In yet another turbulent week of European football and tabloid whispers, Monday and Tuesday’s saw newspapers beginning to link Mark Hughes to the (now vacant) Tottenham hot-seat.
For most people this rumour was a non-starter (if anything because Hughes distanced himself from the rumours, and because Blackburn find themselves in a far healthier stage than Tottenham Hotspur at present), and the news of the apparently impending arrival of Juande Ramos to the Lane has put paid to this particular story.
However, for me, the story could not have come at a more propitious moment; what better moment can there be to analyse the career of one of Britain’s great managerial hopes?, especially when there has been surprisingly little coverage of the excellent job done by the current Blackburn manager, whose side ironically travel to White Hart Lane on Sunday.
Hughes, nicknamed “Sparky” as a player, and whose famous temper continues to flash in the dugout and in press conferences, although with less regularity than during his playing days (G-d only knows what goes on in the Ewood Park dressing room, mind you), has, at the age of 42, an extremely formidable managerial résumé, and the winning mentality, the outright refusal to be beaten in any department, which is so important to any top manager.
After 5 superb years at the helm of the Welsh national side, bringing hope Welsh fans (and to Ryan Giggs, that commonly-cited anomaly of modern football; a world class player never to excel on a great international stage) of qualification to a major tournament for the first time since 1958, having beaten Italy along the way and fallen at the last hurdle to Russia (and we should not forget the controversy surrounding this game), Hughes shrugged off a disappointing start to the 2006 World Cup qualifiers to take on the managerial role at Blackburn Rovers, whom Sparky had helped to League Cup success and European qualification as a player.
Indeed, it is my belief that Hughes’ role at Wales was so well received that it served as a direct inspiration for the appointment of Steve Staunton over in the Republic of Ireland; and if we need any demonstration of Hughes’ success at Wales, we must only look at the dire state of affairs since he departed the post.
At Blackburn, Hughes has gone from strength to strength, qualifying the club for the UEFA cup (though falling this season in the first round), reaching three successive semi-finals and masterminding resounding victories over Arsenal (though one should not forget the 6-2 defeat), Chelsea and Manchester United. Hughes’ Blackburn have started off this season in fine form, 5 wins and just 1 loss (home to Portsmouth, who are one place ahead of Blackburn, in what was a quite insipid game) from the opening 9 games placing the team 6th in the league, just 1 point off a Champions’ League spot, having played fewer games than several other contenders.
Hughes has proved extremely shrewd in his transfer-market dealings, with several of his signings coming for reduced prices and going on to make a name for themselves in the top division. Nelsen and Mokoena came for relative peanuts, with the former later being subject of significant bids from Portsmouth, and Mark Hughes added another impressive and consistent central defender in the shape of Christopher Samba, signed from Hertha Berlin for just £500,000!
At the other end of the pitch, David Bentley has proved a revelation since his cut-price move from Arsenal in 2005, scoring numerous stunning goals and breaking into the full England set-up, Benni McCarthy was many people’s tip for signing of the summer last season (18 league goals for just £2.5 million!) and Roque Santa Cruz has, so far at least, taken up his team-mate’s mantle, the Paraguayan having gone some way to paying back his £3.5 million price tag with 4 league goals from 9 matches.
Hughes is clearly a superb man-manager, as he has effortlessly dealt with such difficult characters as Robbie Savage and Craig Bellamy, with neither of the two hitting the headlines for dissent when under Hughes’ control, as well as being able to get the best out of “form players”, such as Morten Gamst Pedersen, whose confidence was low after a poor start under Graeme Souness. The Welshman also dealt admirably with the Lucas Neill saga, managing to poach replacement Stephen Warnock for next-to-nothing and to prevent the Australian’s desire to leave from affecting team morale.
What has perhaps most impressed me during Hughes’ tenure at Blackburn has been his ability to adapt his team to the occasion, an ability evidenced by the depth of the current Blackburn squad. When the Welshman took over, Blackburn were languishing near the foot of the Premiership table (although this was admittedly just a few games into the league season, with Graeme Souness jumping off the plank before he could be pushed), and it became clear that the squad lacked steel and mettle.
Thus Hughes swiftly went out and bought (for comparatively meagre sums) such players as Ryan Nelsen and Aaron Mokoena, who together plugged the defensive gaps and turned Blackburn into a robust, difficult-to-beat club whose players fought like serried troops (the unfortunate codicil being that the club acquired a reputation for “foul play” and over-physicality which they have unfairly struggled to shake off).
However, in a similar vein to David Moyes at Everton, Hughes has, after safely negotiating a sinking ship, continued to sprinkle flair and raw talent into his squad, to the extent that the club now boasts some of the most in-demand attacking talents in the Premiership, and has within its breast the scorers of many of the last two seasons greatest goals (McCarthy’s and Bentley’s volleys, MGP’s volleys and free-kicks, Tugay’s screamers — although admittedly the Turk was already at the club when Hughes arrived, though Hughes can be credited a whit for Tugay’s rejuvenation).
In short, it is this author’s opinion that Mark Hughes should indeed have been considered for the Tottenham post, as the former Wales manager is clearly one of the hottest properties in British football management. A possible replacement for Sir Alex? It’s just a shame for Sparky that Keano started managing so soon, although it could be quite amusing to watch the two slug it out (physically or via the media) as they vie for the post, whilst Steve Coppell gets trampled underfoot.