Jobless Hughes misjudged own appeal
The Europa League's qualifying stages can provide a low-profile start to a managerial reign. For Roy Hodgson, once of Fulham, FC Rabotnicki of Macedonia formed undistinguished opponents for his first competitive game in charge of Liverpool. For Martin Jol, now in charge at Craven Cottage, it is Nes Soknar Itrottarfelag Runavik, the Faroese force, who line up on the banks of the Thames on Thursday evening. Its date - June 30 - rather supports the familiar moans that the football season starts earlier every year.
Yet if the Dutchman's return to England is popular, it is also slightly strange. It is the product of a gamble that has backfired. Instead of considering the Europa League, his predecessor is contemplating unemployment. Mark Hughes surprised Fulham by submitting his resignation after a solitary season in charge. The impression offered was that bigger and better things awaited; instead, nothing has materialised. It leaves his opinion of his own abilities looking inflated.
Chelsea's appointment of Andre Villas-Boas seems to have closed off the remaining avenue to a Premier League post at the start of the season. While Hughes had been linked with his former club, this was always a long shot: he has neither the trophy-starred CV nor the charisma Roman Abramovich seems to demand in a manager.
Yet the vacancy at Aston Villa was another matter altogether, especially as the sense is that, had Martin O'Neill resigned a couple of weeks earlier last summer, Hughes was the preferred choice to replace him. Fast forward 12 months and after Gerard Houllier's brief reign was predictably curtailed, the Welshman appeared in pole position. It did not need a conspiracy theorist to notice his exit from Fulham coincided with a bigger club's search for the Frenchman's successor.
The fact Hughes was rejected in favour first of a manager who was almost relegated (Roberto Martinez) and then one actually was demoted (Alex McLeish) suggests several things; that being represented by the sly Kia Joorabchian is not a way to endear him to the straight-talking Americans, Randy Lerner and General Charles Krulak, on the Villa board; that his exit from Craven Cottage was perceived poorly and indicated a lack of loyalty; and that Hughes' reputation, despite a respectable eighth-placed finish for Fulham, had not improved. It was a reminder, too, that his standing is open to interpretation. Hughes' playing career gives him a gloss other managers of mid-table teams do not possess and he had sufficient stature to merit a mention when Bayern Munich contemplated successors to Louis van Gaal, though Jupp Heynckes' greater pedigree in the Bundesliga (and rather more fluent German) made him a more logical choice. It is safe to assume Germany's most glamorous club never considered the merits of Tony Pulis or Alan Pardew. Finishing above Villa, however, was not enough of an achievement to be appointed by them.
By branding himself "a young, ambitious manager" when quitting Craven Cottage, Hughes suggested Fulham was a stepping stone. Thus far, however, he has jumped off the managerial roundabout, but not back on. Moreover, while one half of his self-analysis is indisputable - his ambition has long been evident - the other is more of a moot point. Compared to Sir Alex Ferguson, Arsene Wenger, Kenny Dalglish, Harry Redknapp and Hodgson, he is youthful. At 47, however, he is also 14 years Villas-Boas' senior and nearly a decade older than Martinez. Talk of emerging managers focuses more on Paul Lambert, Brendan Rodgers and Owen Coyle than one who was in charge of his country in the 20th century. It is hard to say his career is on an upward curve now.
The issue of if Hughes has ideas above his station effectively boils down to one question: was he harshly treated by Manchester City? Those who would answer in the affirmative, a category that would include the Welshman himself, can argue that he left a top-six side and, by now, may have emulated Roberto Mancini by breaking into the top-four cartel and securing silverware.
Yet to reply in the negative entails thoughts of a 10th-place finish in his only full season in charge and a vast transfer spend that produced a comparatively small legacy: among key players, only Carlos Tevez and Nigel de Jong, plus Vincent Kompany, who was misused by Hughes, were his recruits (Shay Given and Craig Bellamy excelled, but Mancini, for different reasons, favours neither). This school of thought, which Hughes rejects, is that he underperformed at Eastlands.
A glance at his overall record suggests an unusual consistency. Whether with the vast resources he was afforded by City or the comparatively meagre budgets of Fulham and, especially, Blackburn, Hughes has been able to finish between sixth and 10th in each of his full seasons in charge, taking between 49 and 63 points. The notion that he would fare better with superior players isn't fully supported by his time at City, something that may be a deterrent to would-be employers.
But an average of 54 points and eighth position, regardless of circumstances, makes Hughes well suited to the two clubs that his ambitions led him to leave, Fulham and Blackburn. But not Chelsea or, it seems, Aston Villa. He is the man who misjudged his own appeal.