The Road To Nowhere With Mark Hughes

Ian Walton

Unloved and sacked by QPR, where next for Mark Hughes?

Do you remember when people used to like Leslie Mark Hughes, OBE? It was back when he was a player, obviously, and could be relied upon to hammer in a Roy of the Rovers style volley from a vaguely improbable position at a hugely pleasing velocity. He did this often for Manchester United, less often for Barcelona (still, heplayed for Barcelona!) and Bayern Munich (same), loads of times for United (again) and quite frequently, even, as a somewhat old man for Chelsea. He played for Southampton, Everton and Blackburn too, but he was properly old then. He was popular as a Wales player, and liked to a degree as Wales manager -- they beat Italy in Cardiff once.

When he relocated his career to the Premier League, though, he also slid it onto a plane of descending popularity. Grudgingly respected at Blackburn, Hughes was regarded as increasingly out of his depth at Manchester City and up his own bee-hind at Fulham. Having "rescued" Queens Park Rangers from a relegation they may not have suffered anyway (they were 17th when Neil Warnock was fired; they finished 17th), spent an airline-load of money on once-good players and Junior Hoilett, Hughes has today been sacked by a club he has led to precisely zero wins this season.

By so suffering, Hughes has become the second and by far most deserving managerial casualty in an unusually quiet season for dismissals. Usually by this time of the season the feted "managerial merry-go-round" is in full operation and journos seeking quotes are sent spinning for Alan Curbishley’s agent’s phone-number on their rolodexes. But not this year, when only Chelsea’s well-oiled door has revolved. English football’s most eminently available bachelor -- by some distance -- is Harry Redknapp and he, surely, will replace Hughes.

Redknapp, though, sacked by Tottenham Hotspur for finishing outside the Champions League places (4th), could be a cautionary figure for Hughes. There were 13 places between Spurs and QPR last year; if Hughes has to drop that far, he’ll end up at Derby County.

Derby, though, are happy with Nigel "Son of Brian" Clough; who is doing a good job in the midlands: they won’t want Hughes. And this brings up an awkward question, which applies to Sparky but not to ‘Arry, who would want Hughes? This is why Redknapp’s career trajectory is only a semi-cautionary tale: he is a far, FAR more popular, manager than Hughes.

Redknapp has cadged earned himself a reputation for good man-management and affability with the press. He has a proven ability to raise clubs up from dire starts (Spurs, he might have mentioned once or twice, had two points from eight games when he took over in 2008).

Hughes, by contrast, has earned himself a reputation for belligerence and arrogance. His teams are perceived to play a "robust" and "manly" style that wins plaudits when it works. His hasn’t; he is Sam Allardyce with worse results.

Redknapp is a good comparison in the end because he presents himself so differently from Hughes: hence, presumably, the fans’ appeals for his rescue. Hughes’s lasting image in the national consciousness is that of a be-duffled, red faced, man pursuing an opponent in search of an un-proffered handshake; Harry’s has him leaning out of the car window. Hughes’s legacy will be as the manager for whom Fulham’s ancient office was too small; Harry is the man who said his wife would score. Of course, there is no real difference here, and most people can see the cruelty behind Redknapp’s smiling face. It’s all a question of perception but who, then, is the more relatable? You don’t have to look far for an answer: ‘Arry sounds like a much better boss than Sparky.

You can’t, ultimately, separate results in themselves from their perception. Even if you could, Hughes would still be screwed: despite spending the whole of this season on the BBC’s Match of the Day sofa, Redknapp’s last league victory was still more recent than Hughes’s. Derby >County would be a boon for Hughes; so would Match of the Day.

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