Mark Hughes tells a funny story about the one occasion he met Sheikh Mansour, the Abu Dhabi royal who has bankrolled Manchester City to the tune of £1bn and done more than anyone to make tomorrow's derby against Manchester United the game of the season so far.
It was in November 2009, when the club were on a break in Abu Dhabi and Hughes, then the City manager, was invited to tea with Mansour. With then City chief executive Garry Cook and chairman Khaldoon al-Mubarak, Hughes sat in the grounds of Mansour's palace watching a parade of thoroughbred racehorses. Hughes put what he thinks was an olive in his mouth when suddenly the sheikh arrived.
"I'm chewing it, when the tea is served and Sheikh Mansour arrives," Hughes says. "But I've still got this stone in my mouth and I can't spit it out because I think it will be rude, but for the whole time I'm with him it's there. For about an hour. He must have thought I had some kind of speech problem."
He can laugh about it now but it was an incredible time, as the oil money allowed City to buy famous footballers as easily as Arab racehorses and there are many more stories. This Hughes interview is the first he has given since he exercised the break clause in his contract with Fulham on 1 June. As a manager, he could be skilfully elusive when it came to addressing controversial issues but this time he is keen to talk.
Hughes opens up on how it felt to know he had been sacked by City before they told him officially; on the "Welcome to Manchester" poster; on his relationship with Sir Alex Ferguson and how, as a former United great, he feels about his old club. He starts with Roberto Mancini, the man who took his seat in the City manager's office, and who takes the club to Old Trafford tomorrow as the Premier League leaders. There is no love lost.
"I don't know the guy personally but looking at him from the outside he comes across as autocratic," Hughes says. "It's either his way or the highway. I'm not sure he indulges players, tries to get to know players or understand players. I'm not sure he's that type of manager. He looks very focused and very driven in terms of what he gets from his players. But whether or not they will all love him when he leaves, I would think probably not. He never can put his arm around a player. He's not that kind of manager. He's got good players. But only time will tell if the potential of the group he has is realised.
"I think it is more difficult [to be like that] in the modern age with the modern footballers. To be an absolute autocrat, and not be flexible in terms of how it's going to be done and not understand that your decisions can impact on players, because they do."
Hughes had been appointed by the previous City owner, Thaksin Shinawatra, and believes that ultimately counted against him, as it does so many managers whom new owners inherit. Ask Hughes what went wrong and he says it was the "structure". He says he "compromised" himself as he tried to "buy into" the City approach. "There were certain things I wasn't comfortable with and I allowed to happen under my watch," he says. Asked to be more specific, he replies: "It was really Brian Marwood's role." The club's "football administration officer" was appointed in March 2009 to oversee the spending of City's considerable transfer budget.
Hughes says: "The way it was sold to me was that I was still in charge of football things. I was shown all sorts of charts and everything and thought 'What the hell's all this?' I had an understanding of business roles and what needs to be done and business models. But sometimes, really, it's about your relationships with people and that's the strength of your football club.
"Bringing in all these business people and consultants to tell people in the club what to do and how to structure their club wasn't right. The close relationships I had at Blackburn were a strength and I wasn't able to establish them [at City]. There were layers of management, which really frustrates me. But it was my own fault because I allowed it to happen.
"It's difficult but I wanted the club to succeed and you could see that the train was going in the right direction. They did things that maybe they regretted and possibly would have done differently with hindsight. It was a situation we all found ourselves in. There was so much happening and overnight we went from a team that had never been higher than eighth in the Premier League to being one that should win every week. That was different."
Hughes was sacked by City hours after they beat Sunderland 4-3 on 19 December 2009, with the club sixth in the Premier League but having drawn eight of their previous 10 games. That day Hughes, and the rest of the world, knew he was finished before the game. Already in the league that season his team had beaten Arsenal and Chelsea but his fate, Hughes believes, had been sealed long before his final day.
