William Hughes, footballer. Born, Coatbridge: 30 December, 1948. Died, Derby: 20 December, 2019, aged 70
BILLY Hughes, who has died just days before his 71st birthday, after a year-long battle against cancer, was more than simply “Yogi’s wee brother.” He was a very fine footballer in his own right.
Big brother John ‘Yogi’ Hughes was already an established star in the Celtic team, when Billy began to attract the scouts’ attention with his play for St Augustine’s HS and the Coatbridge & District Schools side. The assumption even then was that the youngest Hughes would follow Yogi to Celtic Park, but Billy was even then his own man.
It even upset some members of his family, but he turned down the chance to go become a “Kelly Kid” at Parkhead, opting instead to sign for Sunderland as an apprentice when leaving school. It was a move he never had cause to regret.
The Wearside youth team he joined was packed with talented young players. They reached the FA Youth Cup in both 1966 and 1967, and, by the time that second final came along, Hughes had already made the first of his 335 appearances in the first team, debuting against Liverpool in February, 1967.
He quickly established himself “up top” at Roker Park. His career in some ways mirrored that of his elder brother; initially he was a centre forward, but he was moved out wide, where his pace and flair proved more effective. He still got his share of goals, never more so than in season 1972-73, when the Sunderland side gelled as never before.
The club had been relegated out of the top flight in 1970 and while consistently jn the top half of the Second Division (today’s Championship), they were never better than on the fringes of the promotion race.
That was the case too in that 72-73 season, however, it was a different story in the FA Cup. The Black Cats needed a replay to get past Notts County in the third round, and again required a second game to see off Reading in the fourth.
They were second favourites against Manchester City in round five, but a 2-2 draw at Maine Road took the First Division side back to Roker Park, where Hughes scored twice in an unlikely 3-1 win for Sunderland, in what has since been dubbed “the best ever match at Roker Park”.
Luton Town were then despatched in the quarter-final, to earn Sunderland a semi-final date, at Hillsborough, against an Arsenal side seeking a third straight Wembley final. It was not to be, with the Second Division underdogs winning 2-0 and Hughes grabbing the goal which sent Sunderland to Wembley for the first time since 1937.
They were set to face Don Revie’s star-studded Leeds United, who went into the game as overwhelming odds-on favourites. But, in one of English football’s greatest upsets, it was the unrated Second Division underdogs who won, courtesy of Ian Porterfield’s goal, from a Billy Hughes corner, and Jim Montgomery’s sensational late double save.
That win also put the Black Cats into Europe for the first time, in the 1973-74 Cup-Winners Cup, where Hughes scored their first European goal, against Vasas Budapest.
Getting back to the First Division remained a problem for the club, until season 1975-76, when they finally managed it, going up as Second Division Champions, and hanging-on, surviving on goal difference in what was Hughes’ final season with the club.
His loyalty to Sunderland during their years in the second tier probably cost Hughes Scotland caps – the English top flight of the time was awash with tartan talent, but, he did manage one appearance for his country, earning his cap when replacing Graeme Souness in the 54th minute of a friendly against Sweden, in Gothenburg, in April, 1975.
While at Sunderland, he also achieved a boyhood ambition, of playing in the same senior team as big brother John. “Yogi’ had left Celtic for Crystal Palace, but in 1973 he was signed by Sunderland, making his debut alongside Billy against Millwall.
Sadly, the brothers’ reunion lasted a mere 15 minutes before John suffered a career-ending injury. They remain, however, the last pair of brothers to have appeared in the same Sunderland team.
In 1977, Billy, after a testimonial game against a star-studded International XI, moved on to Derby County, then to Leicester City. He also had a loan spell under FA Cup-winning manager Bob Stokoe at Carlisle United before, following a short spell with San Jose in USA football, he ran down his career with Corby Town.
While at Sunderland, Billy had dabbled in commerce, running a shoe shop – ‘Billy’s Shughes’ – however, once he hung up his boots, he briefly ran a pub, before gravitating into the world of the sports club steward, at various golf clubs.
He had settled in Derbyshire in retirement, and it was there, just a year after the initial cancer diagnosis, that he passed away.
Billy Hughes is survived by his wife Linda and their children and a devastated elder brother John. He is also mourned by the success-starved and long-suffering Sunderland fans, to whom Hughes and the rest of the 1973 team remain immortals.
That legendary status with the club will be cemented in March, 2020, when Billy Hughes will be posthumously inducted into the Sunderland FC Hall of Fame. A fitting tribute to a fine player and a man revered among his younger team mates for the help he gave them to adjust to the demands of top-flight football.