The rise and rise of Mark Hughes is the comic strip story of the 1984-85 European soccer season.
There was, of course, that unscripted setback in Hungary when his penalty failure during the quarter-final shoot-out against Videoton cost Manchester United their UEFA Cup place. But the following weekend the saga was back on course. He struck a stupendous eight-minute hat-trick against Aston Villa and was named the Professional Footballers' Association Young Player of the Year. Then United manager Ron Atkinson capped it all by revealing he would give the 21-year-old Welsh striker a lucrative new contract a year before the end of his current deal.
For Hughes the last 12 months must have been a blur. A marvellous blur. From the position of outsider he has emerged as United's number one front man. And on the international scene he has firmly established himself as partner to Ian Rush in the Welsh team. That combination represents one of the most potentially lethal in the game.
Hughes cannot have dared torment himself with dreams of such success when he first strived to make an impression in the Wrexham and District Under-13 League. He was, at that stage, a midfield player but at the age of 16 was switched to attack by the then United youth coach, Syd Owen, and stayed there. He played alongside the younger Norman Whiteside in the team that reached the 1982 FA Youth Cup final, but he lagged behind the big Irish lad in the race for first-team recognition. Whiteside was still only 16 when, three years ago, he was given his chance. The following season he was Frank Stapleton's regular partner as United reached two domestic finals.
Last season Hughes made his debut, scoring in the 1-1 Milk Cup draw at Oxford. By the end of the campaign he had firmly staked his claim with United and a goal against England in his home town of Wrexham launched his international career. At the start of this season United manager Ron Atkinson gave Hughes the opportunity to confirm his potential and he hasn't disappointed. Such has been the quality of his performances that he has become an automatic choice, leaving Stapleton, Whiteside and summer-signing Alan Brazil, to fight for the other striker's ' role.
Hughes is not tall but has a bull-like strength. His sturdy frame is an ever willing target for team-mates and usually an immovable object for opponents. He is brave, sharp, has good balance, a fine touch and a thunderous shot in both feet. No display better illustrated those attributes than the one which demolished Villa at Old Trafford.
His first goal was reward for quick reaction in a congested penalty area following a corner. He even beat Bryan Robson to the chance and hammered it away. The second, a minute later, completed a sweeping, textbook move by United. Sent clear, he calmly beat the advancing goalkeeper. The third defied logic. Meeting a return ball from Gordon Strachan, his marker right with him, he met it on the volley and somehow managed to glance it into the far corner. Old Trafford, theatre of so much high drama over the years, rose to salute a virtuoso performance. A minute before half-time he thumped a post with a screaming volley. Had that gone in we might have acclaimed it the best goal of the lot. In the second half he shaved the bar.
Villa's shell-shocked defenders simply couldn't contain him. To compound their misery, Norman Whiteside scored a fourth as United kept alive their championship challenge. The full devastation of Hughes' play was etched deep in the faces of those Villa players as they dragged themselves away from the stadium. Central defender Brendan Ormsby said: "It was murder, absolute murder. It was as good a striker's performance as any I've had to contend with. He couldn't do anything wrong. He had everything-and in both feet. All I wanted was for the referee to blow the final whistle."
His partner and captain Allan Evans said: "The amazing thing is that they were all difficult chances. It was world-class finishing.
"I've always rated him, but this has confirmed him as one of the country's top strikers. In some ways he is better than lan Rush. Not so much, perhaps, in his finishing but in the rest of his game. He gets stuck in and tackles better. He is very strong and very brave."
Hughes looked almost as dazed. He said: ''It was one of those days when the ball would have gone in whatever I did."
His Young Player of the Year award was the perfect follow-up. "It's a great honour to be held in that regard by your fellow professionals. Most of them have been in the game a lot longer than I have."
Atkinson, meanwhile, was contemplating Hughes' future, aware that his fame was already spreading across Europe and, in particular, to Italy. The scouting network which supplies Italian clubs with revised "shopping lists" of British players had been following the progress of Chelsea's Kerry Dixon, Nottingham Forest's Peter Davenport . .. and Hughes.
Atkinson wouldn't even consider the prospect of transfer talk, and planned instead to give Hughes a big summer pay rise and a greatly extended contract. The United boss said:"Mark is obviously very much a part of our future. He has had a smashing season and is getting better and better.
"There are times when he can be frustrating. He sometimes loses concentration and gets caught in possession. But then he produces a hat trick like that against Villa and he looks £4 million class. The thing is he is still learning and he's improving at the bread and butter stuff. At the same time we don't want to knock out his individuality because that is what makes him special."
At the time of writing Stapleton was the man playing alongside Hughes, with Whiteside operating in a left-side midfield role and Brazil on the outside looking in. And further praise for Hughes came in the wake of Wales' shock 1-0 World Cup win over Scotland at Hampden. Liverpool's goal-grabber supreme, Ian Rush, said: "People have been saying that if you stop me, you stop Wales. I never believed that to be true but they can't say that any more. If they stop me, they then have to stop Mark and that takes some doing.."
This article originally appeared in the May 1985 edition of World Soccer Magazine. You can subscribe for a ridiculously low sum by clicking here.