"...this is the most articulate and accurate piece written about the club for years!" - Tales from the Front, http://www.otib.co.uk/

Monday, 17 December 2012

Will Hughes: Can we believe the hype?

Every once in a while a footballer comes along who is talked about as "the next big thing".  Even more rarely discussion turns to a potential star of a generation.  Derby County's 17-year-old Will Hughes probably fits neatly into the middle of these often hyperbolic statements, currently careering right down the centre of this most glittering of sparkly roads in British sport.

When you're 17, have just a handful of appearances under your belt but own a reputed list of suitors including both Manchester clubs, Chelsea, Arsenal and Tottenham, you must have something about you.

When you throw in the fact that the iconically masterful Barcelona - possibly the finest club side of the last 30 years - own a dossier on Hughes' performances, you know that this boy can play a bit.  At the very least he can obviously control a football and pass to his own teammates, something mystifyingly beyond the alleged best of England's recent crop of midfielders.

Unfortunately I was unable to take my usual residence on Saturday at Ashton Gate so missed the opportunity to run my eye over this shining star.  Thankfully, Hughes' namesake, Will Jones from the brilliant website To the Left of Ross, was in attendance and returns to The Exiled Robin with this take on English football's new wunderkind:

"Will Hughes arrived at Ashton Gate on Saturday propelled by a gale of publicity.  An England Under-21 international as a 17-year-old in the Championship, and apparently on the January to-buy list of half a dozen Premier League sides, it was hard not to look out for him during the game – a task made easier by his impressive shock of white-blond hair.
In truth this wasn’t a performance that would have had the uninitiated raving about him post-match.  He didn’t stand out as the best player on the pitch, or provide a unique dimension within Derby’s pleasing on the eye passing (first half) and solid defensive (second half) displays.  But I was impressed nonetheless, and I’m inclined to think that his propensity to blur into part of a solid team performance is precisely why.
Derby played a startlingly young midfield 5 – averaging under 22 years of age, Craig Bryson was the grand old man of the group at 26.  Yet all five (Bryson and Hughes plus Michael Jacobs, Paul Coutts and Jeff Hendrick) were comfortable both on the ball and as part of a thud-and-blunder December Football League tie.  Their energy and enthusiasm was testament to their age, but their confidence and calmness tempered this to good effect.  Hughes was perhaps the best example of this.
Unlike many a young player making a name for themselves – Raheem Sterling, say – Hughes isn’t the type to extemporise and attempt the sublime at the risk of achieving the sub-par.  Hughes plays like a man with 250 games rather than 25 under his belt.  He’s happy, for the benefit of the team, to take a single touch and move the ball on, moving his feet at the same time to be ready to receive and make another simple, sensible contribution.  His speed of thought is good, and he regularly popped up to ensure continuity in building attacks and pressuring the home defence – but he wasn’t desperate to be the man getting ahead of play, running the channels or popping up in the box.  He was happy to be a vital part of a solid unit.  At 17, and for 90 minutes, that’s impressive.
Perhaps the biggest compliment I can pay him is that he didn’t seem like a young English player at all.  Maybe  it was just the white jersey, but he seemed like a less developed version of one of those dazzling German CMs of recent years – a bleach blond Sami Khedira, perhaps.  That, I think, is why there will have been scouts at the gate (let’s face it, they weren’t looking at Marv).  This is stuff English players need to learn and rarely do.  It’s the stuff that everyone we lose to has.  It’s the stuff that wins tournaments.  It’s the right stuff, and based on 90 cold minutes Will Hughes has it."

Thanks very much to Will Jones for his time and descriptive words on Will Hughes.

Monday, 10 December 2012

EXCLUSIVE Interview with Joe Morrell

Last week perhaps signalled the start of a bright new dawn at Ashton Gate, and I’m not talking about the remarkable and dramatic victory at Hillsborough.  When Joe Morrell committed his most formative of years to the club – spurning interest from five-time European Champions Liverpool in doing so – the moment gave the club their launch pad to go on the offensive about the investment in the new Academy.

