Football: The war-horse Hughes keeps soldiering on

Basement battle: Veteran striker has no regrets about swapping Stamford Bridge for The Dell despite relegation fight
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The Independent Online
MANY A contemporary, in an industry where youth is prized, would long ago have resorted to the Grecian 2000 to cover up his prematurely greying thatch but Mark Hughes is refreshingly free of ego. Now 35, he has rarely sought the limelight which a glittering career has thrust upon him and - as long as he is playing - has long been a believer in team before self.

But one recent personal achievement did bring extra satisfaction: his goal against Blackburn last month. It was his first for Southampton after 32 appearances, and the media and supporter criticism was beginning to weigh even on his broad shoulders.

He stressed that helping Southampton to gain a vital draw was the important thing, but admitted: "It did get a bit of a monkey off my back."

He added: "It's conveniently forgotten that I've played three quarters of the season as a holding midfield player, so I've not been expected to get forward, but it makes a better headline if you point to the fact that I've only scored once.

"Having said that, I should have scored more. I've had five or six clear- cut chances. The difference is that at my other clubs I've had five or six chances a game rather than in a season."

When asked how he felt about his own form this season, Hughes had initially reacted with an embarrassed laugh. "To be honest," he said, "it's not gone as well as I'd have liked, but I've been reasonably happy with my contribution. I've obviously not been able to be as much of an influence as I might have wanted, but I have enjoyed it.

"It's never been a problem being motivated. If you don't feel like training then your mind, or your body, is telling you that maybe it is time to look at something else, but I've never had that. I've been very lucky never to have had major injuries and I'm still at the front during warm- ups. It beats working."

According to local observers Hughes has found his best form in recent weeks as Saints have clawed their way out of the relegation zone. This should be no surprise; Alex Ferguson calls him "the best big game player I have known" and while Premiership survival, rather than a trophy, may be the prize, the matches are no less important.

"It's so important for the club to stay up. A lot of the finance to pay for the new ground is based on playing in the Premiership. It's been a difficult season because expectation was a lot higher after doing well last year, but we got off to a bad start and have been struggling ever since.

"The difference between pressure at the top and at the bottom is in the way players react. At the top of the league you go into games expecting to win. At the bottom you go out hoping to win. It is a confidence thing. When players have not won for five or six games they start to wonder where the next win will come from. They start choosing the wrong option, maybe play safe when they need to be a bit braver. The first goal becomes very important. If we go behind we find it very difficult to come back."

Southampton have come back against Blackburn and Leicester at home recently, but only one of the five points gained away from The Dell has come after conceding first - at Highbury, of all places, in October. "Our home form has kept us alive," Hughes said.

With 11,000 fans making the trip to Selhurst Park, this afternoon's match at Wimbledon may feel like a home match but, Hughes cautioned, "it is just the sort of thing which might spice up Wimbledon".

Hughes, of course, could have been chasing the title again rather than fighting relegation. He left Chelsea because it seemed he would rarely start but, given Brian Laudrup's departure and Pierluigi Casiraghi's injury, they could have done with him. "Obviously looking back I would have played more games but I made the decision for the right reasons. There were four strikers there and they bought two more. Something had to give, so I did."

While he enjoyed his time at Stamford Bridge, Manchester United, the club he embellished for a decade, are his preferred champions. He also hopes they can defeat one former club, Bayern Munich, in a European Cup final hosted by another, Barcelona.

"It would be marvellous if they could win the treble," Hughes said. "It would be an incredible achievement. I think they have gained a lot of credit the way they have performed this year. Most of the time it is United against the rest. Everybody wants to knock them, but I think they have turned a few people's heads this year and it is about time.

"I think they have a great chance against Bayern. I'd love to go but I don't think I can get a ticket - and if I can I probably won't be able to get a hotel room. Perhaps I can get a job commentating - spread the word for me."

Hughes returned to Barcelona recently as part of their centenary celebrations; the club invited every former player it could contact.

Hughes was one of the least successful, a homesick youngster who struggled to adapt to the football and the culture, but he now views the time more fondly. "It was good experience. I went there a young man in years and mind and I came back a lot older. It helped my development and I'm glad I went there."

We are talking at Southampton's training ground. The reserves play there and we are sitting in the dug-out. Hughes, who always swore off management, looks comfortable in the setting.

"As you get older you get ideas about the game that you'd like to try out," he admits. "You think about the game more. As a younger player you are more concerned about you, individually, rather than the team as a whole. When you get older you want the team to succeed because you realise that you will succeed along with it.

"I feel I've something to offer. I've played under Mr Ferguson, Luca [Vialli], Terry Venables, Ruud Gullit, Glenn Hoddle - all good managers in their own right. I must have learned something from them. Players seem to forget you only play for 15 years. You have another 40 years to live so you need something to get out of bed for."

Hughes' war-horse image suggests he would be a Gordon Strachan of the touchline, but his softly spoken, quiet, off-pitch demeanour is more like the impassive Vialli. So who would he be like as a manager? "I don't think I'd be bouncing up and down. I only get angry when I get physically assaulted and you are pretty safe in the dug-out - most of the time anyway. But I won't have a problem making my feelings known."

Fifteen bookings in 34 matches this season suggests not, though Hughes adds, with relief, that he has now been overtaken by Olivier Dacort at the top of the "naughty boys list".

For now he wants to keep playing, ideally in the Premiership, as long as possible. He has another year with Southampton but will eventually return north to the house he had built in Manchester's stockbroker belt and where his family continue to live.

Hughes' one remaining ambition is to qualify for a major tournament with Wales, for whom the 2000 European Championship finals remain in reach. Though Hughes will be 36 by then he hopes his grey matter will count for more than his grey hair. After all, his old Bayern team-mate, Lothar Matthaus, played in the World Cup for Germany at the age of 37.

THE HUGHES ROLL OF HONOUR

It was not for nothing that Mark Hughes's team-mates at Old Trafford nicknamed him `The Legend'. In a 16-year career with Manchester United, Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Chelsea and Southampton the 35-year-old Welshman has won a formidable array of honours.

European Cup-Winners' Cup: 1991, 1998.

European Super Cup:1991.

FA Premiership: 1993, 1994.

FA Cup: 1985, 1990, 1994, 1997.

League Cup: 1992, 1998.

Charity Shield: 1993, 1994.

Player of the Year: 1989, 1991.

Young Player of the Year: 1985.

MBE (for services to football).

Apps Goals

Manchester Utd 473 164 Barcelona 39 7

B Munich (loan) 23 7

Chelsea 123 39

Southampton 34 1

Wales 70 16

TOTAL 762 234

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