‘I was starting to think maybe my time was up’: Mark Hughes has his spark back after three years out in the wilderness and now he aims to take sleeping giants Bradford to promotion success from League Two
- Mark Hughes wondered if the phone would ring again after exiting Southampton
- He admitted to never thinking he would drop as low as League Two to manage
- Now at Bradford, Hughes sees it as an opportunity to win promotions
- ‘This place could really be something if we can get it going’, he said
Pre-season is a time for optimism and never more so than when you are embracing an opportunity you feared may never come your way again.
Mark Hughes sits in his office at Bradford City’s training ground and points through an open window.
‘When I got here last February it all looked a bit bleak,’ he smiles. ‘Two of the training pitches were underwater because the river had overflowed. So we ended up on an artificial pitch.
‘It felt like 50 players all crunched into that little area. But it also felt great. It was like putting an old pair of slippers back on. Lovely.’
Mark Hughes wondered if the phone would ring again after exiting Southampton
Hughes’s record in management goes back 23 years and tells a story of a life lived in the Premier League at Blackburn, Manchester City, Fulham, QPR, Stoke City and Southampton.
But after he left St Mary’s in December 2018, his phone never rang. A break he presumed would be ‘about six months’ threatened to morph in to the end of his career.
‘Sometimes the game retires you rather than the other way round doesn’t it?’ he says.
‘The reality is I wasn’t getting the offers. My son is my agent and he was putting my name in for jobs and I wasn’t even getting a conversation. It was three years. I was starting to think maybe my time was up. And then this came along.’
Bradford have been in League Two for three seasons. By his own admission, Hughes, 58, did not expect to have to drop this low for work. He knows failure may well signal the end of his four-and-half decades in the game. At the same time, he looks, sounds and feels entirely comfortable in his new surroundings.
Braadford finished 14th in League Two last season under Hughes’ management
‘Had I felt after the first three or four weeks here I didn’t have the energy or enthusiasm for it, I’d have walked away,’ says Hughes.
‘I always thought I had one last job in me but I needed to know if it was definitely still there inside me. Very quickly here I recognised it was.
‘The resources I have had before, I haven’t got here. But the actual things I need to be able to do my job are all here. There just isn’t as much of it.
‘Yes, it’s more hands on deck. A couple of lads do a couple of jobs but it’s a throwback and it’s quite refreshing.
‘In the past, I’d maybe say I wanted something done and someone would tell someone else to tell someone else. Here, I just have to get up and shout down the corridor. I like that.’
Off the field Hughes is much as he ever was. Quiet, dry, self-deprecating. On the touchline not much has changed, either.
Last year’s final game of the season, at home against Carlisle, saw him involved in some halftime argy-bargy with a member of the opposition backroom staff. To watch it back is to revisit the essence of the competitor he has always been.
Hughes sees managing Bradford as an excellent opportunity to win promotions
‘He was shouting and bawling and I just thought I would try and make him stop,’ smiles Hughes with comic understatement.
‘I apologised afterwards because he came in to see me. I really should be old enough to know better, shouldn’t I? But that’s the part of the game I really missed — match day. Whenever I left a position at a club, Saturdays were always agony. It would take me a while to even watch football again. So yeah, it’s great to feel that adrenaline again.’
When he makes the 75-minute drive from his Cheshire home to work every morning, it is this desire to compete and to win that occupies Hughes. He also reflects on a managerial career he is proud of but is still missing something.
‘I’ve been successful as a manager but the reality is that I haven’t won anything,’ he says. ‘It’s not easy in the Premier League and I’ve had good periods. So I am proud of that. But this is an opportunity if we get it going to win promotions.
‘Who knows? We just have to work very hard. But I am ready for that. This is a proper club. A big club with a huge fanbase. There is pressure on and I need that.’
The 58-year-old admitted to never thinking he would drop as low as League Two to manage
There were more than 18,000 at Valley Parade for that final game last season, even though it was effectively a dead rubber. There will be in excess of 15,000 when Doncaster travel west for the first day of the new season next Saturday.
Hughes oversaw 12 games after taking the job last season and he and assistant Glyn Hodges believe they saw enough of the division to know what they need to progress. Half a dozen new players — all but one a free transfer — have arrived this summer.