For too many years, millions of pounds have been sunk into an under-performing, unproductive system doing nothing to justify its worth.  Since the class of late-90’s produced the likes of Tommy Doherty, Aaron Brown and Matt Hill, only Cole Skuse has come through and established himself in the first team.  Dave Cotterill & Leroy Lita spent a little time with the Robins before moving on and earning the academy some much needed ‘profit’, whilst recently the likes of Christian Ribiero, Joe Edwards and James Wilson have all threatened the senior squad without ever truly establishing themselves. 

The club have spent the last year talking up the improvements Derek McInnes has instigated.  No wonder – pay-offs of existing staff members allied with relatively expensive new salaries within the greater coaching and support teams, no doubt contributed to the recently announced financial losses, along with the new training facility being built at Filton.

However this week, the ball of momentum appeared to start rolling.  The signing of Morrell was lauded by the club and seen as the first step towards justification for the changes made, with the club citing the clearly communicated objective of becoming a Phase II Academy, the new training facilities, and the new coaching staff as giving Morrell the incentive he required to ignore his big-name suitors.

I caught up with Joe this week, and asked him about his new deal.

Well I’ve got to start with “Congratulations” on the new deal, how pleased are you to be able to commit to another couple of years at Ashton Gate?
“Thank you very much.  I’m really pleased to have signed the contract and looking forward to now concentrating on my football.”

I asked Joe about the interest from Liverpool, and why he chose City over the Merseyside giants? I also noted that the club seemed more dedicated to providing youth with its chance in the future, something that hasn’t necessarily been the case over the past few years, and whether that played a big part in his decision.
“I don’t want to talk about it [the Liverpool interest] too much, but I can say that I was very close.  It’s not really about turning Liverpool down, it was about me seeing the plans for the academy and players such as Joe Bryan and Bobby Reid in and around the first team squad that makes Bristol City an exciting place to be for a young footballer.  Really it was the plans for young players that Derek McInnes and Willie McStay had explained to me.”

Your deal signalled a strong message from the club that it was a sign of progress within the “substantially revamped” Academy set-up, a pointer in the right direction.  There have been movements in the coaching staff – and you recently moved to the brand new Filton training complex – but have you, as players, seen improvements and changes across the Academy?
“The academy has always has always had a good setup.  My current U16's coach, Dave Horseman, is brilliant but yes, the new facilities and Willie coming in have made it a good place to be.”

I then asked Joe about his style, the level of contact he and his teammates have with Derek McInnes, who else we should be looking out for in the youth set-up.
“I can play either holding or attacking midfield, I work hard for the team and try to get on the ball as much as possible. Xavi of Barcelona is a player that I really aspire to be like.  There are some really exciting players in the academy setup at the moment, but Jack Batten is one to really look out for.  Derek doesn't tend to have much contact with us you can see his influence in the way that we play, and he was really involved in my contract talks.”

You’ve played for Wales in the Victory Shield, clearly impressing a number of good judges – what  was it like pulling on the international shirt for the first time?
“It doesn't really get much better for a young player, especially then to go on and captain the team this year, a very proud moment indeed.”

Joe spent time at former Bristol Rovers midfielder Jamie Shore’s Soccer Academy, a set-up outside the professional club ranks, promising to train and educate young footballers in the style Spanish and Portugese young footballers are brought up.  There is a view that this could be the future, getting youngsters to ‘footballing’ academies before they join clubs so I asked Joe whether he felt this time had benefitted his career thus far?
“I really enjoyed my time at Jamie Shore and Paul Taylor was an excellent coach.  It gave me the chance to play abroad and taught me lessons on and off the pitch.  There are a few former Jamie Shore lads at City and [England goalkeeper] Jack Butland was there too.  However I felt it was the right time to sign for City when I was twelve but I would not be the player and person that I am now without Jamie Shore.”

What are your ambitions in the game, and where do you hope to be ten years from now?
“I want to be playing to the best of my ability and still be enjoying my football, the rest will take care of itself.”

And finally, when you Google ‘Joe Morrell’, ‘Joe Morrell Soccer AM’ comes up high on the automated list – care to talk us through why that might be?
“Ha ha, well earlier this year I was due to go there just to be part of the audience and then found myself sitting on the famous orange sofa next to Helen Chamberlain and Max Rushden.  I was very surprised and I still can’t believe that I missed my first attempt at getting the ball through the hole!”

Joe, thanks very much, and I along with all City fans wish you all the luck in the world with your future career – we can’t wait to see you in the first-team!

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