Martin Hardy: John Hughes, the docker's son who may just keep sinking Hartlepool afloat
Life Beyond the Premier League
The parting shot from John Hughes came with a smile. "Make sure," he laughed, "that you stress the positivity, about how it's down to the players. They're the ones who are making this happen. Do that and you'll be doing half my job!"
Two months ago that would have made this column a little bit tricky. Two months ago, Hartlepool United were bottom of League One. Then they beat Sheffield United, who were top of the table. Away.
"We were going nowhere, and we beat them," added Hughes. "It was a real coupon buster that day. That set a benchmark for us. We all went: 'Right, that's the standard, let's not lower it.'
"The players deserve all the credit. They have taken on board what has been required. The credit goes into the dressing room. The players have put in the commitment and the work rate. There has also been some nice football along the way as well."
Hughes arrived at Victoria Park on 13 November. It felt unlucky for him, despite a strong CV from his time managing in Scotland with Falkirk, Hibernian and Livingston. Hartlepool had eight points from 17 league games. It was dire stuff.
"I always wanted the chance to manage in England," he said. "I was under no illusions what I was going into. There was a lack of confidence. You could see it in their play. That's what we did from day one, we made them believe in themselves, they started to trust each other. We made sure the shape was right and we were hard to beat. We made them enjoy their football. It's nice to see them play with smiles on their faces.
"I'm there to give them a hand, not hit them with a big stick. I've got a lot of senior players in there. They've been fantastic. At Christmas we had the lowest points in the league."
The turnaround in the last seven games has been dramatic. Hartlepool have picked up 17 points from seven games. There is a new belief that a great escape is being fashioned. They are just six points from what was unthinkable two months ago. Safety.
"We have nothing to lose," added Hughes. "Let's see what happens. Now if we keep the treatment room empty, we have a fighting chance.
"I said to the players: 'Let's put pride back into the club, into ourselves and back into the supporters and the community.' That is what we've done. I have to now keep everyone's feet on the ground. That is my job. We have rolled our sleeves up and battled and showed the supporters passion.
"I take no credit for it. It is the boys in the dressing room. I can only say: 'This is how we do it'. They appreciate how hard it is going to be but they know they have a manager who is right in there with them. Everyone individually is up for the fight.
"There is a lot going on but I'm not giving away all my secrets! We have the league leaders on Saturday and we will give it a go. We are all working very hard."
That work ethic comes from his father.
"My dad was a docker," he said. "I was born and bred a stone's throw from the docks in Leith. I grew up around the shipbuilders. I was the youngest of six in the family. I know my place in life! I can remember going down there at five o'clock on a Friday and thousands of men coming past you. Unfortunately, those days are gone but, 100 per cent, it installed in me the values of hard work. They are the same values we are putting in that dressing room."
Hughes is 48 now. He played more than 400 times in Scotland, including successful spells with Celtic and Hibs. He gained his coaching qualifications in Scotland and, "back in love with the game thanks to John Collins", his director of football at Livingston, he left the Scottish club to take over at Hartlepool.
"I wanted to come to England to prove myself," he added. "I had great success at every club I've been at in Scotland. I love it here, honestly. The people are warm and they love their football.
"My missus has been a football wife for years [he has three children]. In Scotland I was never in, I was always out at a game. They came down for the school holidays. It is only two hours' drive. I have embraced it here and that is what you have to do. If I didn't do that, I would be cheating the supporters. We want to put pride back into the town. We want to put pride back into the community."
So far so good.
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