Hughes joined the club in the summer of 2001 from Notts County. Despite being out of contract, the club were forced to pay a fee because of the player’s age which was settled by an independent tribunal, estimated to have cost £250,000. The player joined a side who had just suffered play-off heartbreak after losing the playoff final to Walsall just months before, having looked so close to securing a return to Division One.
The Manchester born midfielder joined a team that had just lost the influential Darren Caskey, who was a firm fans’ favourite, with his goal scoring record and dead ball play earning much acclaim. If Reading fans were expecting a like for like replacement, then they were mistaken.
Hughes started the opening game of the season at Blackpool, but found his chances limited during September and early October. As results proved inconsistent, the pressure mounted on Manager Alan Pardew, after a 3-1 derby day defeat at home to Swindon.
The following Saturday marked a change in fortune as Hughes and Reading travelled to his previous club Notts County, and they ran riot which resulted in a 4-1 half time lead. Hughes opened his account, having scored the opener inside four minutes. It was a bitter sweet moment for Hughes, who had been booed on his return to Meadow Lane. The result was just another three points, but it saw a change in fortune for both player and team.
As results improved over the course of the season, Hughes became an important contributor, chipping in with big goals against QPR and Wigan among others. He was a regular starter, having seen James Harper miss the second half of the season with a broken ankle and Kevin Watson not join the club permanently until transfer deadline day. Hughes started the last game of the season finale away to Brentford, which could see either side promoted dependant on the outcome.
In the end it was the Royals who celebrated, having earned a 1-1 draw. Hughes’s celebrations showed just how much it meant, and was among the first to climb onto the team coaches roof upon arriving back at the Madejski Stadium. The season ended with a respectable goal tally of six, and Hughes was a strong part of the side with his work rate, fantastic professionalism and teamwork among his many attributes.
His second season proved even more successful as the Royals took to the Championship and produced some magical football along with way, earning a 4th place finish. Under Pardew’s 4-5-1 counter-attacking formation, Hughes flourished, playing just off striker Nicky Forster.
The formation brought the best out of both players, and Hughes enjoyed a fantastic season as the Royals narrowly missed out on the Premiership, suffering Playoff heartache again. His goal celebrations were talked as much about as his goals such were the nature of them!
The 03-04 season saw changes at the club, with Pardew departing in early September for West Ham and Steve Coppell coming in as his replacement. Coppell had great respect for Hughes who showed tremendous dedication out on the training pitch, and often used the player in a variety of positions which includes spells at full back. Hughes never complained and it was that effort for the team that didn’t go unnoticed. The season ended with a comfortable ninth place finish, the third highest in the club’s history.
His fourth season in Berkshire was also to be his last, and it was a season of two halves with the Royals leading Division One on Boxing Day, only to suffer a horrendous drop in form in the second half of the season, missing out on the playoffs on the final day of the season. Changes were needed during the summer, and while Coppell admitted the club weren’t actively looking to offload the player, when an offer too good to turn down came in from Norwich, Coppell made the decision to sell the midfielder. In the end, Hughes made an impressive 166 appearances for the club, scoring 18 goals.
In his first season outside of Reading, the club went on a record breaking run, resulting winning the Championship with a record points total of 106. The memories of that season won’t ever be forgotten by all involved, but neither should the contribution of previous players from the likes of Hughes, Forster or Williams who weren’t around to earn the praise their efforts in the previous year’s laid the foundations to the team’s success.
A sell-out crowd is expected for the first time at the Madejski this season, and a warm applause from the home support will hopefully set up for a great game.
Disclaimer: The views in this article are that of the writer and may not replicate those of the Professional Footballers' Association.