As the transfer window slowly creaks shut, so the speculation around clubs in the Premier League and Championship intensifies. Some of it will have foundations and it does seem to be the case that Liverpool are seriously interested in our wunderkind Will Hughes. And why wouldn’t they be?
The latest batch of reports from the national media started the bidding at £6m, escalating through £7m to £10m yesterday. Leaving aside the fact that no bids have actually been received at the time of writing, one linking factor to all of these reports is their assertion that Liverpool would apparently be comfortable with a “loan-back” agreement, which would see Hughes remain at Pride Park for the rest of this season.
I’m sure that Liverpool would be delighted to secure one of the very best young English talents through such an arrangement, but I am convinced that unless it was accompanied by a very, very serious transfer fee indeed, it would represent very bad business for Derby.
Hughes is 18 years and 4 months old and is already a member of the England U’21 squad. As a technically gifted English midfield playmaker with the intelligence to play at the top level, he is not so much a rarity as a real-life unicorn. His development has been incredible and it won’t stop here.
It doesn’t seem like hyperbole to suggest that he is a future England international in the making – indeed, Sam Wallace of The Independent reports, ‘he is part of a small group of English players whom the Football Association hopes can be developed in the next cycle of Under-21s to make the step up to senior level within the next four years’. Everyone understands that eventually, he will move on from Derby. But letting him leave now, even for £10m, would be criminal.
For a start, he signed a deal running until summer 2016 a few months ago, so there is no contract wind-down issue to force our hand. And it seems reasonable to assume that over the course of this season, Hughes is going to improve. If he continues to represent England during the forthcoming European Championship qualification campaign, his stock can only rise.
A “£10m” 18-year old is not going to lose value and may very well attract other suitors if his career continues on its current arc.
The loan-back idea is only good for the buyer. It’s an insurance clause, securing the player before you actually need him to prevent any of your rivals clocking him as he continues his development. Why would we agree to that? As Wallace says in his report, “Liverpool are aware that the price is only likely to rise over the coming months”.
It seems ridiculous to me, but Clough nevertheless acknowledged the possibility in a recent interview, quoted in the Derby Telegraph thusly: –
“People talk about the loan-back option should he move on. With certain players, I don’t think they would cope with that but if anything ever happens, and that is the scenario…. then that wouldn’t be a problem for him because he just gets on with his football.”
Perhaps, but undeniably, you would be left with a different player, regardless of how level-headed a character he may be. Rather than being a rising star, a loaned-back Hughes would be a man whose ascent was already confirmed, just not yet delivered. From the outside looking in, I cannot see how a player in those circumstances, whose big move is already secured, could possibly address his loan period with a ‘smaller’ club with the same level of enthusiasm and commitment.
Those who disagree could point to the Wilfried Zaha transfer last season, when the player moved to Manchester United in January and stayed with the Eagles until the end of the season, but I would argue that the circumstances were very different. At the time of Zaha’s sale, Palace were fourth in the league and very much involved in the promotion race. Zaha had a very clear mission for his final few games at Palace. Even so, chairman Steve Parish reportedly kicked against the idea of a loanback and tried unsuccessfully to delay the sale until the end of the season.
To my mind, even a bid of £10m with a loan-back should be rejected out of hand at this stage. If he is worth that much to somebody now, then there’s no reason why he wouldn’t be worth even more to the same club, or a rival bidder, 12 months down the line – with more experience, more England U’21 caps and doubtless many more exquisite moments of guile to add to his highlights reel.
Of course, Liverpool could decide to move on to other targets, but his very Englishness, in a system which insists on a certain amount of homegrown players in a Premier League squad, means that he is an asset who will always command the attention of the big clubs.
Hughes is in the first days of a career which could last the best part of the next two decades, with a bit of luck – Clough has already told him that he should model himself on professionals like Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs, who is still going at nigh-on 40.
To my mind, it would be very bad business indeed to jump at the first bid that is dangled in front of us for a player of such rare ability – if indeed one is lodged before the end of the transfer window.