Queens Park Rangers' Mark Hughes far from ready to do Manchester United and Sir Alex Ferguson a favour
SUCH is Mark Hughes’s aversion to being anybody’s man but his own, his likeliest response to Sir Alex Ferguson’s desperate plea for a favour from 'Sparky’ and his Queens Park Rangers team this weekend would have been a dismissive roll of the eyes rather than the blushing glow of recognition.
On the face of it, the dynamic ahead of Sunday’s final day of the league season, when Hughes’ Queens Park Rangers must claim a point at Manchester City to be sure of avoiding relegation, thereby handing Manchester United an unlikely title lifeline, appears straightforward.
Hughes, the United legend with an axe to grind against City following, in Ferguson’s words, his “very unethical” sacking in 2009, will be hell-bent on saving his own skin and, at the same time, repaying his former manager for all those glorious years at Old Trafford. That is the theory, anyway.
Yet while Hughes will certainly be relishing the prospect of payback against City, and the opportunity to rain on their parade after being turfed out of his job following weeks of the club’s clandestine negotiations with Roberto Mancini, his connection with Ferguson will not provide even an ounce of motivation.
His cool relationship with Ferguson – who he disparagingly referred to as the 'knight of the realm’ during his 18-month reign as City manager – stems from his perception that the Scot would be quick to drop him when results went awry at Old Trafford and that his true value was never fully appreciated by the United manager.
Hughes does though still bristle at his dismissal by City 2½ years ago, and does not require Ferguson’s cod psychology to point him in the right direction this weekend.
Forever compromised by being appointed as manager prior to Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed al Nahyan’s takeover in September 2008, Hughes rarely felt anything other than his position being rooted in shifting sands.
While Mancini speaks almost daily to Khaldoon, Hughes’ belief in his own methods meant the phone was rarely picked up and a bridge left unbuilt between himself and his boss, despite the chairman’s numerous declarations of support.
In Hughes’ eyes, Khaldoon may have been a graduate of Boston’s exclusive Tufts University, but when it came to football, having Manchester United, Chelsea, Barcelona and Bayern Munich on your CV carried rather more clout.
Hughes’ decision to remain loyal to his trusted assistants – Mark Bowen, Kevin Hitchcock and Eddie Niedzwiecki – angered Abu Dhabi and the dismal performances of £32.5?m record signing Robinho and the failure of subsequent Hughes’ purchases to justify their transfer fees proved the final straw.
From City’s perspective, however, the fallout from Hughes’s dismissal was a PR disaster. Seemingly the only person in the world unaware of his fate as he patrolled the touchline during a 4-3 home victory against Sunderland, Hughes’ reign was ended with a 'thanks for your efforts’ press release within 90 minutes of the full-time whistle.
By that stage, Mancini was already signed up to replace Hughes . Popular with the players and the media, Hughes’ sacking was initially viewed as Abu Dhabi betraying their mission statement, which forever pointed to how they would be 'different’ and, reading between the lines, not follow Roman Abramovich’s hire-and-fire blueprint at Chelsea.
When Garry Cook, City’s former gaffe-prone chief executive, talked of Hughes being dismissed because of the “trajectory of recent results”, the sense of a club being lost amid a fog of jargon and 'projects’ appeared inescapable.
But fast forward to this weekend and few can question City’s decision, as they stand on the brink of Premier League glory. Hughes will still believe he could have delivered the success that Mancini since generated, however.
“I know I can walk through the doors with my head held high and look everyone in the eye because of the job I did there.” Hughes said prior to his return with Fulham last season.
“Whether or not that can be said of some people there, that is for you to decide.”