In pursuit of a cherished job in football, he had sacrificed full-time work with Stoke-based Webberley Printers in favour of reduced hours, enabling him to focus on unpaid employment as non-league Tamworth’s analyst.
Yet faced with a daunting £250 bill to repair his crucial tools of the trade, and still living with his parents, the increasingly disillusioned 25-year-old was presented with a watershed moment.
A decade later, as Pompey’s sporting director, Hughes is overseeing their latest push for a Championship return, having recruited 13 players during a busy summer transfer window.
It’s the culmination of a gruelling pathway which saw him also serve at Stoke, Burnley, Wigan, Everton and Forest Green before his September 2022 arrival at Fratton Park.
And, having defied the odds to reach this level, he’s determined to maintain that hard-earned career momentum.
‘I’m probably at a point where I have been in this role – or similar – close to four-and-a-half years now, Hughes told The News.
‘I know I’m not the finished article, I know I'm not the best version I can be, but I'm trying to get better at everything. I like learning, I like challenging myself, and I believe I’m in a good spot.
‘A decade ago I was a dogsbody at Tamworth, we had a very small group of staff, only 4-5 people full-time in the club, and I almost gave up.
‘One day my laptop screen smashed and it was £250 to replace. I had no money, was living with my parents in Stoke, and at a bit of a wit’s end. There are times when you think you should give up – that was mine.
‘I think everyone who works in elite sport, especially professional football, has a moment where they need to go into a dark place and figure out if they really want to do it and how hard they need to work to achieve it.
‘I had actually changed my hours at the print company I worked for to three days a week, purely so I could work the other two days and match-days for free at Tamworth. I was staunchly committed to being successful, desperate to achieve.
‘That was my moment of doubt, yet it drove me to keep going, continuing trying to be realistic in the game, while Tamworth were really good and sorted out the laptop for me.
‘Now I’m at Pompey. I know I need to continue to do well and get better in everything we do. This is a great challenge for everyone at this club.’
In the summer of 2009, having graduated with a 2:1 degree in Sport and Exercise Sciences from Staffordshire University, Hughes was unsure how to utilise his qualifications.
Although having worked in Stoke’s Academy as a performance analyst during a placement alongside his course, that glimpse into the game’s machinations had left him wanting more.
He added: ‘During my course, I had no idea what I wanted to do afterwards, yet that time at Stoke gave me the bug for working in a football club and I carried on doing work there even after I left.
‘There’s always a hell of a lot of pressure knowing what you want to do, so I certainly don’t think there’s anything wrong with not being sure. You can take your time and let things fall into place.
‘I knew I wanted to work in professional sport, but if you had told me at 22 or 23 that, by the age of 35, I would be at Pompey, I wouldn’t have believed a word of it. Yet wouldn’t swap a minute of the journey.
‘My full-time job after leaving university was at Webberley Printers, a print management company where my dad was one of the managing directors. It was in Hanley with a big bookshop underneath and did a lot of NHS tenders.
‘I think I was always going to end up in a sales position within the office, but started working from the bottom up, in the warehouse, packing boxes, operating in every area of the organisation to appreciate how it worked.
‘However, I was quite often distracted there in terms of doing football stuff because that was always the passion.
‘I even went to the United States in the summer of 2010 to try my hand at coaching, working along the East Coast for four months, from New Jersey to Atlanta. I worked with 4-18 year-olds – and it made me realise coaching wasn’t for me!
‘I enjoy the structural organisational and leadership style of football as opposed to the day-to-day. Coaching is not something I have ever particularly got a buzz out of, so we’ll leave that to the experts!
‘In the end, I created portfolios of my analysis work and sent them off to clubs, but they were days when it was difficult to attach them to emails, so I instead posted DVDs of my work, costing me a small fortune.
‘Yet that was the space I wanted to get into, I was prepared to do whatever to reach there – and League Two Macclesfield responded, asking me to do some work on a voluntary basis. That’s how it started.
‘I was involved in analysis and recruitment work, firstly with them and then Tamworth, travelling the country, watching players, while juggling my day job, working every hour God sends and trying to cram in as many games as possible.’
He quit Conference Premier side Tamworth in March 2014, following an offer to work on the recruitment and scouting team at Premier-League bound Burnley.
The life-changing move was initiated by Glyn Chamberlain, formerly Macclesfield assistant boss and now a member of the Turf Moor senior scouting staff, where Sean Dyche was manager.
