There are numerous candidates for greatest ever Leeds United player, but only one has a statue at Elland Road, and that is Billy Bremner. You could argue that John Charles had a stature that nature denied to Billy; that Eddie Gray had such sweet feet that he could run rings around his captain; that Jack Charlton’s longevity and growth from rebel to hero tells a better story. There is always that room for debate; but a player like Andy Hughes, of course, would not even come close to the discussion.
Something about Billy Bremner, though, clinches his place on the pedestal afforded to the best we ever had; he chimes with what Leeds United is about; he is an emblem, a symbol, of what we as a club should aspire to. Helpfully, Mr Bremner put it into words:
Side before self, every time.
It was his philosophy, and it is our philosophy. Bremner was the greatest because he deliberately diverted his talents to the benefit of Leeds United Football Club, even when that might not have been to the personal benefit of William Bremner. Personal glory was not the goal for Billy; everything was for the furtherance of the cause of Leeds United. It was that selflessness and commitment that ensured his status as our greatest player, quite apart from his exceptional abilities as a footballer. Billy Bremner didn’t just play well for Leeds; he set the standards by which we as Leeds fans still, often unconsciously, judge our players today.
To Andrew Hughes, then. Hughes joined Leeds United when Leeds United was at its lowest; not just in Division Three, for the first time, but fifteen points adrift at its bottom before a game had even been played. What Hughes offered, and what he delivered, was exactly what was required: effort, and commitment to the cause of the club. Hughes’ skills, first in midfield and then wherever he was needed, were never technically outstanding; but he understood that through effort he could raise his performance, and the performance of those around him; and that through effort the club as a whole could do better. It was this effort that eventually dragged Leeds, three seasons later, back to Division Two; and it shouldn’t be ignored that in our promotion season Hughes, considered to be technically lacking, played over thirty games in unfamiliar positions and never let anybody down.
The iconic images of his celebrations after the game against Bristol Rovers owe their power to the fact that promotion meant more to Hughes because he had had to work harder to achieve it; and because he understood that it was an achievement shared, an achievement on behalf of the fans who held him aloft that day. In his parting interview with Yorkshire Radio, Hughes said:
Alright, it was a promotion from League One, but to say I did something for Leeds United that I set out to do from the start, and to do it in front of these fans, home and away, is the biggest honour… its up there with the birth of my daughter.
Note the language Andy uses. “I did something for Leeds United.” Andy’s celebrations weren’t about the fulfilment of a personal ambition. They were celebrations of the achievement of a collective goal, of his pleasure at doing “something for Leeds United”, something for the football club; something for us. He celebrated because he had done something for the side, rather than something for the self.
This is the key to why so many Leeds fans, who were never that impressed with Andy Hughes the footballer, feel a pang, and can sense a gap, now that Andy Hughes has gone. It is hard to think of a player who has bought so fully into the philosophy that Billy Bremner made integral to this football club, and who has been so willing to let that philosophy be his guide. Hughes’ final demonstration of his commitment to our team has come in the manner of his departure. In his interview on Yorkshire Radio, he said:
My wife’s in the kitchen now, she’s upset… she’s upset because she knows how much it has meant to me, to come and say that I played for Leeds United.
Yet despite his depth of feeling for the honour of playing for Leeds, Andy Hughes is leaving because, in his own words:
Andy Hughes isn’t going to make Leeds United better.
Andrew Hughes yesterday closed the greatest chapter in his football career because it would be to the betterment of Leeds United. The manner of his departure conformed to the manner of his time at Leeds: he did everything within his power to help the football club, to return it to the top divisions where it belonged, but to where Hughes himself does not. Every single time and in every single gesture whether on the pitch, on the shoulders of fans, or working in the community: Hughes did it all for the side, and not for the self.
Andy Hughes didn’t just buy into Billy Bremner’s philosophy; he lived it, and he gave to it everything he could, ending finally in the noble gesture of his departure. Of course he shouldn’t be talked about as one of Leeds’ greatest ever players, up there with Bremner and Charles; that would be daft. But just as we as fans learnt from those players, and saw in their example the best example that players should follow at our club, so did Andy Hughes. He was no Billy Bremner as a football player, but he believed in and practised Billy’s philosophy of Side Before Self, Every Time with all the passion of a fan; which is exactly what we, as Leeds fans, demand from our players. They don’t have to be Billy Bremner; they just have to believe in Billy Bremner.
I feel quite sure that Billy Bremner, had he lived to see him play for Leeds, would have been enormously proud of Andy Hughes.
Originally on The Square Ball blog and in 10/11 issue eight