Billy RIP

Billy Hughes will be forever part of Sunderland’s history and folklore, having played in every game in the 1973 FA Cup run, and taking the corner from which Ian Porterfield scored in the final. He has sadly passed away after a long illness, just ten days short of his 71st birthday.

Billy was a flamboyant sort of forward who was always likely to do something out of the ordinary, which was why he was signed after being spotted playing for Coatbridge schools. Despite his folks wanting him to follow big brother John to Celtic, and to our eternal benefit, Billy’s interest in Parkhead was brief, and he stayed with us. He played his first game in February 1967, a 2-2 draw at home with Liverpool, a couple of months after he turned eighteen, with his versatility meaning that over the following seasons he was deployed right across what was then regarded as the front five, tending towards the centre forward position as the years passed. His style of play meant that he was a player the fans loved to watch, as there was always something the younger ones would try to emulate on Sunday mornings or during school matches, and provided the perfect foil for Vic Halom’s more robust style in that cup run. After playing as centre forward in the two cup games against Notts County, he moved sideways to allow his brother John, who we signed from Palace, into the centre. However, an injury early in Yogi’s debut, in a 2-0 win over Millwall, proved the end of his career. Dave Watson briefly filled in up front, then In came Vic, and the rest is history.

He scored our first at Maine Road, and it was what our little group called a Scottish finish – where an English player would have fired it under or wide of the keeper, we reckoned, Billy whacked it high and handsome into the net. He followed that with two in the replay that was reckoned to be one of Roker’s finest matches – his first was of such class, putting defenders of the calibre of Mike Doyle and Tommy Booth on their backsides before belting it home, that it is only just behind Vic’s earlier rocket in the pantheon of great Roker goals. He was virtually unplayable that night, producing one of the finest individual performances seen at Roker, which is some achievement considering how well the team as a whole played. Three days after his looping header secured victory over Arsenal in the semi-final, Billy scored his only Sunderland hat-trick as we beat Huddersfield 3-0 at home. He rose to the top of his game in during that cup run, with the help of his famous laughing box breaking the pre-match tension, and his heroics in the final are well documented – we’ve all got that picture of him with the FA Cup on his head.

His performances earned a transfer offer from Leeds themselves, which we turned down, and a cap for Scotland against Sweden in April 1975, and his two goals in three minutes – Scottish finishes – at Old Trafford in a 2-3 defeat in November 1974 raised his profile in the wider football world even higher. In 1977 he left us for a brief spell at Derby, following that with a couple of seasons at Leicester, a loan spell at Carlisle, and an even briefer swansong at San Jose Earthquakes. Since retiring, Billy was in the licensed trade in Derby before managing Stressholme golf club in Darlington. It was while he was there that I first had a chat with him, during a “Sportsman’s Evening” with Mike Summerbee. He was exactly as I’d expected - all laughing and joking – apart from the constant presence of a tab in his hand. A different generation of footballer.

I’d heard in the summer from Micky Horswill that Billy wasn’t in good health, but the passing of another boyhood hero is immensely sad. Not only was Billy an exceptional player, but one of his less well known talents was looking after younger players, Micky in particular. His talent on the pitch was both unquestionable and inspiring – the sort kids wanted to emulate - and his demeanour when not playing was equally as entertaining. He was the sort of player who the opposition fans loved to hate – but secretly admired. I remember a game up the road when, during the warm-up, the mags were giving him grief, to which he responded by adopting a profound mincing gait. When the traditional 1970s missiles, toilet rolls, were thrown at him in response, he picked one up and pretended to wipe his backside with it. He also had the nerve to open a shoe shop called Billy’s Shughes. A real character, and a great footballer.

Billy Hughes, 1948-2019. 335 games, 81 goals, and the best Sunderland ‘tache of modern times.

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