Then, in August 2015, Hughes joined League One Wigan as a recruitment analyst, remaining for two years during a tenure which also briefly saw him work alongside Paul Cook, fresh from leading Pompey to the League Two title.
That was followed by a return to the Premier League through Everton in November 2017 to serve as Academy recruitment coordinator.
He said: ‘I crossed over with Paul Cook at Wigan, for around three months, before I moved to Everton.
‘Wigan were in a bit of a transitional period and, having had success from League One to reach the Championship, were then relegated, with Paul tasked with getting the club back. He did a really good job.
‘I then had a really exciting opportunity to work in the Academy recruitment department at Everton, giving me a real understanding of what a Category One Academy looked like, which was a good part of my development.
‘Anthony Gordon and Nathan Broadhead were already there and the football club’s strategy at the time was to invest in some good young players. We did some good bits of work and it was a really enjoyable experience.
‘Then, after six months, I was fortunate enough to be offered the position of head of recruitment at Forest Green. At the age of 30, it was too good to turn down with a club ready to progress and go forward.
‘I suppose that’s quite young, but I’ve been fortunate to always have people who have helped me and were prepared to take a chance.’
Arriving at the League Two club in May 2018 as head of recruitment, within 18 months Hughes had been promoted to director of football.
A first season would yield defeat in the play-off semi-finals to Tranmere, then 10th in the Covid-curtailed 2019-20 campaign, with the final table decided on points per game.
There was another play-off semi-final loss, this time to Newport County, before winning the League Two title on goal difference ahead of Exeter in 2021-22, managed by Rob Edwards.
Hughes’ impressive recruitment record was acknowledged throughout football, having signed the likes of Liam Kitching, Ebou Adams, Nicky Cadden and Kane Wilson.
It persuaded Pompey to approach Forest Green for his services in May 2022, with chief executive Andy Cullen eager to introduce a sporting director into the Fratton Park infrastructure.
However, a late change of heart ensured a Blues switch fell through, with Hughes handed a bumper new deal to remain at Dale Vince’s club.
Then Pompey came calling once again in September 2022 – and this time he wasn’t letting the opportunity slip.
Hughes added: ‘I was fortunate Pompey came around again.
‘The first time around there were a few personal circumstances in terms of family things where it didn’t quite feel right to uproot them, probably coupled with my commitment to Forest Green at the time.
‘I had put a lot of blood, sweat and tears into the project and didn’t feel it was right to go. Then Rob Edwards left and, when the opportunity came up to have another conversation, it felt way too good to turn down.
‘In all honesty, I regretted not taking the Pompey job last summer. Yet now the family circumstances were a bit better and could be worked out, with my wife finishing work and then coming down.
‘There was no way I was ever going to be able to do this job without her support. She carries a big burden in terms of being a mum as the job means I often have to travel away.
‘It’s such a relief to me knowing she’s at home being a wonderful mum to the kids and looking after them. When we felt we could commit as a family, we were happy to do so.
‘Football is a fluctuating world and, when I officially started in October, I didn’t envisage leading the process to bring in a new head coach to replace Danny Cowley, but sometimes football throws up these challenges – and it’s our job to react, strategise and plan accordingly.
‘This isn’t meant as a cliche or trying to curry favour with the fans, but Pompey is a monumentally huge football club and sometimes you can forget what it is capable of, where it wants to get to and what it looks like.
‘It’s our job as the current incumbents to make this club great again and achieve success.’
Hughes refers to a second opportunity, yet perhaps it was fate which dictated his eventual Fratton Park arrival.
After all, his granddad Bill was born in Southsea and worked in the Navy before relocating to Staffordshire and rising to the position of a school headmaster.
It seems Pompey – and unusual career paths – are entwined within the Hughes family tree.
He said: ‘My granddad always told me: “Look to do something you really enjoy for work”. He’s no longer with us, he was a wonderful man.
‘I suppose coming back here is a serendipitous twist of fate and really quite special.
‘My wife and kids moved down in April, but before that it was just me living down here by myself. Then my mum and dad visited earlier this summer.
‘There was a really nice moment with my dad, walking around Southsea, talking about these places that granddad knew. Dad actually has a picture of my granddad on Southsea beach – and we found the spot where it was taken.
‘I’m welling up a little talking about it now. It’s an incredibly small world and really weird that we now live down here.
‘But I am here with a job to do – and determined to bring success back to this fantastic football club.’