Why it's no surprise that Barca and Premiership's elite are watching Will
Will Hughes is the name on everyone's lips. At 17, the Rams star has been linked to Barcelona and, last November, became the second youngest under-21 England international in history. Jill Gallone reports.
SILKY footwork, football vision to make Rams fans gasp and striking blond hair that has earned him the title "Boris Johnson's love child" make 17-year-old Will Hughes an unforgettable figure on the pitch.
He is certainly unforgettable for Matt Carrington, the man who guided the rising star's burgeoning talents as master in charge of football at Repton School, which Will attended.
"He is the best footballer I have ever come across and I've been teaching football in all age groups for 13 years," says Matt without hesitation.
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And this is a man who, thanks to Repton's sporting excellence, sees several students placed on the books of professional clubs and countless football-mad kids, both at his own school and in the wider football community.
But Will is something extra special. Matt was justly proud when his former pupil made his Derby County debut at 16 – and became the second youngest under-21 England international in history last November. Will found himself in the dressing room with players from Spurs, Manchester United, Chelsea and Liverpool.
Will, whose family lives in Derby, says: "I admit it was a bit surreal when I met the lads at the hotel but you do get used to it after a few days, once you get to know them.
"My mum and my 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."
That must be pretty hard when Premiership scouts are flocking to Derby's Pride Park to watch you play and even Barcelona are reputed to be interested.
But if anyone can stay grounded it is Will, according to Matt, the man who took the lad to one side and reminded him about the importance of education and how fickle the world of football can be when he left Repton after taking his GCSEs.
"He's always been a very sensible lad. He's got a good head on his shoulders," says Matt. "I know he's doing two A-levels and I'm pleased about that. He's a bright lad and that intelligence comes across on the pitch."
Will, who played as a sweeper for junior side Mickleover Jubilee, says: "I'm doing politics and business studies. It is important to have some qualifications as a back-up plan just in case I don't make it as footballer."
The way things are going, the latter is unlikely, though, as Will also points out, injury can stop your career in its tracks.
His former teacher prefers this scenario: "This is a great story for Derbyshire. Will's local, went to Repton School and plays for Derby. It would be nice to have him as an England midfielder. We might even start challenging the Spanish! His style of play would suit Barcelona."
All Derby County fans can talk about is how long the club can hold on to Will before a multi-million-pound offer lands on Nigel Clough's desk. Most reluctantly accept he may soon be on his way.
Matt hopes that won't happen anytime soon because he thinks Clough is doing a superb job with Will.
"He's handling Will very well. It would be a shame if he left in the January transfer window," says Matt who witnessed Will's development over five years, two at Foremark Hall, Repton's preparatory school, and three at Repton. "He was a young lad of about 12 when I first saw him play. I knew then that he was a very special player. He won a lot of games for us.
"One time, when the under-14s were playing in the England Schools Football Association Cup, we were losing with one minute to go. Will picked up the ball in his own half, beat about seven or eight players and scored to force the match into extra time.
"His style of play and shock of blond hair have always made him stand out."
That's certainly the case at Pride Park, where fans have taken him to their hearts. Some call him the Milky Bar Kid, others affectionately chant "Hughesy".
"He played for our first team at Repton for a year and was our top goal scorer – amazing for a midfielder," says Matt. "He'd detest it if he wasn't playing. I'm sure he'd rather play in front of 20,000 or 30,000 people at Pride Park than in front of 20 at a reserves game at a bigger club.
"He'd rather be sticking one in the top corner in front of thousands of Rams fans."
Matt is not surprised clubs are queuing up to watch the Rams starlet, who came off the bench to make his debut for Derby at 16. He made the first 11 in the last game of the 2011-12 season. His impact was immediate. He has been a permanent fixture in midfield ever since.
"Will is outstanding," says Matt, "the full package in terms of skill, attitude and consistency. I've never seen him have a bad game. I always knew he had a strong chance of making it professionally."
Aside from Will's formidable ability and confidence, Matt says: "He's got the right personality. He doesn't tend to get carried away. He just loves playing football.
"When training finished – and we trained five times a week – he'd be looking for boys to carry on playing with. I have never known a kid love football so much.
"He used to sulk if I subbed him off. He just wanted to be out there. He is the most competitive footballer I have ever met. And he detests losing. He never stops trying."
Repton School provided the perfect backdrop for someone of his calibre to excel. "We're a very big sporting school," says Matt. "It's as close as you can get to being a proper football academy. As well as training five times a week, we go all over the country to play."
Consequently, talent gets picked up rapidly. "There is a big network of scouts and quite a few of our pupils are watched from a young age."
In fact, Will can count two fellow young professionals among his peers, Johnny Gorman, who plays for Wolves, and Kieron Fenton, who is at Nottingham Forest.
But, for Matt, it is Will who has that extra something rarely witnessed. "One of the things that make him stand out, as well as his touch and ability, is that he understands the game, the way it flows, and he influences that. Will could do that at 14, so I'm not surprised he's been fast-tracked so quickly.
"He's never been a big, strong boy physically. He looks as if a gust of wind could blow him over, and yet he's dictating games and looking like Derby's most creative player."
Will has been compared to Diego Maradona and legendary midfielder Liam Brady, who was a cut above the rest in the late 1970s/early 80s.
"That's a good comparison," says Matt.
Liam played for top Italian sides including Juventus and Inter Milan in his hugely successful career.
Though no Rams fan wants to see Will go, Matt says: "If they get a few million for Will, Derby could buy three or four players who will give them the extra push they need.
"In the past, Derby have made mistakes. They let Tom Huddlestone go for less than they should have."
England player Tom was another product of the Rams academy who got snapped up by a Premiership side.
So, what would Matt like his protege to achieve?
"I would just love him to have a career he really enjoys and be happy and in control. I'd like to see him play for England and in the Champions League, to get as far as he can in the game he loves. He once said to me that if he didn't make it as a player he would become a coach.
"I just hope that at 33 or 34 he's still pulling on a football shirt with the enthusiasm he has now."