By Ryan Ferguson
Though flashier players have garnered more attention, Jeff Hughes has quietly been one of the most important cogs in Micky Mellon’s revolution. The simple, unassuming nature of his play means the versatile midfielder is often overlooked. But, upon deeper reflection, Hughes has been central to almost every concept implemented by the new regime.
Right from the start, Mellon has attempted to play expansive football. Given the dire circumstances he inherited, fans might have expected a more direct approach, with Tranmere bludgeoning their way to precious points. That Mellon has coaxed such a resurrection without compromising a distinct style is quite incredible. It’s what we’ve always yearned for, and Jeff Hughes plays a huge role in making it reality.
Hughes has occupied the pivot position under Mellon, conducting play from a deep midfield berth. Rovers have tried to control games more in recent months, playing out from the back and working through the pitch as opposed to lumping the ball forward hopefully. Hughes is pivotal to that strategy. He will often drop between the centre-backs to gather possession before searching for a pass. With vision, poise and tremendous passing ability, the Northern Irishman instigates many Tranmere attacks. And while he may not receive the ultimate glory of scoring goals, Rovers would be far less fluid without him.
Perhaps Mellon’s greatest impact so far has been in preaching a patient style of play. In this league, almost every opponent sets out to stifle Tranmere. It’s not unusual to see the opposition place ten men behind the ball and hope to frustrate Rovers into submission. Being unable to decode stout defences and stick to a certain gameplan was one downfall that really hurt Gary Brabin. Mellon, on the other hand, has added structure and discipline to our approach. More importantly, he emits a calm, assured confidence born of tremendous experience. That has radiated throughout the club and onto the pitch, largely in the person of Hughes, Mellon’s trusty lieutenant.
The veteran playmaker is never flustered. He will twist and turn with the ball, waiting for an option to present itself. He will play a five-yard pass to maintain possession, but isn’t afraid to turn the ball round a corner or slice a long diagonal across the pitch with that cultured left foot. In essence, Jeff Hughes keeps the team ticking. He’s the battery in the Tranmere Rovers watch, the fire blanket that can be relied upon. A non-league Michael Carrick, if you will.
Whenever Tranmere have experienced success, this kind of player has been important. Brian Little had Jason McAteer. John Aldridge had Nick Henry. Johnny King had Neil McNab and Jim Harvey, among others. While it’s unfair to place Jeff Hughes in such demanding company, he plays a similar role. With more than 400 games under his belt, Jeff knows how to win football matches. He understands the game and how to manipulate it. He’s the consummate professional.
Of course, things go wrong for Hughes, just as they go wrong for any player at this level. In the National League, midfield is a hectic, crowded place. That Hughes is able to find the space and enjoy the amount of touches that he does is testament to his skill. He will misplace passes and occasionally get caught in possession, but that’s an occupational hazard. It comes with the territory. Hughes engineers space in a league where that is a precious commodity. He brings tranquillity to this division of chaos. He keeps the ball moving, the gameplan fresh, and the machine well oiled.
In this regard, Hughes is also a leader. Not a leader with words, but a leader with action. The team doing well is his most important objective. Jeff is a utilitarian footballer, funnelling possession from the grafters like Jay Harris to the dynamic attackers like Ben Tollitt. Hughes is also willing to play any position, having deputised at left-back, left-wing and attacking midfield this season. He’s the Swiss Army knife in Mellon’s arsenal.
That diverse skill set is mirrored in Hughes’ career path. Born in Larne, Country Antrim, he spent time in the academy of Ballymena United before transferring to his hometown club in 2002. After turning professional with Larne, Hughes was first deployed as a left-back before transitioning to more advanced positions. A move to Lincoln City came in 2005, and Jeff piqued the interest of larger clubs with fine performances. Crystal Palace signed him in 2007, but things didn’t really work out at Selhurst Park.
Hughes spent time on loan at Peterborough and Bristol Rovers. He founded a real home with the latter, for whom he played over 100 times after joining permanently. In four years with The Gas, Hughes became a more well-rounded player, even scoring a hat-trick against Dagenham in 2010. He later joined Notts County, where his deadball expertise became more pronounced. Jeff scored 20 goals in 89 appearances for County, a really impressive ratio given his various positions.
After leaving Notts, Hughes had spells with Fleetwood and Cambridge before joining Tranmere on loan in January 2016. Rovers enjoyed a strong surge in form after Christmas last term, but it still wasn’t good enough to earn a playoff spot. Nevertheless, after joining permanently, Jeff has been part of the nucleus that secured more points in 2016 than any other calendar year in the club’s history. The quality of opposition is admittedly poor, but such an achievement is not to be sniffed at.
This season, Hughes has made 20 appearances. Tranmere have picked up points in 18 of them and also advanced in the FA Trophy with him in the side. A controversial red card and subsequent misconduct charge away to York kept him out for six games. Rovers won two, drew one and lost three of those matches. And while it would be a stretch to infer a fool-proof correlation between Hughes playing and positive results, there is certainly a trend in that direction.
So, what does the future hold? Well Tranmere now have multiple options throughout midfield and attack. Steve Jennings, the club captain, will be banging on Mellon’s door. So will James Wallace, a player of League One standard when fully fit. Then there is Harris, who has been immense in recent weeks, and Lois Maynard, by far the most improved player at Tranmere this season.
It’s good to have such resources, especially as the festive schedule ramps up, but Mellon will be forced in to making some difficult decisions. Every week, some very accomplished players will be left out, as Adam Mekki is all too aware. But while some of his midfield colleagues may bear greater reputations, Jeff Hughes is proving his worth. Week in, week out. The Tranmere bench will be stocked with talent, but don’t expect Hughes to be on it for any prolonged period. He’s far too important, even if his finest work often goes undetected.
Many thanks to Martin Freel, our latest donor on GoFundMe.