Mark Hughes has suffered yet another sacking, this time at Southampton, as the Welshman continues to circle in a sea of managerial mediocrity
As a player he had class and charisma. As a manager he was the one-man Dignitas clinic, there to kill whatever lingering dreams fans once had for their clubs. Yes, Mark Hughes has been sacked again and if you think you’ve seen this film before, it’s because you have.
Watching Hughes on the touchline called to mind Nick Hornby’s description of one of his first trips to Highbury: “What impressed me most was just how much most of the men around me hated, really hated, being there. As far as I could tell, nobody seemed to enjoy, in the way that I understood the word, anything that happened during the entire afternoon.”
Recently described as a “serial whinger” by The Guardian, Hughes was a manager cast in the image of many of the clubs he managed. He was there to survive and it wasn’t supposed to be fun. There were times when you wondered why he bothered, although the reported £18 million he’s been paid in compensation during his career answers that question: he might be miserable, but he isn’t daft.
It wasn’t always this way. As a player Hughes did things like this:
As a result he was worshipped by a generation of Welsh players and at the start of his managerial career he inspired the national team to the Euro 2004 play-offs, then their best qualifying performance for decades. When a Russian player Yigor Titov subsequently failed a drug test, Hughes had grounds for feeling shafted, but the campaign made him a man in demand.
He went to Blackburn and took them into Europe. In 2008 he was head-hunted by Manchester City, but when he was bombed out by the new Abu Dhabi United owners a year later the cynicism seemed to set in.
In 2010-11 Hughes took Fulham into Europe, although this was almost by accident given that they qualified by winning the fair-play league. They’d finished eighth, but the lure of some hot, continental action wasn’t enough for Hughes, who quit, saying: “As a young, ambitious manager I wish to move on to further my experiences.”
This was the equivalent of a middle-aged man dumping his wife in the expectation he’d shack up with a model 20 years his junior. Europe’s top clubs mystifyingly ignored him and he spent the next six months out of work before eventually furthering his experiences by going to QPR, three miles away. Perhaps unable to cope with the culture shock, he just managed to keep QPR in the top flight and was gone a year later.
Seven careers at 7 clubs or one career at 7 clubs?
He resurfaced at Stoke, which seemed like a natural fit. His predecessor, Tony Pulis had taken Stoke into Europe in the 2011-12 season, but they’d also qualified by accident, after losing the FA Cup final to Man City. It was a total waste of time. Stoke took one look at Europe and 69.4% of them voted to leave it. Pulis prioritised the Premier League and fielded weakened sides, all of which begged the question: why even bother trying to qualify?
Enter Hughes, who delivered three consecutive ninth place finishes, sparing their fans the comparable agonies of either relegation or culturally-awakening fixtures overseas.
Eventually the magic of mediocrity wore off. Stoke sacked him but got relegated anyway and he resurfaced at Southampton, where he re-enacted his QPR experience, almost unnoticed until he got sacked (again) after a 2-2 draw with Manchester United on Saturday.
Shane Warne, who once said Monty Panesar hadn’t played 33 tests, but he’d played the same test 33 times. Has Hughes actually managed seven clubs, or has he managed the same club, seven times? Is he, in fact cloned from the same DNA as Pulis, Steve Bruce, Sam Allardyce, and Alan Pardew, flitting between failing clubs in London and floundering Northern powerhouses, sometimes getting sacked, sometimes flouncing out and never winning anything, at all?
Don’t bet against him ending up at Burnley, Fulham, or Huddersfield within the next six months.