Neil Reynolds examines Lee Hughes's relationship with his hometown club West Bromwich Albion
It’s often said that scoring a goal is better than sex. If that’s true, then losing a prolific goalscorer to another local team is like catching your wife in bed with your next door neighbour. And so it was with Lee Hughes.
Hughes comes from an Albion-mad family and duly took his place on the Birmingham Road End. As a teenager he had a trial at The Hawthorns but nothing came of it and he went to Kidderminster. His eye for goal was quickly apparent and after he rattled in 30 in 1996-97 for the Harriers, Albion decided perhaps they had missed something. Lee was bought for £380,000 and was so proud that when he was invited to a night out with his new team-mates, he wore his Albion shirt.
It didn’t take long for him to achieve cult status: Albion were 2-1 down at Crewe when he came off the bench and scored twice in the last ten minutes. Here was someone all the fans identified with. It could have been us out there, giving our all for the club we love, if only we’d had the opportunity (and the speed, stamina, dedication and skill, of course). A goal every other game – 78 in 156 league matches – increased the infatuation with the Ginger Ninja.
After the first pre-season friendly in July this year, Lee looked dejected and said he was bitterly disappointed he hadn’t got a new contract. This had become an annual ritual, but for some inexplicable reason the previous year he had been given more money but no extension to the contract. It also included a clause allowing him to leave if Albion received an offer over £5 million – a big fee at the time, but with hindsight not so much for such a proven goalscorer.
That condition became public, as these things do, and Coventry jumped in. Gordon Strachan claimed he paid the extra £1 personally, and now the Sky Blues’ accounts have been published, it seems he probably wasn’t joking. Hughes went to Highfield Road but asked for, and was given, his Albion shirts to take with him. A lot of acrimonious stories appeared in the press, many of which were dragged up again before the teams met at The Hawthorns on December 12.
Hughes apparently claimed Albion had not made him any offer and that they tried to offload him to Wolves, of all teams. The club categorically refuted that and suggested Lee might be well advised to change his agent. Unusually, perhaps even uniquely in such circumstances, most Baggies fans seem to believe the club’s version of events.
The fans couldn’t understand how Coventry could afford Hughes’s wage demands, and, in the light of their reported £60 million overspend, perhaps they can’t. Even harder to comprehend was that Lee, a Baggie through and through, should choose Coventry. He claimed it was for “football reasons” not cash but that’s like a warthog – it just doesn’t wash. They seem less likely to get into the Premiership than Albion, who have a better stadium, bigger crowds and a sound financial base. Oh, and a better team, thanks in part to the Hughes fee. Had he gone to any Premiership club, the reaction would have been different. But Coventry?
Before the December game, Gary Megson pleaded for Hughes to be welcomed back and insisted that without his goals Albion would be in the Second Division, which is probably true. Megson is held in such high esteem that if he wanted fans to walk naked round West Bromwich in two feet of snow, thousands would probably do it. This, though, was asking too much.
Hughes’s every touch was loudly booed and after a couple of rasping shots early on, he faded out of the game. Oh, how we wanted a goal from the bargain buy from Carlisle, so we could all sing: “When the ball hits the net it’s not that ginger git, it’s Scott Dobie.” That wasn’t to be, but the Baggies got the win. At the end, Hughes applauded the small group of Coventry fans and then turned to salute the other three sides of the ground. He got a standing ovation – just like old times.
From WSC 180 February 2002. What was happening this month