If, like me, you’ve re-watched Cambridge United vs Gateshead countless times in those unavoidable low moments, you’ll have the commentary of Liam Hughes opening the scoring etched into your memory:
“Short, and back to Donaldson, that should be Bartlett’s, oh he didn’t get there, and Hughes came in behind him! Liam Hughes, Cambridge born and bred, breaks the deadlock at Wembley!”
It always makes me laugh; a lad born in Rotherham labelled as ‘Cambridge born and bred’, live on national TV. But I can forgive the commentator – by the time Hughesy left East Anglia at the start of 2016, his near decade of service from youth to senior level granted him a special place in my heart surpassing all geographical boundaries.
Hughesy was a product of Jez’s revamped youth system, one of the youth players promoted to keep us in the Conference in 2011/12, and then a fundamental part of that special group that took us into the Football League in 2014. His goal contribution at United was never exceptional by any stretch of the word; 13 nets in 160 appearances is worthy of no accolade. But Hughesy made up for any error, no matter how egregious, no matter how gross and appalling, no matter how terribly misplaced a pass or skewed a shot, by leaping behind Adam Bartlett and planting his forehead on Donaldson’s cross from about 3 yards out to open the scoring at Wembley.
Although that leap at Wembley is what most United fans will first think of when remembering him, it isn’t just that moment which placed Liam Hughes in my heart forever. For me, the 19th of May 2014 was the final hurrah for Hughesy in a United shirt, the last goodbye, the doff of the cap. His work here was done. For all those years before, all those terrible years, when we really were terrible, playing in terrible places in terrible conditions with terrible players, Hughesy was always my hero, if only because he made me giggle and helped raise my sunken, drunken spirits.
He seemed to epitomise how funny it was supporting United at times, when one of our numerous banter eras was in full swing and being given something to laugh about was as good as it got. Hughes supplied some of my most cherished memories during this period. A few highlights include taking the gloves at Nuneaton to face a last-minute penalty, or that blistering screamer at Woking. Or, when a few yards from his own goal at Pompey, he turned and belted the ball against Tom Bonner’s arse and straight into his own net. Or that thundercunt of a free kick from about 30 yards at Tamworth in the promotion season (probably one of the best goals I’ve ever seen).
He sometimes looked like he didn’t really know what he was doing, like he’d forgotten some of the rules and was just seeing if anyone had noticed. I don’t want to say he looked out of place, but his gangly physique and gawky limbs seemed to operate of their own accord as if Liam himself had no power or control over them. He looked a bit wrong, to be honest. At times he was subject to mockery, but I thought this was always part of his charm. Everyone loved him really. Unlike some of the, shall we say questionable, players that passed through the doors at the Abbey, Hughesy was never actually bad, he just should have been bad.
Here was a man who played in every position on the pitch for United, and was always better than just making up the numbers. At centre-half against Aldershot, he genuinely produced such an accomplished and composed performance that, if my memory serves me right, he held that position down for the following few weeks. In that mythical promotion season, he played at centre-midfield, on both wings, and even covered at full back (on both sides). I can’t remember if he played up top, but I’m just going to assume that he did at some point manage to displace or cover one of Appiah or Cunnington.
I was upset when he left, but I understood. The best memories of Hughesy remain in the Conference, sitting proudly amongst that ridiculous era of Braintree Town, Matthew Barnes-Homer and the fucking Jezolution. If, god forbid, we ever end up back in the mire, players which instil a sense of fun, however small or unintentional, should be welcomed. Laughing at yourself is part of the fun, and a ridiculously lanky left-winger perfectly fits the bill.
Love you, Liam.