Sir Alex Ferguson employed some levity to gloss over the issue of his relationship with Mark Hughes yesterday. Hughes, like all the old United alumni now managing in the game, is "younger than me, of course," Ferguson said.
"It's not as if they are all going to be my best friends. Maybe they will respect me because I was their manager but, in terms of close friendships, they will have it with each other, not with me, because I am not their age. I'm a granddad."
Rarely, if at all, has a player he has managed presented the potential challenge to the Ferguson hegemony that Hughes does, with the Abu Dhabi royal family at his arm. None of the alumni, it might be argued, has succeeded in management quite like him.
This has made for an intriguing relationship, the complexities of which perhaps have roots in the fact Hughes, who experiences his first Manchester derby from the blue perspective tomorrow, was never a man whose managerial potential Ferguson saw.
While Bryan Robson and Paul Ince seemed like managers in his mould, Hughes never was. "He was always the quiet one," Ferguson said of him recently.
That was during a discussion of Ince, with whom, like all of his old players, Ferguson's relationship has ebbed and flowed – his recent apology and regret for calling Ince a "big-time Charlie" showing how fluid the dynamics can be. Ferguson says the relationship with Hughes is "the same [as with] all my old players" and includes the usual post-match glass of wine.
"Never any problems," Ferguson said. "When he was at Blackburn Rovers, that was the case. I haven't met him since.
"It is not as if I phone all the ex-players who are managers to ask how they are getting on. Some give me a call now and again, ask for advice at times, but we all have our own job to do. They all have their own different friends."
Hughes' Blackburn days did create a distance between the two, though. United never fared well at Ewood Park during Hughes' reign and it was after United lost 4-3 there in February 2006 that Ferguson insisted Rovers "foul all the time".
The label, which the club carried for several years, was one that infuriated Hughes, who said Ferguson should have told him that to his face. Ferguson bit back. "I love Mark. He was one of my great players but he has to look at himself a bit," he said.
There was the same sense of distance between them again yesterday when Ferguson was asked if he had any sympathy for Hughes in the white heat of management at a big-money club.
"I don't know how he is enjoying it at City or what his relationship with the players and manager is," said Ferguson, who will judge this weekend whether Dimitar Berbatov's hamstring presents too much of a risk for him to start. "I don't know that. That's Mark's job."
But Hughes, who expects to have Robinho back tomorrow and possibly Pablo Zabaleta, did not take the bait that Ferguson has given in the past 48 hours and offered a warmth missing in the United manager's talk.
"The respect every manager has for him is without question," Hughes said, his diplomacy trumping Ferguson's talk. "He's not only had sustained success, he's also built a football club as well and that is what I'm trying to do here, if I am here long enough to do it."
Ferguson's scepticism about City was understandable, Hughes added. "They get asked more leading questions about our situation so they are well within their rights to answer how they want. Sometimes their responses will be considered, sometimes they will be a bit dismissive. But we have to accept that at this moment in time."
Of the 2006 spat he maintains that Ferguson was "critical of the approach" and unfair.
"You have to understand that the top managers don't get beaten very often so sometimes they don't take it as well as other managers," Hughes said.
He would be happy to find his old boss taking another defeat badly come Sunday night.Reuse content