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Lee Hughes: Profile: Spectacular rise and fall of Ginger Ninja; The jailing yesterday of Lee Hughes for causing death by dangerous driving has brought the curtain crashing down on the fairytale of the fan who turned his dreams of playing for his favourite team into reality. Neil Connor takes a look at the highs and lows of the forward nicknamed the Ginger Ninja.

Byline: Neil Connor

Working alongside his father as a roofer in the Black Country, Lee Hughes's dream was to don the shirt of his beloved West Bromwich Albion and score in front of the Birmingham Road End.

Smethwick-born Hughes was a lifelong Baggies fan, a passion that continued to burn even after he was released by The Hawthorns club as a junior in 1990 when he was just 14.

However, he soon got his break in football when he signed as a trainee for Kidderminster Harriers in August 1995.

He quickly became a hero at Kidderminster, netting 62 goals in two years. It was this kind of form that attracted renewed attention from Albion and, at the age of 21, he fulfilled his childhood ambition by signing for the Baggies, for a fee of pounds 350,000.

Hughes was an instant hit and appeared to have the world at his feet. During the 1998/99 Nationwide Division One campaign, his second season at Albion, he netted 31 goals, more than anyone else in all four divisions, including Michael Owen and Alan Shearer.

He wore his heart on his sleeve - plus an Albion tattoo - and bagged 14 goals in 18 league appearances during his first season before capping that with his record tally the following year. It was around the same time that he began to attract headlines off the pitch as well as on it.

Nineteen-year-old Sharlene Gillis claimed the player had fathered her child. She even made Hughes take a DNA test which later proved he was not the child's father.

He was also a victim of crude chanting from away fans inspired by the striker's engagement to lap dancer Donna Nisbet after a whirlwind romance in 1999.

After splitting from Miss Nisbet, Hughes married Anna Kuzmanic in a quiet ceremony in Croatia in June 2000 - six months before their first child, Mia, was born.

On the pitch he was forming a formidable partnership with Jason Roberts as the pair ended the 2000/01 season as losing play-off semi-finalists with 40 goals between them.

But at the start of that campaign they were questioned by police over allegations that they assaulted a man outside a pub in Brierley Hill. The case against the pair was dropped in September 2000.

Hughes became Albion's record transfer sale at the end of season 2000/01 when he went to Coventry City for pounds 5,000,001 - a clause in his contract allowed his release for a figure above pounds 5 million - after he could not agree a new contract with the Baggies.

Hughes scored 15 goals in 38 games for the Sky Blues, who had been relegated from the Premier League. However, after just one season at Coventry, the prodigal son returned to Albion, newly-promoted to the Premiership, for pounds 2.5 million, another Baggies transfer record.

But it was not the success Albion fans anticipated as Hughes failed to score in 14 league appearances and the Baggies plummeted straight back into Division One.

Hughes was on average form last year, netting 12 goals to help Albion restore their position in football's top flight.

Just days before the fatal car crash he scored in Albion's spectacular comeback against West Ham United at Upton Park, when the Baggies won 4-3 after being 3-0 down at half-time.

On Saturday November 22, the day of the crash, Hughes could not make an impact in the 0-0 draw against Reading when he came on as a substitute.

He was dropped from the game against Cardiff the following Tuesday after his club released a statement saying he had 'missed training' on the Monday, when Hughes was on the run from police.

He also missed three further games but came on as a substitute for Albion at Bradford City on December 9.

Hughes lost his place in the team and did not score again until he helped Albion on their way to a 3-1 victory against Watford on January 31. Despite his personal troubles, Hughes scored five more goals as Albion won automatic promotion into the Premier League for the second time in three years.

Before his conviction and sentencing yesterday, his place in the team had looked less certain with the signing of Kanu from Arsenal and competition from strikers Geoff Horsfield, Rob Hulse and Scott Dobie.

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Hughes married Anna (right) in Croatia in June 2000
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Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Aug 10, 2004
Words:731
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