Mark Hughes’ United career is a story in three acts fit for the stage.
Act 1: The breakthrough ending with his European Odyssey.
Act 2: The glorious return
Act 3: Antipathy and Antagonism.
For all his brilliance at Old Trafford, Hughes’ second post Manchester United career is one that has provoked disappointment and dismay among the faithful. His management of the local rivals, his constant complaining at referees to cover his own deficiencies as a manager destroyed much of any goodwill towards him. By the time he was fired by Southampton after a dismal spell in charge, sympathy was non-existent.
Act 1 – The Breakthrough
Born and raised in Wrexham, Hughes signed for United as a schoolboy in 1978 and turned fully professional in 1980 after being spotted by the club’s regional scout, Hugh Roberts. Hughes started out as a midfielder, it wasn’t until youth team coach, Syd Owen decided to play him upfront, that a world-class talent began to emerge.
In 1983 he made his debut in the first team, scoring a goal against Oxford United in the League Cup. Hughes’ entrance into the team saw Norman Whiteside, a prodigal, teenage talent, dropped into midfield, as the Welshman partnered Frank Stapleton upfront. By 1985 Hughes was PFA Young Player of the Year. A glorious season was topped off by defeating an excellent Everton team in the 1985 FA Cup Final. Taking his place in Ron Atkinson’s talented team alongside, Whiteside, Paul McGrath, Bryan Robson and Gordon Strachan.
Unfortunately, his development at the club was cut short, as a dispute or a miscommunication, depending on whose account you hear, saw Hughes sold to Barcelona, where he joined Terry Venables and Gary Lineker.
Unlike Lineker, Hughes endured a miserable spell at Barcelona, only scoring four goals before leaving for Bayern Munich the next season where he began to rediscover his mojo.
Act 2 – The Glorious Return
In 1988, Sir Alex Ferguson, desperately trying to build a successful side, persuaded Hughes to return to Old Trafford for a then, club-record fee. It was a signing Ferguson had been trying to make for over a year, ever since he took the manager’s seat and Hughes’ spell in Catalonia began to quickly go pear-shaped.
Despite several years of false hope at the club, despite his terrific personal form, things began to point towards more glittering shores in Rotterdam, on the 15th May 1991.
Facing off against a fabulous Barcelona side managed by Johan Cruijff who were in the first season of their “Dream Team” era, United upset the odds to beat Barcelona 2-1 at the iconic De Kuip Stadium.
Hughes took the starring role that night. Against the club where he had such a thoroughly miserable time, Hughes overcame a nervy first half to blow Barcelona’s carefully laid possession defence to pieces. A leading man’s performance demonstrating every facet of his game
His first goal was pure striker’s opportunism. A great free kick from Robson, headed by Steve Bruce towards the far corner, beyond a sprawling Carlos Busquets, was then flicked just over the line by Hughes.
His second goal, however, was worthy of any great drama. Receiving a wonderful, chipped probing pass by Robson, Hughes seemed to have been forced too far wide by lunging Busquets. But the Barca keeper’s ‘enthusiastic’ efforts were for nought, as the Welshman arrowed the ball home from near impossible angle.
Barca promptly lost their rag. Jose Bakero attempted to crock Hughes just two minutes afterwards and was lucky not to be sent off. A tormented Nando hauled Hughes down as he galloped through on goal and promptly was sent off. Hughes had the last laugh by lifting the trophy. A ferocious determination and toughness that typified the player.
It was the beginning of United dominance as Hughes went on to form a devastating attacking unit with Eric Cantona, Ryan Giggs and Andrei Kanchelskis. United went onto win two league titles and join the elite group of clubs to win the League and FA Cup double in 1994.
Act 3 – Antipathy and Antagonism
While Hughes’ moving on as a player didn’t cause many cracks in his standing with United fans, as a manager, he worked tirelessly to irritate just about everyone. Dirty teams, a devolution to dire football and constant attacks on referees endeared him to nobody.
Once he stepped down as Wales Manager to manage Blackburn Rovers, relations between him and Ferguson, were, at best, coldly cordial. At worst, antagonistic.
But taking charge at Manchester City was the end of any good feeling, specifically when City were bought out by the Abu Dhabi United Investment group. During their first full summer of ownership, City splashed oil-sodden cash to catch up to United. Most infamous of their signings was Carlos Tevez, who had left Manchester United at the end of the previous season after falling out with the club over continuing his two year stay. Tevez’s rights were owned by agent Kia Joorabchian’s Media Sports Investment Limited (MSI) and they chose to sign for City.
It was an acrimonious transfer, which broke Tevez’s & Hughes’ relationship with United. Hughes’ Agent? Kia Joorabichian of course. It was a saga that left a sour taste in the mouth and came to a head in the first Manchester Derby of the 2009/10 season.
Having come back three times to level the game, Hughes’ City looked set to take a creditable point from Old Trafford with Tevez as their new poster boy. Six minutes into stoppage time, Giggs played a ball into Michael Owen…well you know what happened next.
Hughes fumed about excessive stoppage time, despite it being the fault of his own players for taking nearly two minutes to celebrate an equalizer. Hughes, barely contained, said City “were not going away.” They were not, but he certainly was, and he was sacked before Christmas. Ferguson, to his credit, was the first man to pick up the phone to console Hughes and defend him and attack his sacking in the media.
Hughes’ later years as manager shows a man out of time. A ‘Proper Football Man’ raging against a game moving on without him and fans growing weary of some depressingly dire football.
Nevertheless, despite the ambivalent third act, Hughes remains an icon at Old Trafford. A key part of a great team who provided us with moments of sudden ecstasy. Take a bow Sparky.
Read More Icons of Old Trafford
Billy Meredith: “Superstar”
Sir Bobby Charlton: “The complete footballer”
George Best: “The Belfast Boy”
Denis Law: “The King”
Patrick O’Connell: “Don Patricio”
Martin Buchan: “Velocity”