Ferguson hails United school of management's star graduate

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With a glimpse of the encyclopedic knowledge of his own club for which he is famous, Sir Alex Ferguson announced yesterday that 13 former Manchester United players are currently managing in England and Scotland. But there was no doubting his particular admiration for the man in that number who has made his side into top four contenders on a fraction of the Old Trafford budget.

Mark Hughes, whom Sir Alex will encounter at Old Trafford tomorrow, has allowed Blackburn Rovers to aspire to Champions League competition next year because of his judicious spending and his ability to maintain a consistent side, Sir Alex said. "There's not many changes there now," Sir Alex declared. "They seem to keep the same side together for three or four years which gives them the experience of playing together and gives them a good team spirit and [makes] them difficult to play against." Blackburn are the side who, on current form, the United manager considers most likely to break the hegemony of the "big four" – with Everton and Manchester City the other challengers.

There is no disguising his admiration for the decision of Hughes, Barclays Manager of the Month for October, to offer his Turkish international midfielder Tugay a new one-year contract in May. "He's still one of the best passers of the ball in the country," said Sir Alex, citing the midfielder's performance against Liverpool last weekend in which, during a 25-minute appearance from the bench, he did not once give the ball away. The purchases of Benni McCarthy, now back in the manager's plans, and Roque Santa Cruz have obviously not gone unnoticed at Old Trafford, either.

The qualities in Hughes the player are there in him as a manager, Sir Alex said. "He was a determined player. He was a rottweiler on that pitch and yet off it he could be a quiet guy," he said. "Good teams reflect their manager and you see Mark Hughes in Blackburn a lot of the time. They are very aggressive at times but I don't have any great issue with [that]. Nothing wrong with being aggressive if it's the right type of aggression."

Hughes talked of his old manager's longevity. "It is a remarkable feat that he has been able to keep going and keep the energy and enthusiasm for the game that he has," he said. "By all accounts he has mellowed a bit from my time when I was a player, but maybe that comes from being so successful."

Sir Alex's delight when announcing at 10am yesterday that this weekend's squad was the strongest he had been equipped with all season will have been tempered by lunchtime, when Wayne Rooney limped out of Carrington on crutches, destined for a month on the sidelines. Sir Alex had actually been contemplating whether Rooney, with seven goals in as many games, might be about to go a game closer to the United record set by Ruud Van Nistelrooy of 10 in 10.

Rooney's absence early this season brought an immediate, heavy reliance on Louis Saha, whose own contribution has been limited this season by his knee injury. Sir Alex believes that, with Saha's relative fragility, a substitute's role of the kind assumed by Ole Gunnar Solskjaer may be the best way to deploy him. As substitutes go Saha does not match Solskjaer – "Ole was the best substitute, there's no doubt about that; his ration of goals as substitute in important games is incredible," he said – but he does offer something different. "He [has] physical presence, speed and is very calm in the box," said Sir Alex. Saha will suddenly be a more important part of his planning now.

But Sir Alex's loss is Rovers' gain. Hughes's team have not lost away in the Premier League since they were beaten 4-1 by United in March and Hughes, who had recorded four straight wins before last weekend's stalemate against Liverpool, is anxious to maintain the run. The idea of winning, as Blackburn did at Old Trafford two seasons ago, is considerably less far fetched with Rooney out. "I just hope the run isn't going to end where it began," said Hughes.

13 managers who played at United

Former Manchester United players who are now managing an English or Scottish league club

* Steve Bruce, Birmingham City

* Brian Carey, Wrexham

* Chris Casper, Bury

* Steve Coppell, Reading

* Darren Ferguson, Peterborough

* Mark Hughes, Blackburn Rovers

* Paul Ince, Milton Keynes Dons

* Roy Keane, Sunderland

* Sammy McIlroy, Morecambe

* Andy Ritchie, Huddersfield

* Mark Robins, Rotherham

* Bryan Robson, Sheffield United

* Gordon Strachan, Celtic