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Mark Hughes exclusive: Why Accrington Stanley unique in Football League

Society might be accustomed to seeing the flashy lives of footballers. Fast cars, diamond watches, daily trips to the barber followed by a customary Instagram upload.

But for a large number of footballers in the lower leagues, their careers are far more precarious. Job security, career opportunities and devising Plan B, in case that big injury ever comes, are legitimate fears. Some players live from pay-check to pay-check, worried about mortgages and mouths to feed. This often leads to a nomadic existence, a search for stability and place to call home. For Mark Hughes, that search ended four years ago when he signed with Accrington Stanley.

A product of Everton's academy, Hughes played three times for his boyhood heroes under David Moyes. But the Scot preferred experienced options in defence and Hughes was sold to Northampton Town in 2007. His professional football journey had begun. First to Australia with the now-defunct North Queensland Fury, then back to England, with stops at Walsall, Bury, Morecambe and Stevenage.

Struggling to click with Boro manager Teddy Sheringham, Hughes tells Tribalfootball how an off the cuff remark to Accrington boss John Coleman changed the direction of his career.

"I love it [at Accrington]. It feels like I've been there for 10 or 11 years. I feel like I'm part of the furniture there," the 33-year-old said.

"I was in a little bit of a crossroads, I went to Stevenage. People think it is easy sometimes living away, but my lad at the time was one or two, and my wife was sending me videos of him starting to walk and things, results weren't going great and sometimes it happens in football, it just doesn't happen for you.

"I was travelling quite a bit with Steven Schumacher, who was there at the time. Terry Sheringham was the manager and we just didn't really click, in terms of he didn't really get going as a manager, and we didn't get going as a team, and I didn't get going performance wise.

"John and Jimmy (Bell) picked up the phone. I played against them in one of my last games and I said to them in January, if you need a defender or anything, I'm not happy here, if you want sort something out. I was saying it as a joke, a bit tongue in cheek. Then three or four weeks later I was there and playing."

Hughes has since notched over 200 appearances for the Lancashire club, becoming a stalwart in Coleman's defence. In that time, the club won their first ever Football League title when they were crowned League Two champions in 2017/18, beating Luton Town by five points. And Hughes feels fortunate to have made an impact at the club.

"I got a bit of luck really. They were doing really well at the time and the two defenders, one done his knee and was out for six months. And the other one got injured as well, I think he snapped his bicep or something doing weights. So I was in a team flying high in the league and didn't really look back from there.

"John gave me a chance to play my own game and let me play how I wanted to play, we play a lot from the back which is what I like. And four years down the line I've hardly missed a game, I've stayed injury free apart from towards the end of this season when I injured my calf. In terms of games and minutes, and winning the league, I couldn't have asked for much more really."

After finishing mid-table in their first season of League One football, Coleman's side were sitting in 17th and seven points clear of the drop zone prior to the coronavirus pandemic halting football across Europe. Even if Points Per Game were to decide the season, the club's League One status is secure.

It is a remarkable effort considering the economic gap between Stanley and the likes of Sunderland, Portsmouth and Ipswich Town. Last season, Accrington averaged 2,764 per home game, while the Black Cats seated 32,157. According to Hughes, Coleman and his staff must take credit for their underdog success.

"They're (Coleman and assistant Jimmy Bell) very demanding. They can make or break a lot of players. They do demand a lot. I played for Morecambe, and you're in the sort of low budget in the league, and the manager can make excuses for you, saying 'we're a little club don't worry about it'. Where as John and Jimmy expect you to win every single match.

"Some people go hang on a minute we're playing Sunderland here, we're playing Portsmouth. But it doesn't matter to them, they want to win, and you sort of need that as a player because as players you look for excuses. We don't have any training facilities, we train on astroturf every single day, so a lot of people go how do you do it, but they find a way of getting the best out of you and it's a great trait to have.

