankfully the new owners came in, and they were brilliant.

‘They were honest, forthright and apologetic. They didn’t need to be. They acknowledged we’d done nothing wrong and we were made scapegoats.

‘So, it was nice there some people who knew what happened behind the scenes who were Pompey fans and were horrified.’

So vindication arrived for Hughes, and he can reflect on a career at Pompey untainted. Something one of the game’s good guys deserves.

He can dine on the memories of Milan, sharing a dressing room with modern Blues heroes and going toe-to-toe with legends of the game.

For a player whose honest qualities reflected the character of the people he represented, that’s a cause for quiet satisfaction.

‘I was very fortunate to play for this club and play at that time,’ said Hughes.

‘I lasted nine years. There were a lot of highs, some lows and tears along the way, too.

‘Maybe I didn’t play as many games as I could’ve done.

‘But I’d rather play 150 games in 10 years and have played at Old Trafford and Anfield five times for Pompey rather than 350 games at Sincil Bank.

‘It was a calculated decision to be a player who stayed and would play between 15 and 20 games on average a season.

‘If you feel valued at a level you aspire to play it’s worth it. That’s what I had here.’

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