Behind the BadgeThe one-on-one coaching specialist helping LFC Women's stars realise their potential
Having worked in the Peruvian capital Lima, Canada and all across the United States, it's probably fair to say Liverpool isn't the most exotic stop in Paul McHugh's peripatetic football career to date.
But it might just be the most professionally satisfying.
The Geordie signed on to be Liverpool FC Women’s assistant manager ahead of the 2021-22 season, reuniting with his old friend Matt Beard to see if they could steer a Reds side that had just finished 11 points off the pace in the FA Women’s Championship out of the second tier and back to the Barclays Women’s Super League.
In the end, it was the best of both worlds, LFC Women stamping their authority all over the Championship campaign to flip that 11-point margin on its head and win the league with two matchdays to spare, but doing so thanks to a series of hard-fought victories and late goals - such as Jasmine Matthews’ headed winner at Charlton Athletic in March - which took the already-impressive team spirit within the group to another level.
As LFCTV’s behind-the-scenes documentary Going Up makes clear, it was a journey fuelled to some degree by emotion and togetherness, but also by the intellect and nous of a coaching staff - spearheaded by manager Beard and his two assistant managers McHugh and Amber Whiteley - that used modern analytics to their advantage and always seemed to know the right thing to say at the right time.
Watch free: 'Going Up - How the Reds returned to the WSL'
McHugh makes just the briefest of cameos in the documentary, but the moment captures him doing what he loves best: one-on-one coaching, in this case with last season’s top scorer, prolific Irish forward Leanne Kiernan.
“I like that type of coaching because it’s more personal,” the former Newcastle United youth coach tells Liverpoolfc.com.
“What I say to the players is: ‘I’m here to help you but if you want to do something specific, think about it, we’ll talk about it and we’ll come up with a session to get the best possible outcome.’
“It could be Leanne, Missy Bo [Kearns], Razza [Rhiannon Roberts], I don’t mind, I’m just here to make them all better players. And if Matt, myself or Amber can make them better players, then that helps the team. It gives everybody a clear idea how we’re going to play in and out of possession, and in transition.
“The players and the staff were all so close last season, we had that relationship with them and there was no animosity. The players that we brought in fitted in straight away, which is thanks to the players who were already there, and the staff as well.
“We had a plan and we stuck to it the whole way through the season and got that final reward. People say it was a breeze for us, but it wasn’t. There were times when we drew and the other teams won, then the gap got smaller, so the pressure was always on.
“Teams changed how they played against us so we also had to know how to break open a low block. It’s a process, and you have to follow that process all the way through.”
McHugh grew up obsessed with his hometown club and Kevin Keegan in particular, and was bowled over when a meeting with former Newcastle assistant boss John Carver early in his coaching career led to an impromptu job offer.
Keegan was managing the club at the time, meaning McHugh and his boyhood icon were about to become colleagues. During his 19-and-a-half-year tenure at the Magpies’ academy, the former semi-pro player worked with a host of familiar faces, from Michael Chopra to the Longstaff brothers to Bobby Clark, the 17-year-old attacker who’s been making waves in Liverpool’s youth ranks since swapping Tyneside for Merseyside last year.
Meanwhile, the connections he’d formed over the years began to open doors to intriguing opportunities abroad, such as that short stint in Lima helping out Newcastle legend Nolberto Solano with Peru’s U23 side and youth coaching for two teams in the USA, where he first crossed paths with Beard more than 20 years ago.
Much later, when Beard went to manage Boston Breakers in the National Women’s Soccer League (shortly after leading Liverpool to back-to-back WSL titles), McHugh went with him, taking his first plunge into the world of women’s football.
Although the experience ended on a sour note when the Breakers folded in 2018, it solidified the bond between the two, who went on to work together at West Ham United Women before being reunited at the Reds last year.
“I met Matt when I first went to America to do coaching, and we just clicked straight away,” McHugh explains. “We both went back the following year and stayed in the same place.
“Later, when I first got the job in Boston, it was basically me, Matt, the goalkeeping coach and the strength and conditioning coach - that was it. We were getting in at six in the morning and leaving at four in the afternoon. You could be flying for seven-and-a-half hours just to get to a game, then you’ve got the time differences to cope with as well. You get to know someone really well in that situation.
“When the opportunity came to join Liverpool, it was a no-brainer for me. I had an interview with Matt and Amber, we ticked all the boxes and went through everything we had to do, but it was an easy decision to make. I’ve still got a house in Newcastle and my wife lives there, but it’s only three-and-a-half hours driving back from Liverpool.
“I’ve worked with Matt for five years now and we’re good friends. I know him inside-out, I know how he likes to work in and out of possession and, knowing him well, I know when to push him - I challenge him and he challenges me.”
McHugh doesn’t have to think for long when asked for the highlight of his time with Liverpool so far: the parade that LFC Women’s players and staff accompanied their male counterparts on back at the end of May, culminating in those simply stunning scenes down at The Strand.
The only problem being that, having spent most of his last year ‘over the water’ on The Wirral, their assistant manager didn’t actually know where The Strand is…
“The groundsman said to me, ‘Wait ’til you get to The Strand’, and I’m going, ‘What’s The Strand?’” he laughs.
“But when we got there, there was no mistaking it! It was unbelievable, I don’t know if I’ll ever get the chance to do something like that again. You look at the pictures and can see that everyone on that bus was just living the dream.
“Jürgen Klopp has been fantastic. The support the women’s team have had from him and the first team, that has a big effect on all our players and staff. It feels like a big family.”
Beard’s Championship winners won’t be unleashed on the WSL until September 11, kicking off with a visit to Reading. A long wait, but one that might also serve to whet the appetite after surely the most momentous summer in the history of the women’s game in this country.
The vast majority of England’s Euros-winning squad currently play for WSL clubs; a reminder, if it were needed, of how good Liverpool will have to be to truly make an impact there.
“I’ve been in the WSL with West Ham so we know the ins and outs of it, but there will be a big difference,” says McHugh.
“The likes of Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester City are always going to be there or thereabouts every season. What we did last year worked, so do we really need to change it? Maybe not, however we might have to add some things on top of that, show them different pictures, different scenarios.
“So, yes, it’ll be hard, but it’ll be exciting. We’ll have ups, we’ll have downs, but hopefully more ups, to be fair!
“We have ambitions, we have plans, we have belief, we just have to go and prove it.”