BY George Utley

10 Dec

Farewell Hughes - The Spark That Went Out

Farewell then, Leslie Mark Hughes. With so many innocent new faces in Premier League dugouts, the battle-hardened druid’s sacking feels like a significant changing of the old guard.

Moyes, Pardew, Allardyce, Redknapp - managers who seemed part of the top flight’s furniture now lie abandoned at the bottom of the fire escape.

As Sparky likely slides from view forever as a Premier League manager, let’s reflect on the rollercoaster career of a gaffer who was once bought in by Man City for finishing 6th, then sacked by Man City for finishing 6th.

Star Striker

Of all the ex-players to swap the club shirt for the three-piece club suit, Sparky’s playing career was up there with the most illustrious.

Everywhere from Barcelona to Bayern Munich to Manchester United, Chelsea, Everton, Southampton and Blackburn, the tenacious striker’s henge-like legs kicked goals galore.

Equal parts ballerina and bastard, fifteen years at the very top brought 2 Premier League titles, 4 FA Cups, 2 League Cups and a brace of European Cup-Winners’ Cups. At Old Trafford, Sparky won 7 of these trophies, and a daily audience with the moodiest, meanest, most dominant manager of the era, Alex Ferguson.

Early Expectations

So eager was Hughes to get in the dugout, he began managing the Welsh national team 3 years before hanging up his boots. Any suspicions that some of Sir Alex’s stardust had rubbed off on his former striker were confirmed by an unheard-of 10 game unbeaten spell, bringing Sparky improbable victories over Germany and Italy and an OBE aged just 40.

Despite this early promise, in a managerial career just as long as his stint as a player, the shiniest prize he has added to his rusty trophy cabinet has been one solitary Manager of the Month award, from October 2007.

A New Era

Yet when Blackburn offered Hughes his first PL opportunity in 2004, the club felt they had landed a coup. Not only had Hughesy played under Fergie, his time at Chelsea brought him closer to those pioneers of player-turned-manager, Hoddle, Gullit and Vialli. His overachievements with the bang-average Welsh squad had proved the youngster was ready for the big time.

Sacking the gaffer has always been a Premier League tradition, and in 2004/05 Blackburn gave Graeme Souness the heave-ho to make way for their new firebrand. And Hughes could easily have been a one-season-wonder, as Rovers survived the drop by the skins of their teeth.

That season, experienced pros like Sir Bobby Robson, Kevin Keegan and Harry Redknapp all felt the axe as winds of change puffed over from Europe. On them they carried Jose Mourinho to Chelsea and Rafa Benitez to Liverpool as the pair set about blowing apart Man United and Arsenal’s 8-year duopoly.

With so many factors affecting the game, it’s impossible to pinpoint the exact moment the modern era began in the Premier League. One thing is for certain, Jose and Rafa brought instant success to England, both winning titles in their debut seasons.

Tactical awareness, man-management, charisma, rapport with the fans, an eye for a transfer - the two Iberian maestros had it all – a lack of English football experience didn’t hold them back.

The following year, however, another fresh-faced manager with a lilting accent was making his own waves. Hughes’s Blackburn finished 6th in 2006 after a season in which Sparky’s signing, Craig Bellamy, briefly realised his hefty potential.

Three consecutive top-half finishes for the Lancashire minnows confirmed Hughes as a young manager going places. His chance to shine on a grand stage soon came.

One Shot

Sparky’ looked every inch the true heir to Fergie, but his arrival at City came at an unfortunate time. He was hand-picked by chairman Frank Shinawatra, who said, “now let's see what he can do with real firepower.”

Hughes did some stonking business in the transfer market, bagging Vinny Kompany and Pablo-Zablo on the cheap. But three months late hell broke loose as City won the lottery.

Well, almost. They were bought by Sheikh Mansour, a man with oily billions burning a hole in his robes. Robinho joined for a British record fee, and expectations skyrocketed overnight.

