Mark Hughes’ appointment as the new manager of Stoke City was not received warmly by the club’s fans who have cited his final six months at QPR and the perceived disloyalty he showed to Fulham as the basis of their discontent.
Reactions have ranged from the mildly apathetic to the fiercely resistant, including one fan who staged his own protest by driving a car outside the Britannia Stadium displaying a “Hughes Out” banner. “It’s not just me, it’s the thoughts of 90% of Stoke fans,” he said.
Whatever the true extent of the anti-Hughes feeling, it is a short sighted view which disregards a consistently successful if not spectacular managerial record of a man with a renewed determination to prove his critics wrong.
The Welshman has rightly seen his stock fall after his failure at QPR but the notion that Hughes is no longer competent, like some supporters have suggested, holds no weight. Rather, he remains the forward thinking and progressive coach that Manchester City appointed in 2008 who will have learned a great deal from the mistakes he admittedly made at Loftus Road and improved as a result.
This is a viewpoint not lost on his new Chairman, Peter Coates, whose track record in appointing managers with a point to prove has paid dividends. Tony Pulis was far from the fans’ choice to take charge of Stoke for a second time in 2006 but this, in Pulis’ own admission, made him hungrier than ever.
A perusal at Hughes’ managerial record up to the start of 2012 makes healthy reading. He steered the Welsh national side from one its darkest eras under Bobby Gould to the brink of qualifying for Euro 2004, narrowly losing out to Russia in the play-off – a notable accomplishment given that Wales last qualified for a major international tournament in 1976 and have only competed in two in their history.
Hughes was even more successful in his first club role, at Blackburn Rovers. On the tightest of budgets, he guided the club to consecutive top half finishes in each of his three full seasons at Ewood Park whilst also progressing to the last 32 of the UEFA Cup – a club record in European competition. He delivered a level of success to Blackburn only bettered by the golden period of the mid 1990s and he continues to be held in the highest regard by the club.
The objective set by the new owners at Manchester City at the start of the 2009-10 campaign was to qualify for the Champions League. When Hughes was relieved of his duties, City occupied fourth spot in the Premier League with the Welshman paying the price for the increasing impatience of Sheik Mansour more than any other reason.
To most onlookers, replacing Roy Hodgson at Fulham was akin to taking a poisoned chalice after the current England manager led the club to an unprecedented first European cup final. However, in Hughes’ first and only season at Craven Cottage, Fulham finished eighth, up from twelfth from the previous year under Hodgson, and qualified for Europe once again.
It was at this point that the former Manchester United and Chelsea striker became a victim of his own ambition when he left Fulham to pursue management at “the top level”. Carlo Ancelotti had just vacated Stamford Bridge and although Hughes’ agent claimed that the timing of his resignation was coincidental, his client had clearly backed himself to take over at Chelsea. Given the widespread criticism levied at Hughes for his departure, it is unlikely that he would let history repeat itself at the Britannia.
It remains to be seen what financial resources will be at Hughes’ disposal in his new role. Regardless, he would be advised to take a lead from his Blackburn days and use the shrewd signings of Roque Santa Cruz (£3.3m), Chris Samba (£400,000) and Ryan Nelsen (free) as a benchmark and abandon the flawed transfer policy adopted at QPR.
There is an expectation at Stoke that mere survival in the top flight is no longer enough, that the club must now play more attractive football and regularly compete for European qualification. Provided that he takes the time to build the club organically without making wholesale changes too quickly, then there is no better candidate to achieve this than Leslie Mark Hughes.
Expect Stoke City to enjoy a prosperous next three years.