One of Northern Ireland’s supreme most prolific goal-scorers Sammy Hughes, a Glentoran icon, died yesterday. He was in his eighties.
Hughes, whose feats as a centre-forward were heralded in song and story, ranked third in the Oval club’s all-time scorers behind Fred Roberts and Trevor Thompson.
His total was an astonishing 297 in 378 matches.
Most of them were either opportunistic or spectacular with headers his speciality.
He reached his zenith in 1952-53 when he accumulated 64 goals — then a post-war record — collected Irish League, City Cup and Ulster Cup medals, won the prestigious Ulster Footballer of the Year Trophy and was selected along with Bruce Shiels (Cliftonville) and Billy Neill (Glentoran) for Northern Ireland’s six-week coast-to-coast tour of the United States and Canada.
Hughes made a decisive impact in this series which included crossing the Atlantic by luxury liner, train journeys from New York to Victoria, British Columbia and back via Edmonton, Toronto and Montreal.
He hit 11 of the team’s 39 goals on what was a pioneering mission organised by Ulsterman Sammy Donaghy for Canadian representative football, brought to a virtual standstill during the Second World War and its immediate aftermath.
Tragedy struck him in the final match, a 4-1 defeat by Berne Young Boys at the Delorimer Stadium, Montreal, where he fractured his ankle in collision with the Swiss side’s goalkeeper.
Born in Harryville, Ballymena, Hughes was one of a family of five which included four boys — Sammy, Billy, Frank and Jackie — and a girl and was a product of Boys Brigade football.
Then, when only 14, he signed for Cliftonville youths, had spells with junior and intermediate teams, joined Linfield, scoring twice against Distillery in the Irish Cup, but disillusioned at not getting regular football at Windsor Park, he signed for Larne.
Kilmarnock wanted him, manager Alex Hastings actually made the trip to Ulster, but in stepped the Glens, managed by Frank Grice, and for a £500 signing-on fee, so began his happy association with the east Belfast club.
It was the beginning of a bonding between many quality players including ‘Flash’ King, John ‘Bap’ Dunlop and Billy Neill.
That was in 1949/50 season which saw Belfast Celtic so tragically depart from Irish League football leaving a void never adequately filled, though Crusaders replaced them, and at least proved they merited the elevation.
There was another landmark— the return of Glentoran to the Oval, destroyed in the German air attacks on Belfast, after a period in exile, sharing with Distillery at the Old Grosvenor Park.
The name Sammy Hughes began to percolate into the newspaper match reports.
The Canadian ankle injury sidelined him until November 1953, yet in 37 matches during that much-reduced season he scored 30 goals with the Glens finishing a point behind Linfield in the Irish League championship. They also lost to Derry City in an epic three-match final, watched by an aggregate 93,285 spectators at Windsor Park; an era when health and safety were only two words in the dictionary.
On to the Oval scene came Trevor Thompson, groomed as marksman of the Sixties and manager John Colrain’s “secret weapon” in the highly successful 1967 Detroit Cougars series.
Hughes gradually found himself down the pecking order and in 1958-59 season when his appearances were limited to 17 (eight goals), manager Tommy Briggs, building a squad for the Sixties, released him and another idol Sammy Lowry. Glentoran fans were stunned.
Sammy Hughes, modest almost introverted who never boasted of his achievements and an immortal of Northern Ireland domestic football, is survived by his four sons, and a daughter. His wife predeceased him some years ago.