Mark Hughes laid bare his feelings of betrayal by Manchester City yesterday, with the central dispute between club and outgoing manager revolving around whether the increased 70-point target Hughes was set after an unanticipated £100m-plus summer of spending compelled him to achieve a top four finish.
As The Independent revealed on Saturday, the sixth-place target finish publicly agreed between Hughes and his chairman, Khaldoon al-Mubarak, on 20 May was altered after City responded to market conditions by spending so heavily in the summer. City admit they did not spell out to Hughes that a top four finish had suddenly become the season's minimum requirement, though the club feel the 70-point target they set their outgoing manager made that obvious. Hughes seems to have thought sixth was still enough to save his job.
Hughes' successor Roberto Mancini, who will be unveiled this afternoon, is already plotting his own course for a Champions League place, insisting through friends yesterday that he will be more than a temporary measure until Jose Mourinho is likely to be available in the summer. Mancini, who is keen to bring in his former Lazio team-mate and close friend David Platt at City, has not made January signings a pre-condition of taking the top job but is likely to move for defensive reinforcements.
Mancini's toughest task will be to deal with the division in the current City ranks, with the striker Craig Bellamy incandescent about Hughes' treatment. Mancini is expected to bring an Italian backroom to replace the Welsh one which gathered at Hughes' home at Mottram St Andrew, Cheshire, on Saturday night. Brian Kidd's appointment as assistant manager, part of City's attempts to keep in touch with the club's roots, is not one the new manager has asked for, but it remains to be seen whether Platt will be accepted. Mancini will also bring in his closest friend in the game, Sinisa Mihajlovic, the Serb who played for him at Lazio and Inter and now manages Catania. Fausto Salsano, a coach at Fiorentina well known to him and Ivan Carminato, who was a fitness coach for England under Sven Goran Eriksson, are also possible recruits.
But the overriding feeling among City fans is one of astonishment that Hughes has been dismissed. Hughes feels the expectations for this season were shifted. "It was agreed that a realistic target for the season would be sixth place, or in the region of 70 points," he said in a statement yesterday. "All of this was communicated to the players and we all knew where we stood. We were absolutely on target at the time of my dismissal."
City's case is weakened by the fact Hughes' side were six points off fourth-placed Aston Villa with a game in hand – but the club do believe a 70-point target was synonymous with a Champions League place. That doesn't entirely add up, statistically. In each of the last two seasons 70 points would only have been enough to secure fifth for City, who are currently sixth. Although, in all but one other season during the past decade – 2001-02, when 71 points secured Newcastle United fourth place – 70 points has been enough to finish in the top four.
City, who tied Mancini to a £3.5m-a-year, three-and-a-half-year deal on Friday evening, also insist Hughes was quite aware his job was on the line, following a conversation to that effect with the club's chief executive, Garry Cook, after the 1-1 draw with Hull City on 28 November. In hindsight, the storm clouds were gathering as early as 12 November. Asked in Abu Dhabi on that date why talks with Hughes over a new contract had not started, Cook replied: "Maybe that's a discussion we have in the future." His next assertion rings hollow now. "A contract is a contract," Cook declared.
The sometimes farcical events of Saturday afternoon, when news of Mancini's appointment broke on the website of the La Repubblica at lunch-time and was on the Sky Sport Italia site by 4.05pm, will still take some explaining by City. It seems someone in the Mancini camp couldn't resist talking. Contrary to some reports, Mancini was not at the City of Manchester Stadium on Saturday afternoon and Hughes was not told of his sacking until after the game. But hiring a manager before sacking the previous one is a recipe for disaster and Hughes was quite aware of his fate as the game played out.
City had also sounded out Guus Hiddink about the manager's position – though not Mourinho – and met Mancini on 2 December before the Carling Cup quarter-final against Arsenal, which suggests the decision had been made before the 28 November warning. Mancini had only been available since 30 October, when a contractual dispute with his previous employer Internazionale, preventing him taking up a new job, was resolved.
City's win over Arsenal, and then Chelsea on 5 December, created indecision over whether Hughes should go, though the 3-0 defeat to Tottenham on Wednesday sealed things. But rather than sack Hughes at White Hart Lane, City resolved to sign up Mancini first. His recruitment was sealed so close to the Sunderland game that Cook decided to go into the match with two managers on his books. Mubarak, who wanted to sack Hughes face to face, did so in after the final whistle.
Cook will not be at Eastlands to explain all this today, the word from the club being that he does not want to detract from the new manager's unveiling. In Mancini he certainly has City's wealthiest manager. He collected €8m (£7.1m) from his settlement with Inter, who fired him at the end of the 2007-08 season, and earned €6m per year after tax at San Siro.
He may return to Inter for January reinforcements, with Cordoba and Maicon more likely than Juventus's Giorgio Chiellini, whom the Turin club may be reluctant to release.
Ex and the City Former manager's big-money recruits at Eastlands
*Mark Hughes succeeded Sven Goran Eriksson when he became Manchester City manager on 4 June 2008.
Record: P 77 W 36 D 15 L 26 Win% 46.75
*Hughes spent £243.5m on 19 players during his 18 months at Eastlands, more than half of them costing over £10m.
Robinho (Real Madrid) £32.5m
Emmanuel Adebayor (Arsenal) £25m
Carlos Tevez (MSI) £25m
Joleon Lescott (Everton) £22m
Jo (CSKA Moscow) £18m
Roque Santa Cruz (Blackburn) £17.5m
Nigel de Jong (Hamburg) £16m
Kolo Touré (Arsenal) £16m
Craig Bellamy (West Ham Utd) £14m
Gareth Barry (Aston Villa) £12m
Wayne Bridge (Chelsea) £12m
Shaun Wright-Phillips (Chelsea) £9m
Shay Given (Newcastle) £7m
Pablo Zabaleta (Espanyol) £6.5m
Vincent Kompany (Hamburg) £6m
Tal Ben-Haim (Chelsea) £5m
Glauber Berti (Nuremberg) free
Stuart Taylor (Aston Villa) free
Sylvinho (Barcelona) free