First Team 30/03/2020

My Best: Will Hughes

By Kevin Affleck

Hornets midfielder talks through his best players, matches and more in a quick-fire interview...

Best player you've played with?

“Harry Kane when I was with England Under-21s. He wasn't as big physically as he is now but his quality when finishing was unbelievable: left foot, right foot or with his head. It's all come to fruition because he worked so hard at it.”

Best player you've played against?

“There have been plenty since I've played in the Premier League, but I'd have to go with Kevin De Bruyne. He sees plays before they happen and is bigger and quicker than you think when you watch him on TV. He's got it all and the frightening thing is he's probably only been in gear two or three when he's played against us. There is not a lot you can do if he decides to come to the party.”

Best player you've seen live?

“The one that springs to mind is Fernando Torres. I saw him score that volley against Blackburn at Anfield and for those few years when he was at Liverpool, there was no better striker around.”

Best captain you've played under?

“It would have to be Troy. On the first day I arrived he was one of the first to greet me and said to come to him if I needed anything. He made me feel really welcome. On the pitch, you know what you always get from him and he leads by example and from the front. He's always there if you need a chat about anything.”

Best character in the dressing room?

“I'm going to go with Capoue. You have to be on your toes when he's around. He's very loud and very lively. He loves playing that Wolf game when we are on pre-season. I played it once but it wasn't my cup of tea. I'd rather play him at poker.”

Best game you've played in?

“A couple spring to mind. Brighton at home in the play-off semi-final when I was at Derby in 2014. I scored my best goal and we won 4-1. Then obviously there was the win against Liverpool the other week. We dismantled a very good team and it was quite comfortable in the end.”

Best coach you've worked under?

“Nigel Clough. First and foremost he taught me how to be a good human being. He also gave me a chance at such a young age and was fantastic for me. He knew when to put an arm around the shoulder and when to let you have it. I'm still scared of him now!”

Best friend in football?

“I haven't really got a best friend. I'm close to Josh Lelan, who used to play for Northampton Town. I lived with him when I was at Derby, but he no longer plays. I'm close to a few of the lads at Watford, like Clevs, Mapps and Craig.”

Best game you've been to?

“That's a tricky one. I've not been to too many recently but I remember a Champions League game at Anfield in 2007. Liverpool beat Besiktas 8-0, Benayoun got a hat-trick and Crouch got a couple. They were frightening that night and Besiktas couldn't live with them. It was a classic Champions League night at Anfield.”

Best atmosphere you've been involved in?

“We lost 5-0 to Liverpool last season and the atmosphere there is normally electric but this was frightening. You couldn't even hear your own teammates shout to you. Also, the atmosphere when Derby beat Forest 3-0 at home in December 2016 was pretty special. I scored in that one so it was the icing on the cake.”

Best game involving the team you support?

“I'm a Liverpool fan so it would have to be when they came back to beat Milan in the 2005 Champions League. I was only 10 but I was devastated at half-time when they went 3-0 down. The comeback was unbelievable and Gerrard was on another level in that second half, especially when you consider some of the names in that Milan team.”

First Team 30/03/2020

Mariappa's Ten Years: Part Two – Dealing With Rejection

By Kevin Affleck

With 10 years’ first-team service now complete, the homegrown defender picks out his most memorable moments for the Hornets so far…

It seems crazy to think after the career you've had that you weren't actually offered a scholarship. Is that right?

Yes. I was an Under-16 and had been playing up in the Under-17s. It came to that time of year when everyone gets the decision and most of the lads had been told either way. I was one of the last ones to be told. I thought I was going to get it and it really shocked me when I didn't. I was told I'd be offered a part-time scholarship but not a full-time one. That meant I was allowed to come in but not officially be on the books. I still remember how I felt; it was one of the worst feelings I've ever had. It's stuck with me to this day.

How did you react?

It was exactly what I needed. It was really hard at the time but, looking back, it was a major thing that helped me become a professional. My dad was really disappointed but it turned out to be a blessing in disguise. It changed my whole mentality. I put my entire focus on football as that's all I wanted to do. From the very next day I just focused so hard on proving myself right and everyone else wrong. There was no taking my foot off the gas anymore as I was now playing catch up. I came in every day so focused after that.

The move paid off as it wasn't long before you changed people's minds...

I finished the season so well and they offered me a scholarship by the end, but all the places had gone. I came in as a part-time scholar and hit the ground running. David Hockaday had me with the Under-19s and I ended up captaining that team. I got the scholarship. Over the course of the next two years, I really kicked on and improved a lot. I worked so much on my game and had an attitude of improving every single day. It paid dividends.

Did you think about giving it a go somewhere else when you were initially rejected?

My dad probably thought about that but I was determined to prove myself here. I knew I had it in me and it paid off. At the time I was playing right-back for the 16s but then I moved to centre-back and that helped as it was my natural position. I was just so determined and focused.

Ashley Young had missed out on a scholarship a couple of years before and yet went on to be a star in the first team. How much of an inspiration was he?

David Hockaday brought up Ashley Young at the scholarship meeting. He said I could learn from what Ash had achieved and how he reacted to not being given a scholarship. I remember Ash being told he wasn't getting a scholarship and having to train with us in the evening. God knows what that did to him mentally, having to train with the age group below. I saw the hard work he was putting in, day in and day out and he was so focused. It gave me something to aspire to.

When did you actually get the news you would eventually be offered a scholarship?

The following October, as a space became available. Whether I got it or not wouldn't have changed my mindset. We got £70 a week, but I just wanted to kick on and do well and I managed to do that over the course of the scholarship.

Was being offered a pro contract more straight forward than the scholarship process?

I remember going into that meeting with David Dodds and David Hockaday and I was so nervous. They sat me down and said, 'You probably know what we are going to say?' I said I had no idea. They said I'd earned a pro deal. I was delighted. The gaffer was Ray Lewington and I was flying as I was training with the first team now and then. It was going well and then Ray got sacked and Aidy came in. He watched a reserve game and didn't take a liking to me. I didn't have a stinker – I just remember some of the lads felt like they were ahead of me. I thought, 'Here we go again.' It's nothing I wasn't used to. I just kept my focus until the end of the season.

In fact, you were a scholar when you were called up to the first team for the first time in the final game of the 2004/05 season....

It was really nerve-wracking. Aidy had put a lot of the young boys in during the back end of that season and I think Al Bangura started against West Ham, Junior Osborne came on and then there was me, Joel Grant and Reece Kirk on the bench. It was a great moment for me to be on the bench as I've gone from being a ball boy, to years of watching and then to being involved in the first team. It's what dreams are made of. It was brilliant as we really had such a good group of young lads that season.

Can you remember what your first wage packet as a young pro was?

£250 a week. My brother is an electrician and he always had a laugh and a joke with me about me being a footballer and yet him earning more than me. I didn't celebrate at the time because I was just relieved to get it and determined to carry on. My dad said, 'The hard work starts now, you haven't made it yet.' It was just another hurdle to get over.

Read Mariappa's Ten Years: Part One – The Younger Years and keep an eye out for Part Three, coming next week.

See Mariappa talk through key memories from his ten seasons as he watches nostalgic footage from the archives in 'Mapped Out'...