A divisive question posed for a divisive player.
Jordan Hugill is footballer with unquestionable ability and experience, yet there still exists a fascinating debate surrounding his potential return to the North West.
Over the course of four years on the PNE books, Hugill underwent a complete transformation.
The Middlesbrough-born striker joined Preston for just £27,000, as an unknown lower league journeyman with a CV boasting the likes of Whitby, Consett AFC and Marske United.
But the scouts at Preston saw something in Hugill, they saw the potential to nurture a rough diamond into a household name.
When Jordan joined PNE in the summer of 2014, boss Simon Grayson said: “He’s young, he’s raring to go, hungry, he’s a strong, powerful player, and he’s got many attributes that will help us along the way this season and compliment the squad well.”
And that was exactly what we got.
After spending the majority of his first season at Preston out on loan, Hugill’s second season at the club saw his involvement increase, but only marginally.
While he made 29 appearances in the 2015/16 season, a meagre 8 of these were starts. But this can’t have been helped by something that happened in just his second appearance of that season.
Stadium MK was the setting and the 83rd minute was the time. Jordan Hugill came on as a substitute and within a matter of moments found himself trudging awkwardly back down the tunnel with Simon Grayson’s eyes furiously following him off the pitch.
What was going on inside his head I’ll never know, but when Hugill kicked out at Kyle McFadzean, I was left wondering what sort of a future he would have at the club. At that point, it seemed like we had signed a brainless thug.
How wrong myself and others would be.
In the 2016/17 season and the first half of the 2017/18 season (before his January sale) Hugill played 5,437 minutes of Championship football, scoring, on average, 1 goal every 3 games, while averaging 1 key pass per 90 minutes played.
But what statistics don’t always show, are a player’s stylistic attributes.
Hugill, for a big, bustling target man, was surprisingly mobile. He could accelerate rapidly over a short distance and had a direct running style.
The best example of this was away at Aston Villa in January of 2017. Hugill chested the ball down to his feet just beyond the halfway line, before bursting towards the box and unleashing a venomous effort into the top corner. He then went on to complete the comeback and earn his brace with a vintage Hugill header. Embed from Getty Images
Admittedly, this was him at his absolute best. At his worst, Hugill could be extremely profligate, and this was a common criticism of the 27-year-old – “He takes 10 chances to score 1” and “He couldn’t hit a barndoor” were slurs often bellowed from the stands.
And Wigan away was Hugill at his very worst, as he saw his initial penalty saved before the rebound, headed for the opposite corner, was also gathered by the keeper.
But it would be harsh to define a player by such isolated moments, as Hugill undoubtedly made an incredibly telling impact at Deepdale.
At Middlesbrough, his time cannot be described as a nightmare, nor a blistering success story. Hugill was dealt an unfortunate hand in a squad managed by a tactical buffoon. Tony Pulis often moaned at Hugill for going down too easily, but when you’re feeding off scraps, you have to throw yourself around a bit.
Many Boro fans complained about his poor goal return, scoring just 6 goals over 2061 minutes of football, but it’s always been known that he isn’t a prolific goal scoring striker. Instead he plays to his strengths. He works hard, bullies the opposition’s defence and brings others into play, which is why he enjoyed much more success under Alex Neil’s fluid attacking system.
At Preston, Hugill had the support of three attacking midfielders with a license to fill the half spaces and overload the wings. Hugill had less pressure and therefore a greater number of goal scoring opportunities.
But, can we actually afford to re-sign him?
Last summer, Alex Neil was quick to dismiss a potential Hugill return, stating: “the loan fee attached to the move and the wages which were attached are not in the same stratosphere of where we are at.”
However, West Ham may have dropped their valuation, especially after Hugill’s rather unspectacular loan spell at Middlesbrough. Embed from Getty Images
With boss Pellegrini keen to offload the out-of-favour Teesider, it has been reported that his permanent transfer fee would be around the £3 million mark – the Hammers willing to accept a depreciation in value of around two thirds.
But, Preston still haven’t broken their club record transfer fee of £1.5 million, and that was splashed out on former Northern Ireland international David Healy way back in 2000.
Now, we did come close to matching that record with the signing of Brad Potts, but is it really likely that Preston will shell double their record fee on Hugill?
Probably not. But with Alex Neil given apparent “assurances” when he put pen to paper on a new three-year deal, could this mean he has been given the license to bring in a player like Hugill for a multi-million pound price tag?
The only other doubt that shrouds the Hugill speculation is wages. At West Ham, Hugill is on approximately £35,000 a week, something PNE would not be able to match. While Hugill would love regular game time at Preston, there are questions to be asked over whether he would be willing to take a significant wage cut when he could continue earning £35,000 a week for another 3 years.
If Hugill wants to return enough, he will be willing to sign permanently at Preston, even if it means a steep drop in wages. Otherwise, a season-long loan, which would cost around £1 million, may be the only feasible option.
So, could the player Alex Neil described as a “hurricane” find himself twisting back to Preston this summer, or will the financial implications be too off-putting?
Unfortunately I think it will be the latter.
But back to the original question: Do we need Jordan Hugill?
If the price is right, then yes. While it could be argued that Stockley will be our regular number nine next season, we do need an extra striker, especially with our injury record.
While Stockley is a clinical poacher with a knack for finding space and confusing defenders, Hugill is much quicker and is more willing to drop deep in order to link play and feed the flanks.
This is why we could easily have both Stockley and Hugill and use them interchangeably. Hugill could be used more effectively against teams that operate a high-press and require a more active frontman, whereas Stockley could be more appropriately used against teams that deploy a low block and therefore require a more clinical number nine who is better at finding space in the box.
But this will be completely irrelevant unless Trevor Hemmings decides it’s time to push the boat out in what is currently an extremely inflated player market.