Friday, December 22, 2006

On Football - No. 4 : Mark Hughes

Sometimes you simply cannot avoid football cliches. Sometimes they say it all, so well, that you have to embrace them. Mark Hughes, or Sparky, as Man Utd fans know him, was never a great goalscorer. But he was most definitely a scorer of great goals.
The picture of him above sums it up - he scored a preposterous amount of volleys in his career, among them some astounding, acrobatic scissors kicks, bicycle kicks, and the occasional plain or garden variety volley whilst he was actually facing goal. My first memories of him are for his amazing volleyed goals, one scored for Wales against Spain in a World Cup qualifier (in 1985, I think) where he leapt into the air and scissor-kicked an outrageously high ball into the top corner from the edge of the box:

He saved Man Utd in the 1994 FA Cup final with a volley in the last few minutes:

He also had a propensity for screamers from distance and insanely brave headers. He was my favourite Utd player when I was a little kid, and I was gutted when he was sold to Barcelona in 1986. But that somehow just made it even sweeter when he returned in 1988 and went on to be part of Alex Ferguson's first title - and Double - winning team.

He had joined United straight from school in 1980 and made his debut in 1983. That United team, managed by Ron Atkinson, was a complex beast, full of class and talent with the likes of Arnold Muhren, Paul McGrath and Gordon Strachan, but also a team of big, scary warriors - the likes of Bryan Robson and Kevin Moran. Perhaps their scariest pairing was up-front : Mark Hughes and Norman Whiteside. Both big, physical players, both young and technically gifted, both fond of a tackle in a typically bruising celtic manner. Hughes' strengths were obvious even then - he had phenomenal upper-body strength, and his ability to hold up the ball was better than any other forward of his generation. Tough enough to handle any rough treatment from defenders, he was aggressive enough to give it back. Throughout his career, when I read interviews with Centre-halves from various clubs they would name him as their most difficult opponent. Not because he would tear past them with the ball glued to his toe then rifle it into the top corner - though on a good day, he could do that too - but because he would chase them down, tackle them as hard as they tackled him, win more than his share of headers against them and generally never give them any time to relax.

Fans loved him for that, but his eye for a spectacular goal didn't hurt. He scored 37 in his first 89 games before the move to Barcelona, in which time Utd won the FA Cup, in 1985, the same year in which Hughes was voted PFA Young Player of the Year. He failed at Barcelona, his form deserting him, perhaps due to the more patient, technical nature of the Spanish game. Hughes physical gifts and bombastic workrate did not work as well in the Nou Camp as his new teammate Gary Lineker's sneakiness and perfectly-timed runs into the box. It took a loan move to Bayern Munich in 1987-88 for his form and self-belief to return. Alex Ferguson then brought him back to Utd for a club record £1.8 million, a bargain when you consider that he went on to score 82 goals in 256 appearances, win the FA Cup twice more, the League Cup once, and the League itself twice. Most satisfying for him was probably the Cup Winners Cup Final in 1991, when he scored both goals against his old club Barcelona, the second, the winner, a crushing drive from a seemingly impossible angle.

He also won PFA Players Player of the year twice in this period, in 1989 and 1991, and it is the high regard in which he was held by his peers that perhaps speaks most eloquently about what an honest, hard-working player he was. That first title-winning Utd side of Ferguson's was built almost entirely on strong personalities - men with backbone and fighting spirit. Schmeichel, Bruce, Pallister, Robson, Ince, Cantona and Hughes were a fearsome line of footballers, willing to battle for results when the flair they usually deployed wasn't working. Hughes was Cantona's favourite strike partner, willing to do the dirty work and let Eric strut his stuff, but also capable of turning a game on his own with one of those spectacular leaps or diving headers. His distribution was always astute, and he and Cantona seemed capable of reading each others runs and movement perfectly. With Brian McClair as their third striker, that United side was able to outscore most opponents.

Hughes second departure from United, in 1995, was due to his age. He was 32 at the time, and Ferguson wanted to build a new, younger United squad, so he was sold to Chelsea in a clear-out that also included the sale of both Paul Ince and Andrei Kanchelskis. Hughes enjoyed something of a renaissance at Chelsea, scoring 25 goals in 95 games between 1995 and 2000, and helping the club win the FA Cup in 1997 and the Cup Winners Cup in 1998. He then spent a few years wandering from Southampton to Everton to Blackburn, sometimes using his physical presence and experience in central midfield, from where he was probably the key player in the 2002 League Cup final as Blackburn beat Tottenham 2-1.

The newfound maturity and leadership he displayed on the pitch may have grown out of his new role as a manager, as he had taken over as Wales Coach in 1999. He rejuvenated the Welsh squad and brought them closer to a major tournament than at any time since 1986 - when they had narrowly lost out to Scotland - by securing a play-off spot against Russia, which they lost, 1-0 over two legs. Hughes then moved to Blackburn as manager, where his relative success has positioned him firmly for the job of coach at his old stomping ground whenever Alex Ferguson decides he has had enough.

However successful he may be as Coach, his attitude and skill as a player is unforgettable :



Blogger daveysomethingfunny said...

I was a kid, I was still a Sunderland supporter, but the standard to look to was definitey Man Utd. I had never seen players like Kanchelskis and Cantona and Hughes in action and they were huge stars and unique entities in my youth.

Kanchelskis still stands out as one of the most unadulterated entertaining players I've ever seen.

Hughes in particular stands out for his volley against Oldham a semi-final of either the FA of League Cup, I can't be bothered to look up which it was, it doesn't matter.

It was awesome and inspiring.

1:46 am  
Blogger David N said...

Kanchelskis, at his peak, was a fantastically exciting player. As a Sunderland fan, I spose you have to go elsewhere to watch actual football being played, eh?

12:46 am  
Blogger jamesinbrasil said...

as a fan of the underdog, i loathed man utd during the early to mid 90's. that goal against oldham particularly infuriated me. i remember i thought "typical united, lucky last minute winner" i now realise that while this is probably factually incorrect, i was still right to root for the underdog (which makes my current soft spot for chelsea somewhat dificult for me to stomach).

i came to realise how good hughes was once he played for chelsea. i worked there for a year, and in person he was just how you would expect, serious and to the point. not rude like gullit...

12:08 pm  

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