Football: Hughes searches for a spark

`Why is it we can produce Ryan Giggs but not a successful team?'; Norman Fox finds Wales' new manager under few illusions
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THE TRANSITION from fading player to international manager thrust into the glare of television lights was so sudden that Mark Hughes had no time to hide his chewing gum. Having spent Thursday morning training with Southampton, he was rushed to a local hotel to face the media. Discreetly, the new manager of Wales hid the gum in a handkerchief and explained that in spite of having had no previous experience of management he was sure he had not bitten off more than he could chew.

He said he was qualified for the job mainly on the basis of his days at Manchester United where "if you didn't learn something from Sir Alex Ferguson, who is a great teacher, there was something wrong". But in coaching terms Hughes is without a single GCSE. He was not even the first choice of the Football Association of Wales' council members. They wanted his former coach at Barcelona, Terry Venables, but he demanded pounds 200,000 a year for what is in all but name a part-time job. Then they went for Roy Hodgson, but he jumped at the chance of coaching Grasshoppers of Zurich... no bad judge, perhaps, since Wales are now ranked 90th in the world and have only a remote chance of reaching the Euro 2000 finals.

The choice came down to Hughes or Neville Southall. Together they had taken charge of Wales in their last match against Denmark in June, a few days after Bobby Gould had resigned. Hughes is well aware that after the next two matches, against Belarus away next month, and at home to Switzerland in October, there is a long period of inactivity which will give time for the FAW to consider their options for a long-term manager. Yet a couple of spirited performances may well be enough to secure his position.

Venables would not consider the FAW's suggestion of pounds 100,000 a year and a pounds 500,000 bonus if he defied the odds and got Wales to the 2002 World Cup finals. So in the end the FAW worked out a temporary deal with the 35-year-old Hughes, who had been asking his agent, Dennis Roach, to keep him in mind for any interesting managerial jobs.

Contrary to popular belief (and particularly that of Arsenal's David Dein who has suffered the "Anelka Experience") not all football agents are sharks, so the FAW found it easier to talk financial sense with Hughes's representative than trying to persuade Venables that he was talking silly money.

Seemingly, so pleased were they with the way Roach worked sensibly on Hughes' behalf and in consideration of their limited resources that they even allowed him to chair Thursday's conference. Had Roach been one of the game's less responsible agents that would have been a symbolic, sinister final confirmation that football had sold its soul to the Mr Ten Percenters.

Roach, incidentally, also represented Glenn Hoddle who, as England manager, was deeply suspicious of the press and found it difficult to communicate. Conversely, Hughes is fairly open and certainly coherent. And David Collins, the FAW's secretary-general, even countered the argument that Hughes had not served a managerial apprenticeship by citing Franz Beckenbauer and Johann Cruyff, slightly overlooking the available playing talent of Germany and Holland by comparison with that of Wales.

Hughes, who has not yet decided whether he will continue playing for Wales, has initially been appointed for the remaining two Euro 2000 qualifiers. He has to be an overnight success before he can day-dream about his own future or that of Wales, a country still breeding some good footballers but rarely able to get them singing from the same song sheet.

"I can't quite understand why it is we can produce players as good as Ryan Giggs but not get a successful team together," he said. Why did he want to take on the job of reviving Wales, or even go into the precarious world of management at all? "Over the past five years I've thought more and more about it and decided this is what I want. Prior to that I wasn't thinking of going down this road, but I think I've got a lot to offer. I've worked with some of the best people in world football. Some people may think others were better qualified, but I've played a lot of internationals and been coached by a lot of top coaches. I've got as much knowledge as most."

From a practical point of view he says little will change. Southampton will release him for the periods around the internationals and he will use his spare time keeping contact with Welsh players. He said he was not concerned about their commitment but added: "At times we haven't had the framework or organisation that enables you to show the passion that you want."

Realistically, he added: "Every time we fail to qualify for a major championship our standing in world football slips, which means we end up as low seeds, which also means we always end up playing two or three very good sides." Being drawn against Italy and Denmark in Euro 2000 was a good example. Indeed, it was the 4-0 defeat in Bologna which finally forced Gould to admit that he could no longer motivate the side.

When Southall and Hughes took over for the match against Denmark at Anfield, motivation was not a problem, and in spite of the 2-0 defeat the most motivated of all was the goalkeeper, Southampton's Paul Jones, who in training on Thursday was even more impressive than usual. "I wonder why?" Hughes said mischievously.