Will Hughes likely wouldn’t have been expecting his first meeting with Derby since departing the club to have been back in the Championship.
The midfielder had seemed set for a meteoric rise when he broke through from the Rams academy, making his senior debut as a 16-year-old for the club in 2011, but Watford’s relegation means he now faces his old club in the second tier.
Not that he minds one bit.
“It’s not been a shock!” Hughes, now 25, told Sky Sports of his return to the second tier four years after switching Pride Park for Vicarage Road. “I enjoy it. It’s a good league, it’s a battle and it’s obviously different to the Premier League in a lot of ways. But I enjoy the challenge. It helps not having VAR as well!”
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Hughes made almost 200 appearances in all competitions for Derby before his departure in 2017, and played his part in many close calls with trying to return the club to the Premier League.
Now he is playing for a side fighting for promotion, who host a Derby team that have spent most of the season so far flirting with relegation. It’s not been easy watching on from afar as a club so close to his heart struggles.
“I’ve always followed them since I left,” he says. “Every club has its challenges and Derby are no different. But it seems like they’ve turned a corner since Wayne [Rooney] came in. So we’re in for a tough game. They don’t ship many goals and they have more than enough to keep climbing the table.
“I’ve still got a lot of friends there now. I was a Liverpool fan growing up but I also followed Derby and went to their games, so it’s going to be strange playing them again, albeit with no crowd.
“I don’t think there are many players left from when I was there, which shows how quickly football changes in just a few years, but I still know a few of the coaching staff and it’ll be good to see some familiar faces.”
Hughes, in just his fourth full season at Watford, is onto his sixth permanent manager at the club.
He was signed by Marco Silva, played in the FA Cup final under Javi Gracia in 2019, then last season there was Quique Sanchez Flores and Nigel Pearson as they were eventually relegated.
This season Vladimir Ivic came in and started well, before being dismissed in December after results took a brief turn, and now it’s Xisco Munoz. It’s clear the goal was survival last season, and now it’s automatic promotion. Any less and you won’t last long in the Vicarage Road hot seat.
Hughes acknowledges the players have to take some responsibility, but says the atmosphere is different under Munoz and things are looking up.
“I’ve not been counting [managers]! But you always have to get on with it,” he says. “Obviously there’s a reason why they keep changing manager and it’s because we are ultimately not performing on the pitch.
“We have to take a bit of responsibility for that because we’re professional and we have to get on with it, whoever is in charge.
“All managers have different aspects and personalities in how they work. He is a bundle of energy, he’s happy and has a smile on his face and it reciprocates to the lads. You can see it in training, everyone has a bounce to them and we’re enjoying it.”
Heading into Friday night, Watford have won their last two to keep their automatic-promotion aims alive. But they still have three good sides above them and will need to go on a run to achieve their aims.
“I don’t want to sit here and say we’ve not performed,” Hughes says. “I don’t know what it’s been like at times because I’ve missed large chunks of the season through injury and other various bits and bobs.
“But with the players we have our aim was to win the league, and it still is. So hopefully we can achieve that. There’s still a long way to go and we can push on.
“We’ve not performed as well as we wanted to, but we’re still in touching distance. There are three very good teams above us. All teams can have a wobble, Brentford are going through one at the moment and they are probably the best team I’ve seen this season. It will be tough to catch all three.”
And if they can’t catch them, it may well be the play-offs. Hughes doesn’t have the best memories of them, having been in the Derby side the day they managed to lose 1-0 to QPR in the 90th minute on 2014, despite dominating virtually the entire game at Wembley.
“I haven’t brought that up!” he jokes. “It’s not the best route, but with the squad we’ve got we’ll look to go up any way we can.”
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