Stephen Hughes was a rare thing: a young English footballer who broke through into Arsène Wenger’s Arsenal team. The left sided England under-21 midfielder played a part in the Gunners 1997/98 Premiership triumph, but subsequently struggled to make an impression at Highbury. Hughes possessed many of the hallmarks of a Wenger player: technique, movement, a good first touch and accurate passing – but perhaps lacked the pace and guile that would have earned him a regular berth.
Still spoken of as a potential England international when Walter Smith signed him in March 2000, Hughes was placed straight into the starting line up. He settled quickly, but without standing out or seeming to justify the £3million price tag put on his head – a fee that subsequently turned out to be based on appearances and other clauses, of which Everton paid just £500,000. While showing some of the flourishes of an intelligent and inventive midfielder, as Smith’s reign started to wane during the 2000/01 season Hughes degenerated into a pale, enigmatic presence, contributing little to a struggling team. Off the pitch there were questions asked of his attitude, which may have stemmed from an alleged half time brawl involving Smith’s assistant, Archie Knox, when Everton faced Bradford City in November 2000.
Amid talk of homesickness, Hughes was edged out of the first team. There were rumours of a transfer to West Ham that failed to materialise, and at the end of the 2000/01 season he was released from his contract. Hughes joined Watford and played out a career of underachievement outside the top flight.