"It was results-driven. I was on a bad run. We hadn't been beaten [only two defeats] but hadn't won enough games. We drew too many games. Apparently I was sacked four or five games before I actually went. We beat Arsenal [in the Carling Cup on 2 December], we beat Chelsea [League, 5 December] and that postponed that [the sacking].
Hughes adds: "Aparently he [Khaldoon] flew in on the Wednesday after Hull [1-1 on 28 November] and I was to be sacked after the Hull game. Really, that's when the decision was made. We were playing that Wednesday so maybe the assumption was we were going to get beat. As it was we won 3-0 [against Arsenal in the Carling Cup].
"I got an inkling because people weren't around. People were going away on trips. It was 'Where is everybody?' With hindsight, I am asking 'What happened there?' and 'Where's the press officer?' She wasn't around. You were left asking 'What's going on?' On the day of the Sunderland game, people were phoning up and saying 'You getting sacked after the game?' Players were seeing that as well and it was very difficult."
Looking back, does he wonder why he took the team that day with the Saturday newspapers announcing his fate had been sealed? "That's what I'm talking about in terms of compromising myself. I knew it was hanging by a thread and the players did too."
His time at City meant that Hughes was pitched into the rows between his club and his old boss Sir Alex Ferguson. It would be wrong to pigeonhole Hughes as a Ferguson acolyte, and that goes back to before his days at City when he was Blackburn manager. He has never been as close to his former manager as, for example, Alex McLeish.
Ask Hughes which club had the most profound affect on his thinking as a manager and he is as likely to say Bayern Munich where he was on loan after his ill-fated move to Barcelona. But he admits that United was a huge part of his life. "I was at United from 14 to 31 with a gap of two years so I had been with United longer than I'd been with my mum when I left. But in terms of my emotion at the time, what I went through at City, there are a lot of good people there who I had the pleasure of working with at all levels. I had a great relationship with some of the players. Vincent Kompany, Nigel de Jong. Top guys, in terms of their presence and impact. Don't think I let my history with United cloud my judgement when it came to doing the job. You ask Fergie. Whenever he went up against one of my teams, at City or Blackburn, it would have been one of the hardest games he had that season. They were the best and I wanted to beat them."
And the poster that greeted Carlos Tevez's arrival at City under Hughes? "It was quite funny. I could see the reaction it would get. I was shown it before it went out and I chuckled because I knew it would get a reaction." It is put to Hughes that there is no point being deferential to Ferguson, anyway. "Yeah, as soon as he sees you as a threat your relationship with him changes," he says. "In the room after the game he's great if he's won but he's a little bit different if he's been beaten. It will be the ref's fault or the fault of one of the players."
So what of tomorrow's game? City have beaten United before – although Hughes lost all three Manchester derbies for which he was City manager – but rarely have they gone into a game in the modern era with such equality. "In the Champions League, I don't think City can get to where they want to be either this season or even next," Hughes says. "You have to build that knowledge. United improved year on year and you only develop like that from playing in the competition.
"But in terms of the Premier League it can happen much more quickly. They have players who understand the Premier League. They have players like Kompany and De Jong who have been there for a few seasons. They understand what's required.
"Whether or not the group as a whole work as diligently and with the same mantra United have, I'd maybe suggest not. Every United player understands what United is about. The players understand it is a privilege to play for United. They show the club that deference. I'm not sure the group of players at City understand that. A lot of people have come together very quickly. At United there has been continuity, with the manager, with the success they have had. It gives them a different dynamic."
For someone who disguises his emotions well it is interesting to hear Hughes say that at the time he was "devastated" to lose the job at City. "I had all the pain and other people are getting all the gain now," he adds, but there is no bitterness. Hughes will watch with interest tomorrow knowing he has played a unique part in both clubs' history, but that his own future lies elsewhere.
- More about:
- Arab Countries
- French Football
- Juande Ramos
- Manchester City
- Premier League