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Once an Old Trafford legend, Hughes' Man United relationship is now frosty

Ask people working in football for their opinion of Stoke City manager -- and former Manchester United striker -- Mark Hughes, and you tend to get a positive response.

Those who know him talk of a decent man who is straight to deal with. Few would have selected him from the United dressing room of the late 1980s and early 1990s to be its most successful manager, but he's managed in the top flight for far longer than his teammates.

"Mark Hughes has flourished, although -- because he was such a quiet and retiring man -- I always wondered if he had the personality to pull it off," wrote Sir Alex Ferguson in his book, "Leading." "He did a good job as the Wales manager, followed that with a stint at Blackburn before going to Manchester City, where I thought the new owners treated him unfairly when they sacked him. He's at Stoke and in his element."

Ask United fans about Hughes, though, and you'll get a more negative set of opinions, especially after United manager Jose Mourinho refused to shake Hughes' hand after Saturday's 2-2 draw. Sources told ESPN FC that Mourinho did so because Hughes swore at him and tried to get him sent off. As with many things in football, there will be two versions of the event, and Mourinho is hardly a placid touchline figure.  

Hughes has left United fans cold once again, which is surprising as he was a hero of the Stretford End during his two spells at Old Trafford. Tough, determined and reliable, he was a star goal scorer and a childhood hero of this writer.

He was a magnificent forward who netted great goals, including two in the 1991 European Cup Winners' Cup final against Barcelona. Add to them the winner at Maine Road against Liverpool in the 1985 FA Cup semifinal and a late, legendary, equaliser against Oldham Athletic in the 1994 FA Cup semifinal and you have a bona fide hero.

Yet he was always his own man and, unlike Bryan Robson and Norman Whiteside, two other 1980s United stars who turned down suitors at their peak, Hughes was prepared to leave where he was loved.

"What the fans and media didn't know was that, since the beginning of 1986, his agent had been in discussions with Barcelona about a possible transfer and I'm sure Mark's uncertainty about his future impacted on his performances on the pitch," writes former chairman Martin Edwards in his new autobiography. "The eventual sale of Hughes to Barcelona in the summer was hugely controversial and the fans were incensed -- Hughes was an enormously popular player, something of a cult hero who had risen through the youth ranks and been very influential for us."

Mark Hughes, second row, fourth from left, was a terrace legend at Old Trafford during his time with Manchester United.

To stop him leaving cheaply, United had given the Welsh striker a new contract with a buyout clause; otherwise he would have been able to leave for £200,000. Hughes was playing hardball when footballers seldom did so over contracts.

"I took the brunt of criticism for Mark's move -- everybody blamed me -- yet I didn't want him to go," says Edwards. "He was the last player I wanted to leave but I also needed to protect the club and if we'd just left it the way it was and let him get to the end of his contract, we'd have got very little. So I couldn't win on that one. In the end it was Mark's decision to leave. He had the option to stay and complete his new contract."

Hughes left for a record £1.6 million fee and he can't be blamed for joining Barca, a club that had just reached the 1986 European Cup final. United, meanwhile, weren't even allowed to play in Europe because of a ban on English clubs.

Hughes also increased his wages tenfold upon moving to the Camp Nou, though he admitted his efforts to learn Spanish barely went beyond asking for two beers. Unlike Gary Lineker, who did more to integrate, Hughes was a flop in Catalonia and went on loan to Bayern Munich after one season.

He returned to United for a club record £1.8 million in 1988 and continued to be a star, but never bought into the United mythology and emotion. He seldom speaks about his former club with the reverence of others who played alongside him, for example, and left the safety of the "Ferguson is always right" umbrella a long time ago.

Maybe Hughes saved himself future emotional distress by keeping the relationship with his former boss business-like. Maybe that's why he's still a manager when so many others are not; he prefers to live in the present rather than talk about the past.

Hughes seldom plays the public relations game and doesn't have favoured journalists like many of his peers. He only properly started speaking to veteran United reporter David Meek when he had his own testimonial to promote in 1994.

Managing Manchester City was never going to help his stock with United fans but perhaps his time on the red side of Manchester will be better reflected if he writes a second autobiography. At a paltry 92 pages, his first, written while he was still at Old Trafford, hardly had the space to be revealing.

But though he may appear cold, maybe Hughes' greatest trait is one he picked up from United and Ferguson: He hates losing and isn't afraid to moan when things are not going his way, even if that means pushing and shoving and cursing his way through a match. It's unedifying, but complaints from Stoke fans are hard to come by.

And it's those supporters, the ones who pay Hughes' wages, to whom he should be loyal. They don't want a manager in awe of big clubs like United, they want someone to get results against them. And that's exactly what he's doing: United dropped points for the first time this season on Saturday and have not won at Stoke in five league games since Hughes took charge.

Andy Mitten is a freelance writer and the founder and editor of United We Stand. Follow him on Twitter: @AndyMitten.


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