Thursday, October 12, 2017


Remembering Mark Hughes's difficult start in the hottest of Premier League hot seats. The original article for ESPN can be found here. This is an extended version

It is almost ten years since Manchester City’s then-owner Thaksin Shinawatra received an offer to purchase the club from a hitherto unknown buyer calling itself Abu Dhabi United. In that time the club has grown at breakneck speed and now sits proudly among the elite of the Premier League and can also credibly suggest that it now belongs to the small group of clubs that have the wherewithal to win the Champions League.

When the initial investment came flooding in, the club was given an immediate boost, breaking the British transfer record on the very same day to capture Real Madrid star Robinho from under the noses of Chelsea. David Conn, writing in World Soccer called it an "epoch-changing takeover", while the normally taciturn magazine’s cover screamed “the deal that will change football forever!”.
While that may have been over-egging the cake a little, it has certainly transformed City and drastically altered the fault lines of the league they compete in. What had become a cosy cartel at the top of the league, featuring the serial Champions League participants Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester United and Arsenal, was mortally damaged, allowing not only City to see a chink of light, but also paving the way for the likes of Tottenham Hotspur and Leicester City to sneak in ahead of the usual suspects too.

It was, in many ways, the moment that has brought us the slightly more open playing field we see at the top of the Premier League these days, with the old behemoths of Liverpool and Manchester United struggling to keep pace with new, upwardly mobile clubs. Although it has also created a new cartel of six, the fact that only four can have access to the troughs of gold in the Champions League has brought competition of a kind. That Leicester found it possible to leap frog them all to gain the title two years ago gives almost everyone some hope.
The arrival of Stoke City to the Etihad this weekend will bring those heady days back to the forefront of many City supporters’ minds. Visiting manager Mark Hughes was the man wearing the bemused expression when the football world turned upside down in Manchester in 2008. it was also an opponent that Robinho bagged a hat trick against in Hughes's eventful first season in charge.

Hughes had come to City on June 4th, just three months before City’s new circumstances threw a global spotlight onto the Welshman. Writing in the match programme for Robinho’s debut game against Chelsea, Hughes’s bewilderment was palpable: “It has been quite a fortnight for Manchester City, hasn’t it?” he wrote breathlessly. “The news of an imminent club takeover followed by the breaking of the British transfer record all in one day ensured that the football spotlight was well and truly on the blue half of Manchester on 1st September 2008.”
That spotlight, as bright as it was harsh in those opening months, was on Hughes too, as he struggled with a side that had suddenly been spoon-fed one of the world’s most gifted players. For Hughes, making a player of Robinho’s pedigree gel with the likes of Michael Ball and Valeri Bojinov was one thing; managing the supporters’ burgeoning expectations quite another.

Hughes brought the likes of Nigel de Jong, Pablo Zabaleta and Vincent Kompany to City, stalwarts all, and at bargain fees, but was also responsible for a hefty £19m being spent on the dubious talents of Jô and Tal Ben Haim, who at €6m was around £6m overpriced. The money clicking incessantly through the tills must to an extent have frazzled Hughes's football brain a little. 
“I came to the football club with the intention of winning things,” the new manager continued in the Chelsea programme, but it would not to be until his successor Roberto Mancini arrived a year and a half later that City would make the breakthrough, winning the FA Cup, against Stoke City of all teams, after a smooth and trouble free trophy-less period of just 33 years.
There were many, who reckoned Hughes to be incapable of managing a club endowed so suddenly with such an enormous transfer budget. Dealing with world superstars is not easy at the best of times and if, as the manager, your name does not carry the weight of men, who have seen trophy-laden action at football cathedrals such as Lazio, Internazionale, Real Madrid, Bayern Munich and Barcelona, as the subsequent occupiers of City’s hot seat have, things can get a little tricky. Hughes battled on, signing Wayne Bridge in another critical moment of weakness.

Jô: Not the best.
Hughes was a man overtaken by circumstances, perhaps the most unexpected circumstances that one could possibly have imagined for Manchester City at the time. That he struggled to get maximum reward from the bursting purse strings can be put down partly to the suddenness of the changes and partly to the newness of the environment for a man, who had previously only been in charge of a down-at-heel Wales and a fading Blackburn Rovers. At Ewood Park, there had also been a generous budget, but the glory years under Jack Walker were beginning to fade and the media spotlight was far more forgiving. It was there that his strange attraction to Roque Santa Cruz took shape and the ailing Paraguayan would also follow him to Manchester to very little effect.
Pep Guardiola, who will stand face to face with Hughes this weekend, has inherited the City job at a completely different phase of the regeneration of the club. It is now maturing into one of the continent’s big-hitters. Guardiola, no stranger to steering the world’s biggest clubs to titles on a global stage, is showing serious signs of getting to grips with a notoriously difficult club to keep on the straight and narrow. After all, even with its relatively new-found wealth, City have successfully maintained a reputation for quirkiness, which still keeps us all on our toes.

As with Hughes’s October 2008 introduction of Robinho, the Premier League reconvenes after an international break. It is up to the present incumbent of the City hot seat to maintain the upwardly mobile form of the early rounds into the critical autumn period. If he can do this, City’s so-called "epoch-changing" developments of late summer 2008 will have reached another stage in the club’s remarkable renaissance. 

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