Leeds United: Mancunian wins place in hearts of Whites faithful

It's not often a Mancunian wins a place in the hearts of the Leeds United faithful.

Andrew Hughes has been bestowed that privileged position following a three-and-a-half year association with the Whites that left him humble, proud and eternally grateful all in the same sentence.

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In an age where many modern-day footballers – particularly in the Premiership – badge-kiss for effect and make glib sound-bytes about their affinities for a certain club, only to quickly switch their allegiances at the first whiff of discord, Hughes, while not exactly being the exception to the rule, is one of a select breed.

Almost old-school.

Someone whose pride in representing his employers was visible whenever he crossed the white line or represented it in the wider community, with his commitment unstinting whether it be in front of thousands at Elland Road or among his team-mates at rural Thorp Arch.

All good things come to an end. And with a heavy heart, Hughes has left the club which he openly admits gave him the footballing kiss of life back in August 2007.

Hughes, who turned 33 at the start of this month, has elected to extend his playing days at Scunthorpe United – after being on the periphery for most of this term. But his medley of memories from his time at United will never fade and he wouldn't have missed it for the world.

Hughes, who famously joined on the very day that United were docked 15 points for breaking Football League rules on August 9, 2007 – one of the darkest in the club's decorated history – told the YEP: "It basically was the best three-and-a-half seasons of my life; I loved every single minute of my time there; it was just phenomenal and an amazing time.

"There's a lot of memories from the very first day driving down the motorway and becoming the first player to join the club when they were minus 15 (points).

"I remember being told I was mad to join a club in that position.

"Obviously, there were the times when we got in the play-offs, lost in the play-offs and then there was getting promotion and beating Manchester United and being part of the winning team as well."

He added: "I'd always known how big Leeds United was, because I lived in Manchester and used to drive past the stadium and think: 'Wow, it's unbelievable.' You could only dream of playing in a stadium like that every week.

"Being employed by the club and playing there has been one of the most emotional and special times of my life. Me and my wife and family have absolutely loved it here. It's been sensational, it really has.

"Leeds United didn't need to sell the club to me the day they got the minus 15. It didn't bother me one bit.

"I wanted to get a horrible job done that needed doing. Thank God, it was all sorted...

"I joined the club on minus 15 points at the bottom of League One and left one that was two points off second place in the Championship. So I feel like I've had a wonderful time.

"I can honestly say and I genuinely mean this. Playing in front of the Leeds fans – home and away – made me feel so lucky and honoured to play in front of them. In the good times – and there were bad times as well.

"But they are honest fans and if you give them what they want, they are happy with it."

Former boss Dennis Wise famously stated that he wanted 'fighters' when the Football League dealt their savage points blow upon United in the hot summer of 2007 and he got a perfect prototype when he successfully handed Hughes a lifeline away from relative obscurity of the first-team fringes at Norwich City.

The midfield grafter – later switched to left-back – and his team-mates helped administer a collective V-sign to the football authorities by wiping out United's hefty controversial points penalty in double-quick time, with the school holidays having barely ended – and the roar of defiance resounding.

With ground zero reached, the bar was raised and the play-offs and promotion became the modus operandi. While Yorkshire rivals Doncaster Rovers scuppered what would have been the most remarkable of seasons at the final heartbreaking juncture at Wembley, Leeds had at least secured a moral victory, while placing itself back on the footballing landscape.

The following campaign, with expectations raised, ultimately proved a disappointment, while being eventful all the same – the forerunner to the cataclysmic 2009-10 campaign when Leeds simply couldn't fail.

It proved an acid test of character and nerve, something displayed by Hughes in abundance and tellingly, of the 25 games United won in League One last season, he started 22.

The final dramatic denouement against mid-table Bristol Rovers, in a game that had a bit of everything, will never be forgotten by those who witnessed it and Hughes and his joyous and relieved team-mates will take memories of that day to their graves.

Hughes said: "It was the biggest game for Leeds United in probably the past three years or so. It was probably bigger than the play-off game when we got beaten by Doncaster at Wembley because no-one really expected us to go up that season or do as well as what we did.

"We went down to 10 men, Max (Gradel) got sent off and suddenly 38,000 Leeds fans became our 11th man and helped us through the game.

"The belief and the feeling afterwards was terrific. All I remember was the announcer saying to the Leeds fans: 'Please stay off the pitch.'

But I didn't want that, I wanted them on the pitch and to enjoy it with them on there.

"I was lucky enough to celebrate with a lot of Leeds fans that day. Just being on the pitch with all those fans was something you usually saw on the telly, but always wanted to be a part of.

"To say I was part of a celebration like that with the Leeds fans was special."

Another champagne occasion that will be talked about for ever and a day is THAT third-round cup tie at Old Trafford on January 3, 2010 that has since passed into Elland Road folklore.

Boyhood Manchester City fan Hughes enjoyed the sweetest of memories on enemy territory in his home city – along with 9,000 others – providing him with another extraordinary instalment in his United scrapbook.

He added: "Old Trafford was amazing. The fans totally deserved it and we actually deserved to win that day, that was the best thing.

"We were on roll last season and we went there full of confidence and we turned them over in their own backyard and thoroughly merited it.

"But my main aim was to win promotion with Leeds United and say I'd actually won something and I did it under someone who is going to be a future top-class manager.

"I was pleased and very proud to say I actually won something with Leeds United."

While playing for a club with such gravitas as United always spoke for itself for Hughes, working under a manager of stature in Simon Grayson – the archetypal players' boss – was a dream.

And the United favourite is just desperate for the highly-rated young gaffer to finish off the job at Elland Road after plenty of elbow grease and laying of foundations in the past few years – and restore the club to its rightful stage.

Hughes added: "The manager was absolutely brilliant since he came in on day one. With his guidance and the chairman's, they have slowly rebuilt the club.

"Hopefully, it will kick on and get stronger and stronger. Especially with Simon Grayson in charge.

"All I ever ask for in life is for people to be honest with me and give me true answers. Every time I ever spoke to the manager, he was straight down the line with me and told me how it is.

"He doesn't miss a trick and being a Yorkshireman himself, he knows what it takes to live in the city and to play for Leeds.

"He managed to drag Leeds up last season. We weren't doing very well when he came in and he dragged us up and got us playing.

"I'm just praying Leeds get promoted this year and that Leeds kick on

with him.

"There's some wonderful players there – Snodgrass, Howson, Max Gradel, Luciano (Becchio), Bradley Johnson, Neil Kilkenny. With Simon's

encouragement, they are always going to get better and better."

Paul Heckingbottom (right) and Samuel Saiz (left).

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