Emlyn Hughes was not only the first Liverpool captain to lift the European Cup for Liverpool, but the only Reds skipper to lift Europe’s premier trophy twice. His dad Fred Hughes represented Great Britain and Wales in Rugby League.
Had his family not uprooted to Barrow, the Liverpool great may well have taken up a career with a different shaped bag of air. Instead he went on to lead an all conquering Liverpool team, playing 657 times, scoring 48 goals.
After signing for Blackpool in 1967, Hughes joined the best, learning from the likes of Alan Ball and Jimmy Armfield - the best full back in the world. This was until he caught the eye of a certain Mr Bill Shankly, who immediately put in a cheeky bid of £25.000 for the inside forward turned left half.
Any other man would have been laughed out of sight whilst being escorted out by men in White coats, but the wily Shankly was politely declined.
Determined to get his man, Shankly followed up with a concrete £65,000 bid the following season. It was deemed enough by the Blackpool board and in a flash Emlyn Hughes, who had appeared 18 times for the Seasiders,, became the latest member of Shankly's thoroughbred stable. It proved to be one of Liverpool’s most inspirational transfers.
Shankly’s sturdy faith in his new young charge was tested immediately. On the return journey to Merseyside, his car was apprehended by an officer of the law. Quick as a tack Shankly jibed: “You know who I've got in the back of this car, son?
The future Liverpool and England captain!.” It was straight from Shankly’s bank of witticisms, but one that would prove true. Hughes represented England 62 times, 23 as captain.
Deputising for Gerry Byrne, Hughes played the last ten games of the campaign of 1966-67 whilst endearing himself to the Liverpool fans who christened him ‘Crazy horse’ after a most memorable and highly illegal rugby tackle on Newcastle United forward Alan Bennett.
Achieving heartthrob status, Hughes' dashing good looks won him the most good looking player award in 1968/69.
"Come all without,
"Come all within,
"You ain't seen nothing like the mighty Emlyn," roared the Kop.
Wearing his heart on his sleeve, Hughes replaced the departing Larry Lloyd and established a distinguished pattern of play, whereby he would switch from a holding midfield position and surge up field with a lung-busting run, often scoring a comic book goal as in 1968 when he bamboozled Pat Jennings with a 70th minute 25-yard scorcher.
Hughes was good in the air, and agile. He played left but had an outstanding right foot. Influenced by European defeats to Hungarians Ferencvaros and Ajax, Shankly determined that progress meant building from the back and required the development of a new breed of ball playing centre back.
With his versatility Hughes was the prime candidate and his natural ability enabled him to revert from a marauding midfielder to a swashbuckling centre back, forming a water-tight central defensive union with a young Phil Thompson. The Anfield rearguard thus joined a small club of distinguished modern central defenders.
Hughes cemented his place as the youngest player in Alf Ramsey's England squad defending the World Cup at Mexico 1970. He was destined not to make an appearance at a World Cup.
It wasn't until the ball-playing partnership and replacing Tommy Smith as Liverpool captain did things really started to take off.
The League Championship and UEFA Cups were won in 1973, followed by a three goal mauling of super mouth Malcolm Macdonald and Newcastle in the FA Cup final a year later. In 1976 Liverpool repeated the double of 1973.
Another title preceded the crème de la crème as Liverpool shook the Eternal City by winning a first European Cup. At Wembley, Bob Paisley’s men retained their European crown a year later against FC Brugge, courtesy of a Kenny Dalglish winner.
A further league title followed in 1979. Hughes completed the full set of domestic medals after transferring to Wolves and winning the league cup in 1980. Also in the cabinet went in a European Super Cup win and three Charity Shields.
Personal recognition followed as Hughes was awarded the prestigious Football Writers’ Award in 1977 and the OBE by Her Majesty the Queen in 1980.
There were short stints with Hull, Mansfield and Swansea, whilst a managerial stint with Rotherham didn’t pan out well. Hughes took a different career route and provided cracking viewing as a captain on Question of Sport on the BBC, famously mistaking Princess Anne for the jockey John Reid.
At the age of 57, Emlyn Hughes died of a brain tumour. In a BBC interview after the funeral Phil Neal spoke with the highest regard: "It was a fitting tribute for a terrific man. Emlyn was a great ambassador - he played with a smile and a competitive edge and he was a great captain."
It’s hard to find many players who have worn a football shirt with such vivacity and fervour. The demise of Emlyn Hughes was hugely lamented. His boundless energy, enthusiasm and a smile that lit the Mersey remain his greatest memories. He will always remain one of Anfield’s favourite sons.
Disclaimer: The views in this article are that of the writer and may not replicate those of the Professional Footballers' Association.