It’ll be the first of many goodbyes over the coming weeks, no doubt, but the first is arguably going to be the most saddening. Players who are able to offer greater contributions on the pitch may well depart SE7 before August, but no greater character will be lost than the one belonging to Andy Hughes.
In this industry, where players are often stereotyped to be heartless and selfish, Hughes won over supporters not with his footballing ability but with his persona.
That, of course, isn’t to diminish his efforts on the pitch. He didn’t rack up many appearances, just 16 starts and a further 18 off the bench, but rarely did he fail to do the job required; never did he play without commitment and desire, whether over the course of 90 minutes or 90 seconds.
He played the role of under praised hero in two of Charlton’s best runs of form under Chris Powell. The first an eight game winning streak in the successful 11/12 season, in which he started six and made an appearance in seven of those victories.
The results in that run were all the more remarkable considering there was panic beforehand with Dale Stephens suffering an injury that forced Hughes into the side. But he was faultless, if not perfect, alongside Danny Hollands; the pair complimenting each other well with Hughes’ presence allowing Hollands to commit forward more often.
The second run of form came at the end of the following season; another eight game unbeaten run that saw Hughes against start in six of the games. Injured for the entirety of the season up to that point, there was shock, and some discontent, when his name appeared in the starting XI for the game against Bolton in late March.
The Addicks came into the game on the back of some poor results, not least a defeat to rivals Milwall, but Hughes’ calmness and composure in a frantic game, which saw Charlton come from two goals behind to win 3-2, were crucial to the resilient and determined display. Those qualities were shown in the following five games he played, again putting in a faultless shift in each and every one of them. All the more impressive when you consider the length of his injury lay-off.
This season, his game time was largely limited to a handful of minutes at the end of tight games to help secure positive results. But what a man to have available to fulfil that role, not least because of the heart-on-sleeve passion he displayed no matter how short an appearance he made.
In fact, it’s those sort of games that really epitomised Hughes’ love of Charlton, and the fans’ love towards him. Fans of other clubs may find it odd that a Leeds man who rarely played can become such a fans’ favourite with Charlton fans, but Hughes’ impact was much more than that.
The celebrations after the wins against Doncaster, Sheffield Wednesday and Watford were made with the emotion of a man who really feels strongly about Charlton Athletic. They were celebrations that belong to a man who supported Charlton Athletic. A Leeds fan in a Charlton shirt? I think even Hughes himself will admit he’s almost as much a Charlton man as he is Leeds.
And, just like he does with Leeds fans, there was, and will probably always be, a strong bond between himself and his supporters in SE7. Hughes’ name always received one of the loudest cheers when read out and chants of ‘Hughesy, Hughesy’ were always made whenever he was in sight.
He was also a delight for Charlton’s media team, with their social media channels always full of Hughes-related content. And Hughes’ own social media, his Twitter, was at times hilarious, others heart-warming as he switched from crude comments to telling every single U21 player they’d been fantastic in a game and back again.
At the very least, his appearance in a match day squad offered a welcome distraction from events on the pitch. There was a humorous element to his 90 minute long warm-up routines, but a heart-warming aspect too. There are probably practical reasons for Hughes’ extended jogs and stretches, but that he was willing to prepare himself in such a manner and always be ready for a potential call to take to the field embodied his selfless and committed character.
In the years before Hughes arrived, we grew so used to half-hearted performances and players who probably didn’t want to be here. To see a man who was rarely out of the team’s fringes care so much and portray himself as the ultimate professional was so wonderful to see and a big part in the sense that Powell’s work had given us back our club. Hughes may not have been the best player Powell recruited, but he was certainly the best person.
That’s only extended when Hughes’ presence in and around the dressing room is considered. Even when not in a squad, player-coach Hughes become coach Hughes, assisting in whatever way he could. However, his biggest impact upon his fellow players were his words. Time and time again would Hughes shout words of advice and encouragement to players as they came near the touchline; often he was the first to congratulate or offer comfort to younger players after a game. It really was impossible to lose with Andy Hughes; he always offered something.
And those younger players certainly have respect for him. There was genuine emotion expressed by a number of current academy players, who Hughes has clearly had a huge impact on…
And one academy graduate was quick to thank his mentor…
It’s players like Cousins that mean it’s only right for Hughes to leave in order to finish his career off the subs bench and away from his 90 minute warm-ups, but it’s contributions like the one he has made to Cousins’ career that will be missed the most.
I always hoped he would end his career at Charlton and become a coach on a full-time basis, and I certainly hope that, one day, he’ll return. Who knows, he may even have it in to manage the Addicks one day. I wouldn’t put it past him. He’ll always be Charlton in my eyes.
Until then, it’s goodbye and good luck to one of the good guys.