Obituary: Billy Hughes

30 December 1948 – 20 December 2019 

Sunderland: 1 September 1964 – 3 September 1977 

SAFC career 307+28 appearances / 81 goals. 

Club historian Rob Mason pays tribute to one of the greats. 

It is with terrible sadness that we report the death of Billy Hughes. Billy passed away after a long illness on 20 December ten days before he was due to turn 71. Without Billy Sunderland may well not have won the FA Cup in 1973.

In the fifth-round replay with Manchester City - that was voted the greatest game ever played at Roker Park - ‘Hughesy’ scored twice as Sunderland triumphed 3-1.  “It wasn’t just winning the match but outplaying them, that’s what gives you the confidence” Billy once told me, adding, “We thought ‘hold on a minute here we’ve got something special’”. 

Billy Hughes was a special player in that very special side. He’d also scored in the original tie at City. Billy went on to score the winner in the semi-final and it was Bill that took the corner in the final from which his fellow Scot Ian Porterfield scored the only goal of the game at Wembley.      

“Billy had an extreme talent. I never saw anyone to compare with him.” says his cup winning colleague and room-mate Vic Halom who explains, “Billy had this focus that wasn’t always visible to people but he was totally focussed on playing for Sunderland. In training if I nut-megged someone I’d celebrate it as if I’d scored but Billy would tell me off and insist I concentrated because he was very serious about his football on the pitch, although he would love a laugh off it.” 

Deeply upset by Billy’s death, as all his 1973 team mates will be, Halom - who is Godfather to one of Billy’s children - only signed for Sunderland due to an injury to Billy’s brother.  John Hughes had starred for Celtic and Scotland when Bob Stokoe signed him only to suffer a career ending injury on his debut, – leading to the purchase of Halom. The appearance of the Hughes brothers in early 1973 was the last time brothers have played together for Sunderland. 

John Hughes did play at Sunderland again – in a Testimonial for Billy in 1977 that saw stars such as Bobby Charlton, Graeme Souness, Malcolm MacDonald and Francis Lee turn out in honour of Billy as part of an International XI. Billy himself was capped by Scotland against Sweden in 1975.

Billy was top scorer in the cup winning season with 19 goals – including a hat-trick against Huddersfield three days after the semi-final. He went on to score Sunderland’s first goal in European competition against Vasas Budapest in the European Cup Winners’ Cup.

In the calendar year after the cup final Manchester United manager Tommy Docherty stated, “Billy Hughes is the most exciting forward in the country” after Billy scored twice at Old Trafford. The Doc wasn’t wrong. Billy Hughes was dynamite.

Docherty wasn’t the only opposition manager to rate Billy. Don Revie, boss of the Leeds side vanquished in the cup final and manager of the most successful side of the era, tried to sign Billy, describing him as “one of the most exciting players I’ve seen.” 

The Team of ’73 have maintained a life-long bond. Someone who was especially close to Billy was the youngest member of that side, Micky Horswill who remembers, “When I got into the first team I was just a young kid. Billy saw this and took me under his wing. I never had a car so he used to pick me up and take me places. If I came back from a game on a night time I couldn’t get back to Annfield Plain so I used to stay with Billy and his wife Linda. 

They were fantastic to me. We became very close. We played snooker together and he was like a brother to me. My favourite picture is one of the two of us celebrating after he scored what proved to be the winner in the cup semi-final against Arsenal. When he scored I was the first one to get to him and I said, ‘Let’s go over to the crowd’ so we ran back towards the other end where most of our fans were and I’ve got a big picture of us running with our arms around each other on my wall at home. I got Billy to sign it and he wrote ‘One superstar – Billy Hughes.’”

Fast, strong and determined, Hughes was the ultimate flair player. In today’s football his value would be astronomical. Joining the ‘H-bombers’ of Hughes and Halom up front for Stokoe’s stars was Dennis Tueart. With Halom the battering ram in the middle, Hughes and Tueart were speed merchants with a razor-sharp cutting edge. If they were war-time planes Dennis and Billy were the Spitfire and Hurricane of the cup-winning team and no-one – absolutely no-one – could handle them.

“We were both originally centre-forwards but when Vic came it released us to play wide and we had an inbuilt understanding” Dennis Tueart recalls of his relationship with Billy. “The beauty of it was had a natural connection” Dennis continues, “So often when either of us scored, pictures show we were the first to celebrate with each other – we were a band of brothers.” Tueart echoes Halom’s memory of Hughesy’s approach to training, noting “I had to work hard at training, but Billy was a natural athlete and one who took his training very seriously.”

Billy debuted against Liverpool in February 1967, the first of 335 games he played for the lads, all but 28 of them as starts. He scored 81 goals and played in the FA Youth Cup finals of 1966 and 1967 as well as the FA Cup final of 1973. He also played in the second division winning side of 1976, scoring in the game that sealed the title against Portsmouth. 

Late in his career Billy turned out for Derby, Leicester, Carlisle, San Jose Earthquakes and Corby Town but he remained synonymous with Sunderland. In later life Billy – who while at Sunderland had a shoe-shop in the town centre called ‘Billy’s Shughes’ was a licensee in Derby and club house manager of Stressholme Golf Club in Darlington as well as running Keddleston Park golf club in Derbyshire.

“People called me a winger but I was a striker” Billy insisted to me when I last interviewed him in 2013 at the 40th anniversary of the cup win. People lucky enough to have seen Billy play for Sunderland will never forget his swashbuckling style, the flowing black hair, the tanned legs and the swagger. He was class.

Billy was a box of tricks on the pitch, but it was his legendary laughing box which he set off to interrupt interviews ahead of the cup final that highlighted the difference in attitude between relaxed Sunderland and stiff Leeds ahead of the greatest day in Sunderland’s post-war history. Billy Hughes was a massive part of that greatest day. Two weeks ago, it was announced that Billy will be inducted into the SAFC Hall of Fame in March. 

Billy Hughes – a true great of Sunderland AFC. Rest in Peace Billy.

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