FROM the playing fields of West Kirby to the King Power Stadium, Sam Hughes has paid tribute to Chester for their role in his meteoric rise.
The 20-year-old defender penned a three-year deal with Premier League side Leicester City last week after his contract expired at Chester, for an undisclosed fee understood to be in the region of £125,000.
Hughes made 64 appearances for Chester, scoring eight times for the club he joined as a 15-year-old having been spotted playing for his junior team, West Kirby Wasps.
Five years on and Hughes is embarking on a new chapter in his life, where he is seen as a long-term replacement at centre-back for club captain Wes Morgan or veteran title-winner Robert Huth, but it could have been a very different story had Chester not rejected a £70,000 offer from Barnsley for the highly-rated youngster in January.
However, Hughes explained how he now realises Chester chief executive Mark Maguire ‘did right’ by him in rejecting the offer, with both player and club reaping the benefits six months later.
“At the time I was disappointed not to get that opportunity to speak to them, I’d be lying if I said otherwise, but the club did right by me,” Hughes explained.
“It was the first time I’d been in a situation like that and I thought it was a chance to step up to the Championship and test myself.
“But I now realise the decision made by Chester to reject that bid was the right thing to do by myself and for the club, and I’m delighted with how it’s worked out for everyone.
“I’ve got a move to the Premier League but importantly the club have benefited from that move and that’s important to me.”
The decision to hold onto Hughes has paid immense dividends for Chester and it also provided Hughes with a moment he will ‘never forget’, as he was made the club’s youngest ever captain for their derby clash with Tranmere Rovers in March, at the tender age of 19.
“I got my head down after January, I was injured so I got myself fit and playing again,” he said.
“For me, Tranmere is our biggest game of the season, so to get the captaincy it was an unbelievable experience, one of the best moments of my life.
“I’ll always have massive respect for Jon McCarthy for giving me the armband, and the reaction of my team-mates, many of which were much more experienced than me, was fantastic, they got fully behind me.”
Hughes’ rise to stardom at Chester began in 2012 when the club’s head of youth development Bernard Concannon spotted the teenager playing for his grassroots team, West Kirby Wasps, and West Kirby Schoolboys.
Hughes was quickly snapped up and progressed through the youth ranks under the watchful eye of academy head coach Calum McIntyre, and Hughes feels he will always be indebted to the people who have believed in him at the Lookers Vauxhall Stadium, including both his first-team managers – Steve Burr and McCarthy.
“People know what Chester means to me, the club have been absolutely unbelievable,” he continued.
“I can’t thank the people at Chester enough for what they’ve done for me, the way I’ve been treated from Steve Burr and Jon giving me a chance, right through to Calum who was brilliant when I was coming through the academy teams.
“Calum has always been there for me and the other younger lads, he believed in me from the outset and never changed his way with us. That’ll stay with me.”
And as for choosing Leicester - the 2015/16 Premier League champions – Hughes admits it was a ‘no-brainer’ once he knew of manager Craig Shakespeare’s interest.
The versatile defender expects he will begin life at the King Power Stadium in the Under 23s squad, while a loan move to the Championship may also prove an option, as he bids to follow a similar path to that of England striker Jamie Vardy in making the leap from non-league to the top tier.
“They’re a Premier League club, it’s a massive club who won the league just a year ago,” he said.
“The pathway at Leicester is there for me and I have to prove I want it. They have a history of giving lads a chance from the lower leagues and that’s a massive opportunity and was a big reason for moving there.
“I’m from a close-knit family and it’ll be my first time moving away, so the fact Leicester isn’t too far away helped as well. It was a no-brainer to move there once I knew of their interest.
“From having talks with Leicester, it’s going to be a fairly open door, they’ll treat me like any other player. I’m expecting I will be involved in the Under 23s and then we’ll go from there.
“They’ll have a look in pre-season, see where I’m at in terms of fitness and technically. Maybe I’ll go out on loan but I’m not sure yet, it’s down to me to impress the coaches in training.”
See full story in the Chester Leader