Saturday 21 September 2019

Light goes out for 'Sparky'

What once looked a promising top-flight managerial career now seems in ruins

Mark Hughes’ final game in charge of Southampton proved to be a 2-2 draw against his former club Manchester United. Photo: Reuters
Mark Hughes’ final game in charge of Southampton proved to be a 2-2 draw against his former club Manchester United. Photo: Reuters

Jason Burt

The joke started within minutes of Mark Hughes being sacked by Southampton: what does it say about the state of Manchester United that a manager in the bottom three loses his job for failing to beat them?

It was, of course, the nature of the draw on Saturday, with Southampton again surrendering an advantage, that ended Hughes's eight-month, 22 Premier League-game spell in charge.

Given it was argued that Hughes was fortunate to be handed the Southampton job in the first place, then it begs the question: where does the 55-year-old go from here? It is difficult to see him remaining in the Premier League. The likelihood is a job in the Middle East or China.

Southampton are set on a different direction and have been considering candidates for the past few weeks to break their hire-and-fire cycle, one which has been, frankly, heading only one way. Hughes, despite having been awarded a three-year deal in the summer, has possibly been fortunate to survive this long.

The new direction is with the recruitment of a more dynamic, overseas, hands-on, training-ground coach, and although the Austrian Ralph Hasenhuttl is only four years younger than Hughes, he feels far fresher, more youthful and more in keeping with modern football. In fairness to Southampton, his appointment would feel like something of a coup.


The danger for the man known in his playing days as 'Sparky' is that he is now consigned to the cadre of older - or perceived as old - British managers whose only hope of re-employment in the top flight is as a short-term firefighter at a club desperate to save themselves. Given Hughes's ambition and regard for his own ability, and the sense that he is a longer-term builder of clubs, then that will hurt.

Either way, the fall from grace in football can be savage. Hughes's playing CV affords him rare status: Manchester United, Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Chelsea. He was one of the most formidable players of his generation; an iconic striker.

When his early managerial career was full of exciting, equally hard-edged success with Wales and then Blackburn Rovers, he was that dynamic young thing who appeared destined to manage one of the clubs he played for. It did not feel fanciful that it would be Hughes who would eventually succeed Alex Ferguson at United, while both Chelsea and Bayern did include him on their shortlists at one time or another.

His break came at Manchester City, which, in one fell swoop, killed off any chances of going back to Old Trafford, and there is the argument that he has never truly recovered from what happened there.

City will justifiably state that they went on to bigger and better things, upgrading their managers until peaking with Pep Guardiola, and can defend the decision to sack Hughes in 2009 to make way for Roberto Mancini.

They may even argue that Hughes did not do himself any favours with the way he responded to City's new Abu Dhabi owners.

But there is no question it was badly handled, with Hughes being left marooned on the touchline during a fixture against Sunderland as the news of his downfall spread around the stadium. It was brutal. Hughes knew he was going - only because of what he had gleaned - but had to wait until after the game to receive the official word that led to protests from some City players.

It scarred him and also affected the way he handled his next job, at Fulham. Hughes initially struggled and was in real danger of being sacked before gaining a 2-0 win away to Stoke City in December 2010. In a rerun of what happened at City, with the way Mancini was appointed, Hughes was aware that Fulham were considering Martin Jol.

And so the Dutchman did succeed him, but only when Hughes activated a release clause at the end of that season - arguing that the club did not match his ambition, which drew significant criticism but had its roots in a desire to control his own destiny and not flirt again with being dismissed.

His next club, Queens Park Rangers, were a disaster for him, and Hughes made some terrible, ruinous mistakes as both he and the chairman, Tony Fernandes, tried to run before they could walk.

The mitigation for Hughes was that he was still desperately trying to prove City wrong and that he was right to quit Fulham. But that was not good enough, which meant he was then fortunate to take over at Stoke City - given the stability at that club through its ownership - and he was given the task of progressing the style of play.

It worked, for a while, but there were worrying signs that Hughes, who was sacked this year, had lost his mojo. At Stoke, it was said, the regime became lax and discipline was not being enforced.

Also, poor and expensive signings were again being made, such as the £18 million committed to Tottenham Hotspur reserve Kevin Wimmer on Hughes's misjudged recommendation. It was even said Stoke had resembled something of a "holiday camp" and that his dismissal became inevitable.

What now? History will be unkind to Hughes. It was felt by those close to him that he had one more big job left in him and, maybe, if he could have won silverware at Stoke, it might have convinced a big club to have gone for him.

That plays into the theory that Hughes's time at Stoke never recovered from the disappointment of agonisingly losing the League Cup semi-final to Liverpool in 2016. Stoke won the second leg at Anfield, their first triumph there since 1959, but lost on penalties.

The chances of that big job being landed have gone and so the fear will set in that, given his failure at Southampton, he may be out of the market.

Before facing United, Hughes said he was not fazed by talk that he was about to be fired. Now it has happened, it does beg that question: where does he go from here? (© Daily Telegraph, London)

The Left Wing: Ireland's fullback dilemma, World Cup bonding and the squad standby list

Also in Sport