Hughes wants devilment from Saints in semi
The memory of one of the most famous goals Mark Hughes scored helps fuel his belief that one moment of magic in today's FA Cup semi-final could kickstart a recovery for Southampton and make a season of struggle end in relative success.
The Welshman recalls how his dramatic late volley against Oldham in the 1994 semi-final gave renewed impetus to a Manchester United side that went on to win the double. So Southampton's manager views today's showdown with Chelsea not as an excessive burden in the middle of a relegation fight but as an opportunity to trigger a turnaround at the club he was hired to rescue last month.
Hughes says his acrobatic equaliser against Oldham in the last minute of extra time is one of the three goals that people still mention to him regularly (along with his winner against Barcelona in the 1991 European Cup Winners' Cup final and a preposterous volley he struck for Wales against Spain in 1985) and he remembers how it helped reinvigorate United's season at a time when they appeared to be waning.
"We had been going for a treble at one point but we got beaten in the League Cup final, it looked as if we were stalling in the league and then the FA Cup was slipping away too," says Hughes.
Oldham were on the verge of a glorious victory until Hughes fired in a spectacular volley to take the semi-final to a replay, which United won 4-1. They went on to thrash Chelsea 4-0 in the final and beat Blackburn to the league title.
"It had looked as if we were going to lose everything but in one moment we got back on track and ended up with the double. Those key little things can change a whole season. Let's hope one of our guys can produce a moment that changes our season."
If such a moment arrives, it may come from a player who has been on the fringes since Hughes replaced Mauricio Pellegrino five weeks ago. The manager has declared his intentions to rotate his starting line-up to preserve certain players for next Saturday's game at home to Bournemouth, in which victory is vital for Southampton's Premier League survival hopes, especially after the pain of last Saturday's 3-2 defeat by today's opponents.
Hughes will not only alter personnel in the rematch: he also hinted that he will use the semi‑final to deploy a new formation in an effort to solve the scoring problems that have plagued Southampton since long before Hughes's appointment. That could mean fielding two strikers instead of a lone frontman, which is a tactic that many Southampton fans have been demanding since last season.
So far Hughes has used a similar one-striker system to the one favoured by the club's last two managers, Claude Puel and Pellegrino, but he hinted he may introduce a new approach for today. "We're in a situation where we're going to have to be more expansive and take more risks from this point onwards," he said. "I think fans will see that [on Sunday]."
Questions remain as to whether Southampton have one sharp striker, let alone two. Charlie Austin remains their top scorer with seven goals in all competitions this season while Manolo Gabbiadini has four, Shane Long two and Guido Carrillo, who became the club's record signing in January when he joined for £19m from Monaco, has yet to get off the mark or even look worthy of a place in the squad.
At least those players have a manager who knows what it is like to be a top striker. He says the only solution is to keep plugging away - and have the courage to try to conjure a moment of magic.
"You've just got to keep on doing the right things in terms of getting in the right areas, affecting back fours," says Hughes. "We are creating chances but maybe it's just about that little bit of devilment in the box you need to get on the end of things. And sometimes make things happen yourself. Maybe we need that little bit of stardust in our team to create that chance out of nothing."
It will be a fine trick if Southampton can muster a happy ending to their season of woe.
Chelsea v Southampton
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