It was March 1997 when Trevor Francis splashed out £1m to bring a promising Liverpudlian to the club from Wrexham. 293 appearances and seven rollercoaster years later, Bryan Hughes left St. Andrew’s to join today’s opponents Charlton.
Hughes was a key figure in an exciting era for Birmingham City. During his spell there was twice play-off heartache, a Worthington Cup final, an eventual play-off success and two seasons of Premier League football.
A firm fan-favourite, Hughes was a popular addition to the line-up at the 2002 play-off reunion dinner this summer – a night enjoyed by fans and former players alike.
“Yeah, it was good to catch up with all the lads from 10 years ago. It was a really good night and a good turnout by all the fans. It was really well run and a really nice occasion.”
That night was a celebration of the day Darren Carter’s winning penalty took Blues into the Premier League, but Hughes has revealed it could have been he who took the crucial spot-kick.
“I was down to take the fourth penalty against Norwich at the start of the game. I’d taken the fifth penalty in all the shoot-outs we’d been involved in but Steve Bruce wanted his normal penalty taker at the time to be on the fifth one. That was Tommy Mooney, but he went off during the game and I said I wanted the fifth, so Carter comes on for Tommy and took the fourth. It would have been nice to score the penalty that got us promoted but to be fair to Darren, he’s a Blues fan, a local lad, 17 years old – it was set for him. I was really happy for him.”
Not all of the penalty shoot-outs Hughes endured ended so sweetly though. A cup final defeat to Liverpool followed play-off semi-final defeats to both Preston and Watford.
“That defeat against Liverpool was obviously hard to swallow being an Everton fan. Losing any final or any big game like that is hard to take. Some of the play-off games before we got promotion were hard to take too. Preston away and Watford at home especially.”
A failure to reach the Premier League meant Francis was dismissed and replaced by Steve Bruce, who promptly led Blues to the aforementioned play-off success. Whilst no-one at the club would ever question Francis’ ability as a player, Hughes felt that Bruce instilled a new confidence in the players when taking over, something Francis had failed to do.
“Steve was really relaxed as a coach, but he always demanded the team worked hard. You saw that as soon as he came in. The last part of the season when we got into the play-offs we were outstanding. We had a winning mentality in the group that we could go anywhere and win. It came across on the pitch and we proved that with a 12 game unbeaten run.
“With Trevor, he was good but he didn’t seem to have that final push to get us through the play-offs whereas Steve had that mentality having played at big clubs like Manchester United and constantly winning.”
Hughes played 24 games in Blues’ debut Premier League season, relishing the battle with the likes of Robbie Savage, Damien Johnson and Aliou Cisse for his place.
“It was nice to be a part of a Premier League squad. I started the first part of the season but then found myself on the bench for a lot of it, before coming back late on in the season.
It was great to play against the calibre of the players that were in the division at the time and great to play alongside some of the players we were bringing in at the time.”
However, it was to be those additions that cost Hughes his place in the team. Stephen Clemence and David Dunn became the starting centre-midfield pairing and when Hughes did start, he was often pushed out to one of the flanks.
Unable to agree terms on a new deal, Hughes left the club in the summer to sign for the Addicks, who were under the guidance of another former Blues player – Alan Curbishley.
“We had some good players there and Curbs was a shrewd manager. Overall, we finished comfortable two seasons in a tow, then Curbs left and it petered out a bit.
“Iain Dowie came in and to be fair to him he was a really good coach, we just didn’t give him the results he wanted, by the time he got sacked and Alan Pardew came in, another excellent coach, we were really up against it. We nearly turned it round but we just missed out the last couple of games and were relegated.”
Hughes says the highlight of his time at The Valley was scoring the winning penalty against Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea in a League Cup penalty shoot-out, a result that inflicted the first ‘defeat’ upon the Portuguese in English football.
“It was great; we were the underdogs going into that game at Stamford Bridge. They were the holders. We played really well, extra-time was a bit tiring, but we stayed in there and to score the winning penalty against Mourinho was fantastic – even though he says he was still unbeaten as it was technically a draw!”
As is the way in football, it came as no surprise to Blues fans when Hughes scored and set-up another when they travelled to The Valley in 2006. However, Hughes maintains that he was not out to prove a point to Bruce.
“Steve knew what I was capable of, but Birmingham had a really good squad that year and it was nice to play against them and pit my wits against those who were replacing me as such. It’s always nice to score the goal but it was against my old team who I have lots of nice memories of so there were mixed emotions.”
Hughes left the Addicks in 2007 and a succession of injuries hampered his chances of spending a prolonged spell at any one club. A spell at Hull was punctuated by a loan at Derby County, but Hughes left Humberside in 2010 and moved to Burton Albion before dropping out of the Football League pyramid as he signed a short-term deal at Grimsby.
Struggling to stay fully fit and with the 2011 season approaching Hughes took the unusual step of heading to Iceland where he played for IBV Vestmann.
“A good mate of mine from Charlton, Hermann Hreidarsson, is from an island just off of Iceland. As the season approached I was struggling with injuries and couldn’t get fit, it was stopping me getting a contract. I spoke to Hermann and he said he would organise something out for me with a club he knew. So then, I took it upon myself to get fit for the start of the English season. I wasn’t 100% fit, but it was a good experience.”
The spell helped him (along with some crucial advice from a Hull physiotherapist) and Hughes went ‘home’ and signed for Accrington Stanley. Relishing the return to his roots, Hughes was named Player of the Month in December and at the time of writing; he has been offered an extension to his contract for this season.
Set to do his coaching badges next summer, Hughes is keen to stay in the game and one day step into management. Anyone who watched him play will testify that he was an intelligent player with great vision on the pitch, so it would be no surprise to see him take up a coaching role at the very least.
And yes, he has forgiven Steve Bruce for not letting him take that penalty against Leeds United when he was on a hat-trick.