Incredible year for rising star Will but Rams youngster is keeping feet on the ground
A DEBUT at 16, a first-team regular at 17 and now the second youngest England under-21 international in history.
Will Hughes is living the dream and admits he has to pinch himself to check it is really happening to him.
He has been touted as the new Liam Brady – the highly cultured former Arsenal star – and scouts from the top clubs are regular visitors to Pride Park Stadium to keep a close eye on the talented youngster.
Speculation over his future is likely to escalate between now and the January transfer window in spite of the fact he recently signed a long-term contract at Derby County until 2015 and he is very happy at the club.
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It has been an incredible year for him since he appeared as a late substitute at Peterborough. Such a 12 months would be enough to turn the head of most but not Hughes.
He has taken everything in his stride and continues to do so.
The hugely-impressive composure he displays on the ball on the pitch is matched by his level-headed outlook off it.
He appears completely unruffled by the whirlwind whipping around him.
This was evident when he replaced Josh McEachran during the second half of England's victory over Northern Ireland in Tuesday's under-21 friendly at Blackpool. He slotted in seamlessly and soon carried the air of somebody who was winning his 20th cap, never mind his first.
There were, of course, some nerves. "It is natural to be nervous before a big game," said Hughes, who was part of a squad that included players from Manchester United, Liverpool, Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur.
"I admit, it was a bit surreal when I met the lads at the hotel but you get used to it after a few days once you get to know them and what they are like," said Hughes.
"My mum and sister were at the game and it was nice to have them there. I wasn't expecting all this to happen so quickly and so you need the support of your family to keep you grounded."
There was no obvious outward signs of what it meant to step up to under-21 level at such a tender age but it was a very proud moment for him, his family and the Rams' Academy, of which he is a glowing product along with Jeff Hendrick, Mason Bennett and Mark O'Brien.
Hughes played as a sweeper for Mickleover Jubilee before he joined Nottingham Forest's Academy aged nine and stayed until he was 12.
"In the end, I wasn't really enjoying my time there and left," he said. A brief spell back in local Sunday league football followed before he linked up with Derby.
"I found I enjoyed it at Derby. I got a scholarship, and it has just taken off," added Hughes, who has featured in all of the Rams' first-team games this season and has started 16 of the 17.
He is also studying for two A Levels. He receives tutoring twice a week and continuing his education is very important to the former Repton School pupil.
"I'm doing Politics and Business Studies," said Hughes. "Football does come first but I also want to fit in time to study. It is important for me to have some qualifications as a back-up plan just in case I don't make it as a footballer.
"I don't want to rely on football totally because anything can happen. You could get an injury next week that could rule you out. So, I am not taking it for granted. If I do make it as a footballer, then the qualifications are something to fall back on after my career.
"I have seen it in the past where footballers think they have made it at a young age and it can backfire. I don't want to take that risk."
Balancing his football and studying takes some doing. "It has been hard work, obviously. With playing so much this season, I have found it difficult," he said.
"I have lessons Tuesday evening and Thursday morning but because I've had matches Tuesday evenings, I have had to catch up on my studies," added Hughes, who was at Repton three years after spending two years at Foremarke Hall, the Repton Preparatory School.
Hughes' first senior start for Derby came against Peterborough at Pride Park in the final game of last season. He had turned 17 only two weeks earlier and yet he produced one of the most competent full debuts seen from a young Rams player in years.
His game is not built on size, strength and pace, as is so often the case in English football. It is all about composure, touch, control and vision and supporters went away purring over what they had seen.
Hughes says he has manager Nigel Clough to thank. The youngster added: "I wouldn't be in the position I'm in now if it hadn't been for him giving me the chance to even train with the first team, which was a massive step up for me. For him to have faith in me gives me a lot of confidence."
Hughes' first goal came in the 5-1 home victory over Watford in September and he also found the net in last Saturday's 2-1 defeat at Millwall.
"The one at Millwall was completely different to the one against Watford but it was not the best feeling because we lost the game," said Hughes.
"So the Watford goal meant more in terms of the result. It wasn't as good as it looked because I actually sliced it.
"The ball took about an hour to go in! I remember feeling a sense of relief about getting on the scoresheet but I didn't know how to celebrate.
"I think I just waited for my team-mates to come and congratulate me. I hope there are a few more goals in my locker."
Hughes looks to have a bright future, although it must be remembered that he has played only 20 first-team games. He is fully aware of the long road ahead, a road that has been travelled by many talented young players with varying degress of success.
Asked for one word to sum up the past 12 months, Hughes paused for thought. "Unexpected", he answered, before adding: "I could never have imagined how it has gone but I am taking nothing for granted. I am taking it in my stride and not letting it go to my head, which is the main thing.
"I'm still not expecting my name to be on the team sheet. When I go into the changing room before games, I am expecting to be on the bench.
"Playing football is the most important thing. When you are eight or nine and watching Match of the Day, you don't think about the money, you just want to play football. That's the dream.
"To get the chance to play Championship football at 17 is amazing and I'm enjoying every minute of it."