"Jimmy (Bell) does a lot of the coaching and the manager does the man-management skills and it's just the perfect little fit. Lads go there with a point to prove, whether it was me coming towards my 30s, or lads who are chomping at the bit who came through the non-league or were released from academies.

"They're good at signing the right personalities as well. It isn't just any old person through the door. They look at the personality, can they deal with not having a set structure in terms of training and not having a gym, not having a chef. As a footballer it can be a little bit daunting in terms of thinking, 'is this the real world', but it's great. They're two great people.

"You tell a lot of stories and a lot of people don't believe that there are a team that are fighting in the same league as your Sunderland's, your Portsmouth's, your Coventry's, it's a different world when you're going to places like that."

Located almost smack bang between Blackburn and Burnley, the town of Accrington has a population of 35,456, and its stadium, the Crown Ground, holds just 5,450. Stanley spent 44 years out of the Football League before winning promotion in 2006 under the leadership of Coleman and Bell. While they might not possess the glamour of some of their League One opponents, Hughes says the community feel at Accrington is what makes them special.

"I have a connection with the fans. It's crazy really, if you win a game the chairman puts a little happy hour on where you go in the bar and it's a pound a pint. You don't have to even have to go in and have a drink, but the manager makes sure you go in and mingle with the fans. So you have that connection with the fans, which I don't any think club in the whole football league does that. There's little touches like that and it's brilliant. It is a really, really unique club.

"Just little factors like that have probably been the reason why they've brought the best out of me. I'm not the only one, there'll be lads who can vouch for the same thing that they sort of played their best football (at Accrington)."

The EFL are expected to announce their decision about how to conclude League One and League Two this week. Whilst the Premier League looks set to return, Hughes believes it will be difficult for the lower leagues to adhere to the strict hygienic protocols necessary to resume matches.

"The Premier League will have a special doctor every single day, they'll have people cleaning their boots, kits, they've got training pitches that are kilometres long where you can all have space. In terms of the best they are going to get the best. In terms of the lower league, I can't see that happening.

"The Premier League can stay in a hotel all to themselves, but it's impossible for lower leagues to finance that. The realistic and sensible thing now is work something out for this year about the league table, whether that be PPG or voided, and just think about starting next year at a reasonable month, whether that be September, October or something like that. I'm sure there are people who know more than me who will sort it out."

Hughes is one of 1400 EFL players who will be out of contract at the end of June. His club were one of the first to furlough their players and staff in March, and chairman Andy Holt has admitted the club could face administration in the worst-case scenario.

"I'm one myself. I've spoken to the manager and he said he is going to let people know as soon as he knows. It's a tough situation for him because he probably hasn't discussed it with Andy about next year, and even though we haven't got the most high budgets in the league, I can see a lot of cutbacks going on and the squads are probably going to be minimal next year and you want to be part of that.

"So it's going to be tough for lads who are out of contract and easier for the ones that are in. But it's a difficult situation for the whole world and we're just part of that. Health is more important, but there is a worry at the back of your mind when you've got mortgages, and you've got a family to feed.

"Footballers get tainted don't they and get told they've got lovely this, lovely that, but down in lower league football you're just like everyone else, and we're not going to be the only ones worried about our jobs."

Manchester United legend Gary Neville - who owns League Two club Salford City - recently advised lower league players to start looking at other avenues of employment. Hughes agrees, and even though his contentment at Accrington is in danger, he remains positive about the future.

"I want to stay in the game. I'd love to get into coaching and managing one day. I agree with Gary and I wish somebody would have told me sooner to maybe get a trade. It's massive.

"I understand what he's talking about completely. People don't like getting told what to do when they retire or if you haven't got a job. But it's the world isn't it. A lot of footballers don't like to be told that. But that's what happens.

"You always get told your career is not forever. I remember getting told that when I was 18, when you get those people coming in, and you're like yeah I'll be fine, and now somebody clicks their fingers and I'm 34 this year and I totally understand what they mean now."

Andrew Maclean
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Andrew Maclean

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