The Premiership Interview: 'I probably have a better relationship with Sir Alex as a manager than I did as a player...'

As a Manchester United player, Mark Hughes never wanted to be a manager, but he is now committed and consumed by the task of guiding Blackburn Rovers. In a rare interview he told Sam Wallace about the differences between club and international management and why he will always remember his brief time at Bayern Munich
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There is only one photograph in Mark Hughes's office, unframed and casually stuck to the noticeboard - of him with Sir Alex Ferguson, Sir Bobby Charlton and the Premier League trophy in the Old Trafford changing room in 1994. It is an innocuous reminder, as you walk into the room at Blackburn Rovers training ground, of the great career that has preceded his new life as a manager. And a reminder of what those at United expected of Hughes.

United never thought he was cut out for management, that he was too shy - and it is by asking him about that, you get to see the real Hughes. "Why? Because I am quietly spoken?" he replies. "There's bugger all I can do about that - I suppose it's better than having a squeaky voice. A lot of those assumptions are based on how I was at Manchester United which was 12 years ago. I am a different person to what I was then. I had to leave United to understand that I wanted to have an input and have a career in football after I finished playing."

In our conversation that was something of a breakthrough. It is difficult to get an audience with Hughes - he admits he does not "court the press" - and the 42-year-old does not open up easily - "I don't do small talk" he later concedes. But he is witty, in an understated way - the "squeaky voice" remark - and deadly serious about his job. He has created a real buzz about Blackburn Rovers. They finished sixth last season, face Middlesbrough today and are back in the Uefa Cup - their first-round second-leg tie against Salzburg is on Thursday.

Later, when Hughes is having his picture taken, I chat to him about my favourite Hughes goal. The one he scored for Wales against Spain in April 1985, a volley that is recorded only on fuzzy Welsh FA footage which means you never see it replayed on television these days. Connoisseurs of Hughes'ss goals have high standards but that was the greatest, he must have been five feet in the air, and virtually horizontal, when he thumped it in. "It got me a move to Barcelona," he says, not completely joking.

From United he went to Barcelona, Bayern Munich and back to Old Trafford all by the age of 24 and then on to Chelsea in 1995 before the reluctant final journey towards retirement at Southampton, Everton and Blackburn. Two Premiership titles, four FA Cups, two European Cup-Winner's Cups and two League Cups - a remarkable career. His desire to manage was late in dawning - he dates it as post-United, whom he left at 31, but it does not detract from his complete absorption with the profession now.

Hughes quotes Giovanni Trappatoni - "he made a good analogy, so I've pinched it" - the Italy coach he beat during his five years as Wales manager and now at Salzburg, to define the difference between club and international management. "Trappatoni said when he was a club manager he was like a sculptor, he could mould and shape the team," Hughes says. "When he was an international manager, he was like a chef who threw all the ingredients in, hoping something nice would come out."

The flavour seems right at Blackburn, who got their first League win against Manchester City on Sunday, although Hughes is not concerned by an otherwise slow start to the campaign. Last season they crept up to sixth place unnoticed - "we just quietly got on with our business, didn't shout from the rooftops," Hughes says - and, despite a reputation as a physical side that their manager resents, they looked impressive. Hughes's standing in the game has grown considerably with Blackburn. Impeccable coaching reputation, astute in the transfer market, respected by his players - the future looks very bright for him.

He is passionate about the benefits of international management as a grounding for taking charge of a club and you can see the Welsh influence throughout Blackburn. His staff of Mark Bowen, Eddie Niedzwiecki and Glyn Hodges - "the Taffia" as some at the club know them - have all followed him to Lancashire from jobs with Wales. "[International management] gives you time to build a philosophy - how you think the game should be played and what type of players you want," Hughes says, "if further down the line you want to be a club manager."

Hughes talks about "earning your spurs" and "paying your dues", although surely a playing career like his entitles him to a higher-level entry? He agrees but adds that there "is a long list of players who have outstanding football careers and can't make the step up".

Then he hints at the attitudes he has encountered since entering management. "You are aware when you become a manager that whatever you have done as a player isn't given any [credit]," he says. "That's by managers at all levels. They view you as just another top-name manager who will fall flat on his face because you have no idea what the job entails. I can understand them thinking that way."

Hughes certainly knows what it entails: the ice baths after training, more Uefa licensed coaches on his staff than any other Premiership club and using his ProZone statistics. Although at Blackburn he does not have to settle for the "cheap option" on the technology as he did with Wales. He talks with passion about using ProZone to make a point to players, not using it "to beat them over the head", about the ideas meetings with his coaches. He was also in the first intake for the "football manager's degree" - the certificate in applied management from Warwick University.

So why did it take him so long to realise, until his early thirties, that management was a calling for him? Despite a key role in saving Ferguson's United career, he says that he just never spoke much in the dressing-room. Hughes scored the FA Cup final equaliser against Crystal Palace in 1990 that paved the way for Ferguson's first trophy and the winner the following year against Barcelona in the European Cup-Winner's Cup final. No one's voice, with the possible exception of Bryan Robson, was entitled to be heard louder than Hughes's in Ferguson's first Premiership-winning team.

"I had no real inclination to do it when I was at United," Hughes says. "My thoughts on what was happening in the game, I wasn't prepared to put forward. I was always more of an observer, I would look at what was happening and work things out. European football always interested me because we would come up against sides who would pose us more problems than English teams.