A proud man, Hughes was brought up with Fergie’s ‘no player bigger than the club’ philosophy. Try explaining that to a Brazilian wunderkind who’s swapped Real Madrid for a rabble who’ve never finished higher than 8th in the Prem.

With Emirati businessmen tape-measuring his office, Sparky’s job was to get results out of an ever-expanding bevy of players.

Perhaps because they had no time to gel, or perhaps because they had exactly the kind of players who tended to finish 10th, City finished 10th.

They had lost 18 league games, to 15 different teams.

Mansour hadn’t spent over £200mil on mid-table security so, the following season, after a run of 7 straight draws, he sacked Hughes in December with City lying 6th. After 18 short months, he’d blown his big chance. Everyone stopped calling him Sparky.

Back On The Carousel

Hughes re-joined the merry-go-round as soon as possible, finishing a respectable 8th with Fulham, before abruptly quitting, expecting to be handed then still desirable Villa job. He didn’t get it.

The following season saw him scraping survival with QPR, deludedly claiming:

"There is no way we will be in this situation again in my time here."

That very day, as if to symbolise Hughes’s mid-table ambition, City won their first title, and Blackburn went down.

12 winless games later in November 2012, QPR sacked him, preserving his “never been relegated” status by binning him before it happened.

Levelling Out

An established Premier League club with realistic ambitions and a small transfer war-chest suited Hughes’s pragmatic approach perfectly.

All Stoke in 2014 wanted was to play better stuff than the violent head-tennis Tony Pulis had got them into, and to stay up.

Hughes got the relegation favourites up to 9th place for the next 3 seasons, his Barça-Bayern connection attracting top-end talent to the Potteries.

Small, stocky, with thighs carved out of granite, all of Hughes’ best signings are strikers in his own image (Bellamy, Tevez, Shaqiri). But recent years, his early managerial calling card – picking up undervalued gems in the transfer market – started to fail him.

Pissing away £18m on both Kev Wimmer and Gianni Imbula, gambling and losing on Saido Berahino, while Jose Bosingwa represents the very worst of his disastrous splurge at QPR.

As the dross around him finally outweighed Shaqiri’s best efforts last season, Stoke’s fortunes plummeted. They sacked Hughesy in January.

Having bounced straight back to ‘save’ Southampton, he’s still, technically, never been relegated. We asked members of the Saints Voice panel for their reaction to Hughes’ sacking.

“It felt like he lacked ambition, you could just tell he was happy to keep us up” says Louise Burke. “But Saints want excitement and hope, since we’ve been promoted the bar has been set high. We’ve had a great ride, been to Europe and seen so many great players - this just feels like a massive slump.”

“I don’t know who’d have him now” says Yasmin Wiseman. “Statistically he’s the worst manager we’ve ever had.”

Has The Circus Left Town?

As recently as last season, Sam Allardyce, David Moyes, Alan Pardew, Paul Lambert, Roy Hodgson, Tony Pulis and Hughes all held positions at Premier League clubs.

Only Roy has survived the knacker’s yard, for now. Simply avoiding the drop and getting into biannual handshake spats is no longer enough. We’re at the end of an era, the newbies and nerds have won.

Nowadays, chairmen are far more likely to gamble on finding the next tactical revolutionary than stick with a grim old warhorse. And even in those cases where a bright new thing fails and an old hand is brought in, the likes of Moyes and Allardyce have still been usered out of the back door in May with a "thanks, but no thanks".

Experience without humility can easily become a burden. What we're seeing is greying men out of time, wedded to a set of ideals that are increasingly incompatible with where the new breed of thinkers are taking the game.

For now, the party seems to be over for firefighting journeyman managers in general. And having held a vice-like grip on the Premier League’s nether regions for so long, I guess I’ll miss them. If only through nostalgia.

George Utley
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All images - PA. Stats via WhoScored.

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