‘I’ve been pleasantly surprised at the standard and some could play higher,’ explains Hughes. ‘Glyn has managed at this level, and also players he once managed at Under 23 level have now migrated to this stage. So we know a lot of players but, yes, I’ve had to educate myself a little.
‘We’ve changed the way we play — from the back and through the lines — but that’s because the players we inherited were deserving of that. It suits them. We have nice technical midfield and wide players, for example.
‘It’s not as if players at this level can’t play. They can. What they sometimes find harder is decision making. So if you can get them organised or give them options that are simple and they can play to, you can improve players very readily.
‘There is honesty here and a desire to improve. They give what they’ve got. Sometimes it’s not of the level you hoped but they still give you all of it. And that’s not always been the case in the past. Naming no names.
‘They are very coachable here and hang on your every word. That’s refreshing because, again, that’s not always the case higher up. I just want to make them better and it’s encouraging because I can sense they really want to do that.’ Hughes has always been and on the-grass kind of coach.
Mark Hughes was manager at Manchester City when they were taken over in 2008
‘Yeh, I am out there every day,’ he nods. ‘Coat on, boots on.’ Does he ever join in the sessions? ‘No, not even when I started,’ he shoots back.
‘I got naffed off when managers joined in because I thought it interrupted the session, which it did. ‘I didn’t like it if managers were messing around, so I never did it when I became one. It used to drive me nuts…’
It is impossible to work in football for half a lifetime and not have regrets. Hughes has his share. For example, he rues leaving Fulham after an eighth-placed Premier League finish in June 2011 because he thought they were not going to invest in players.
‘They signed a striker for £10million a week after I left,’ he smiles. And he regrets the transfer splurge he became involved in at QPR 10 summers ago. ‘We got a bit giddy,’ he says.
But Manchester City is not one of his ‘what if ’ moments. Not remotely. Sacked to make way for Roberto Mancini at Christmas 2009, he says now: ‘It’s interesting because when I look back I realise I really enjoyed it there. It was really interesting to see how people act when new money comes in and the fact is that the Abu Dhabi people have done such a fantastic job.
He showed off his famous temper in the last game of last season at Carlisle
‘My mistake was probably not realising they were prepared to spend even more money than I spent! I may have lasted a little longer had I spent more but probably not…
‘The early days were a bit bizarre. Thaksin Shinawatra appointed me and I thought that there was money when there wasn’t and we actually had to sell players to buy players.
‘Vincent Kompany and (Pablo) Zabaleta were good signings, though, eh? It feels quite a long time ago now but also quite vivid. ‘There were long spells in my career when I felt really comfortable with the level I was at and what I was doing.
‘We finished ninth three years running at Stoke and beat all the big teams. We beat Liverpool 6-1. ‘Equally I’ve made decisions that make me wonder now what the hell I was thinking. Such as Fulham. But this is all said with hindsight and that’s OK.
‘I have learned along the way and experience in football is an asset. Some people don’t seem to agree. They think you are old school and have been around too long. That’s rubbish.
‘Maybe the tide will turn again and experience will be valued. Who knows? It is a slightly different kind of management here. ‘It’s about making sure players recognise what they have to do to improve and up their levels. But things like standards don’t change. How we train, behave and act around the place. It’s about the details.
Hughes will be looking to help resurrect Bradford’s fortunes next season
‘I don’t think I have a big ego. I hope people who know me would say that. But you have to recognise where you are and get out of the car and put your ego in the boot. That makes you more productive.
‘I haven’t had to make a fuss here like a diva to get what I want. The welcome we have had has been really good and the enthusiasm that we have seen here has been great even though we haven’t achieved anything yet.
‘When I was out of work, I saw some appointments at jobs I had been interested in and I would be scratching my head. ‘I would think, “How has he got that job and I can’t even get a conversation?”.
‘But if you don’t ask you don’t get so I kept asking and eventually Bradford wanted a conversation and I am so happy now that they did. Clubs would tell my son I hadn’t managed at this level so I accepted that and realised it was time to get my hands dirty.
‘This job here is fraught with a little bit of danger for me, reputationally. If it goes back to front and we disappoint people then that is probably me done as I won’t have answered people’s questions as to whether I can do it down here. ‘But maybe this is where a little bit of ego does come in. I back myself to do it. ‘This place could really be something if we can get it going.
‘I figured we could have an exciting period and that I could enjoy the job again here. That’s all I really want.’
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