"The fact I didn't mention it to anyone else didn't mean I wasn't thinking about the game all the time. It wasn't a lack of confidence, I just didn't feel a need to do it. I was a senior player and if I felt things needed to be said I would say them. I was able to get the message over - there was nobody more forceful than myself on the football field.

"The notion, 'He wouldn't be a manager' is based on the player I was 10 to 12 years ago. They don't know how I work, they don't know how I approach the job. Maybe they understand now that I have made some impact at this job.

"When I left United - sometimes you don't realise the standing you have in the game. The fact people want to hear what you have got to say, I was mindful of that. In the initial few weeks [at Chelsea] whenever I said something, more often than not people wanted to listen because of my standing as a player. I recognised that and enjoyed it, I became more and more interested in having an input and started doing coaching courses."

It is interesting to know that Hughes regards his relationship with Ferguson now as better than the one he had with his old boss in his playing days. They fell out for a while in February after Blackburn beat United 4-3 - completing a season's double for Hughes over his former club - when Ferguson complained of their "foul after foul after foul" approach. Hughes pays his respects to Ferguson - "I was his main-line striker for six or seven years, which I was grateful for. Not many front men last that long at Manchester United" - but there is no sense that they are close.

"I never showed any inclination to be a manager [at United] so I never really had that relationship with Sir Alex in terms of bending his ear and asking him tips," Hughes says. "I have probably spoken to him a lot more since becoming a manager than I did as a player - I probably have a better relationship as a manager [with Ferguson] than I did as a player, but it didn't stop me wanting to play for him."

Fair enough, and later when I ask Hughes what experience as a player had the most profound influence on his approach to management he surprises by answering Bayern Munich. He played 18 matches there on loan from Barcelona in 1988 before coming back to United where he spent a total of 13 years - seven under Ferguson. He is glowing about the sports science at Bayern, about the pioneering doctor Hans Müller-Wolfhart and general manager Uli Höness. But you cannot help feeling he is also making a point that he is not simply another Ferguson managerial protégé.

That disagreement with Ferguson brings us back round to Blackburn's reputation as the hard men of the Premiership, the so-called bully boys who broke Arjen Robben's foot in February 2004, the "Blackeye" Rovers crew who so upset United last season. You can see that this pains Hughes - he rolls his eyes at the accusations, especially the one that his team is built in the image of its manager, who gave as good as he got on the pitch.

"That's a cliché again," he replies. "Some people will say they are a reflection of their manager and some will say that is positive. But given our situation it probably isn't. People will say 'They [Blackburn] play that way because that is how he played'. I have never told any of my players to kick people. I probably did as a player. But I have never done that as a manager, I've got players here that are good footballers and can affect a game in a positive way.

"There have been a few cheap shots, to be perfectly honest. The first year [Hughes was in charge, 2004-2005] we were fighting for our lives, we were involved in a couple of high-profile games and, unfortunately, the label stuck. It took us - phew - well, we are still fighting it. Last year went a long way to putting that to bed. Some of the football we played last year was outstanding. We are not viewed as one of the most fashionable clubs and I don't actively pursue newspapers. This is one of the few interviews I have done."

A lot of Blackburn's bad press comes, Hughes says, from a misconception. They are only seen by the wider football public in the games against bigger sides where they have to compete hard - no one recognises the football they play on other occasions. And he accepts his own low public profile, a reluctance to court the media, as a factor. "A lot of Premiership managers court the press - I don't," he says. "Maybe that is because when I was a player at United and abroad I felt if I played well I'd get publicity anyway."

He jokes about the shy man image which, he insists, is an assumption based on his aversion to small talk - "If I am in company, to be perfectly honest, 'How are you?' or 'What did you do last week?' just doesn't interest me," he says. But the power of a public image was something that they teach at Warwick University. So he tried it last season and a well-placed interview before they went to Tottenham in March (they lost 3-2) as well as a good performance live on television did wonders, he says, for improving attitudes to Blackburn.

The image is something that has hurt a lot of people at Blackburn who are not, as another misconception goes, still benefiting from a limitless legacy from their former benefactor, the late Jack Walker. They are a well-run, financially sound club who work hard to attract support to Ewood Park.

Their image bemuses Hughes, who really was one of football's tough guys. "If you look at our squad," he says "the likes of Tugay, [Morten Gamst] Pedersen, David Bentley couldn't fight their way out of a paper bag - it is just a misconception.

"I get sick and tired of seeing the assessor's report after games. Invariably the opening paragraph says, 'The referee will have to be strong'. It is all just assumptions and perceptions that people have of us. We continually have to downplay that. We do pick up more bookings than most teams, because we make more tackles because we are competitive and the law of averages says you will pick up more bookings."

Life as a manager, he estimates, is "70 hours plus" every week. "You can say, 'I physically went home at this time' but, in all honesty, you are always working," he says. For someone who guards his thoughts so closely, Hughes seems genuinely absorbed by working with players and understanding what makes them tick. "Sometimes they will inspire you, sometimes they will disappoint you. When they disappoint you, that can be hard to take."

So what does the future hold? It's a tricky question for Hughes because at Blackburn he has made a great start to club management and he is evidently ambitious. He prefaces his response as "my cop-out answer - as I call it".

"I say that I was lucky enough to play at top clubs as a player and, if I can get the opportunity at some point, and if I am good enough, maybe I will be able to manage one of those clubs. Who knows? It is not a bad list."

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