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12 Nov 2004 00:00
Dying from a brain tumour is a rotten way for anyone to go. For a professional sports person, it is a particularly unkind exit.
For Emlyn Hughes, it was the lousiest trick of fate.
It was Hughes’s lot to lead Liverpool to glory, England to nowhere and to end up being best remembered for hugging Princess Anne when she supplied the right answer on A Question of Sport. Once upon a time, he would have gone to the Tower. Instead he confirmed his place in the hearts of the nation’s mums who liked his smile, his giggle and his pullovers.
Hughes was a self-made footballer with ambition. To limited ability he added an unlimited zest as well as a shrewd idea of how to capitalise on what he could offer. When Bill Shankly signed him as a 19-year-old from Blackpool in 1966 he was not allowed to join Liverpool’s first-team practise matches until he had learned not to give the ball away.
From this start, he went on to lead Liverpool to two European Cup triumphs, two Uefa Cups, four league championships and an FA Cup.
His uninhibited style, the ebullient celebrations that accompanied his handful of goals and the extravagant reaction to the vicissitudes of a game of football earned him the soubriquet ‘Crazy Horse”. This was amusing but misplaced, for Hughes was invariably in control of his emotions.
More like Geronimo, he knew when to act mad and when to be conciliatory. Otherwise Ron Greenwood would never have made him England captain in 1977.
‘Emlyn Hughes was a wonderful skipper,” Greenwood wrote later. ‘Kevin [Keegan] was based in Germany and I didn’t want our captain away from home all the time. Em was just right for us. His enthusiasm was unbelievable and it rubbed off on others.”
But by then Hughes was nearing the end of his career. It was his misfortune to reach his peak at a time when England were in a trough. He won 62 caps between 1969 and 1980 but never appeared in the final stages of a major tournament.
With Liverpool, however, he achieved unprecedented success. Before 1977 only Manchester United had brought the European Cup to England. Hughes shared with Liverpool the glory of defeating Borussia Mönchengladbach in Rome to win the trophy that year as well as the victory over Club Bruges at Wembley the following season to retain it.
With Hughes, what you saw was what you got. No one could begrudge him his OBE in 1980 for his services to the game. For Liverpool alone he made 657 appearances and after moving to Wolves in August 1979 he helped win the League Cup that season.
There has never been a football team yet that has been free of personal differences and the fact that Hughes enjoyed a successful 13 years at Liverpool, which saw them graduate from success in England to become a dominant force in Europe, speaks for itself.
Bob Paisley recalled: ‘He was an awkward customer to tangle with as he seemed at times to be all arms and legs. He also had that special brand of Liverpool determination.”
And Emlyn Hughes liked to win, as Princess Anne was to find out. —
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