A year ago, Mark Hughes was left cursing Fulham for twice undermining his prospects as the manager of Manchester City, a position from which he would be removed within a few weeks. Twelve months on, he is sitting happily in The Rookery at the London club's training ground in Motspur Park, extolling the virtues of an organisation based, he says, on stable business practice and solid values. In football terms, it may be considered a step down; in human ones, being forced out of the Manchester madhouse looks in retrospect to have done no harm at all.
Last September, Fulham under Roy Hodgson sent a reserve team to Eastlands for a Carling Cup tie and after taking the lead, were only beaten in extra time by a City side costing £150m. The following month they went back for a League game, gave the home side a two-goal start and still came away with a point.
It was not difficult to imagine the looks being exchanged in the directors' box. That game proved to be the third of seven successive League draws. Chelsea were beaten shortly afterwards but Hughes still found himself and his loyal coaching staff sacked the week before Christmas.
"That was the first time I'd been out of work ever, so it was difficult to take," he said after taking a training session ahead of City's visit today. "Initially there's a sense of relief that you're out of the madness for a little while and you close the door on it and move on. You look at your own performance, review yourself and say: 'Could I have done anything better?' Under the circumstances, I don't feel I could have."
The circumstances he is alluding to concerned – and still do – a hierarchy in a hurry, moving, he believes, too fast for their own good. Even then, the target he had agreed was a place in the top six, which was where City sat on the day he was sacked, after beating Sunderland 4-3.
Did it hurt? "Absolutely," he says "Professional pride comes into it. The overriding feeling was disappointment, because we had an opportunity and not only for myself. People forget that it wasn't just myself that was sacked, it was five close colleagues and it doesn't just affect them, it affects their wives, families, everyone.
"So when a change is made, you feel for them as well because I brought them into it and you feel it's your own fault. I brought people to the club as well that I had to leave behind and that was difficult for them. They've had to get their heads down and be professional. I think it has made me tougher. What's the old adage? 'You're not a proper manager until you get sacked.' I wouldn't advocate it, mind."
He was always going to be in demand and had Martin O'Neill left Aston Villa a little earlier in the summer, a job with the Midlands' biggest club would have been on the cards. Instead, he signed up with one of the least fashionable ones in London, down the road from where he once scored for Chelsea in that familiar, robust style. Not only has it proved a quieter environment, but a sounder one than when he left a similar sort of set-up at Blackburn for Madchester.
"I'm very fortunate that in terms of the structure in place and the people in place, Fulham are in a far better position than Man City were when I walked through the door. That's credit to what's been put in place here and that's why I feel really comfortable here, because I got bogged down to a certain degree in trying to address areas of the football operation which just weren't up to standard."
He has gone on record expressing astonishment at the poor state of City's Carrington training ground and the lax regime. "It just smacked of mediocrity at that time. There's a different feeling here of what it takes to be successful in the Premier League, everybody's pushing in the right direction and I've been really impressed with what I've found."
A small irony, of course, is that after Mohamed Al Fayed took over in 1997, Fulham became the big spenders of the lower divisions and faced the same accusations of attempting to buy success that are thrown at City. Hughes believes, reasonably enough, that the two clubs have very different housekeeping philosophies: "It's all about degrees, I'd suggest. We've got a business model that is sustainable. Is Manchester City's sustainable? I don't know that it is. The future is something that nobody can foretell and football changes on an hourly basis. Things can change very, very quickly as I found when I was there.
"We want to be an established top 10 Premier League club. That's an achievement for Fulham Football Club because we haven't got huge facilities which mean we can generate a lot of money on a match day and during the week. We have a very good owner who has ploughed a lot of money into the club and it's a testament to him and his vision that we are where we are at this moment.
"What we've got to do now is protect what we've got and ensure that in the future we are the best that we can be. That's what we are trying to do every single day we come into the club, everyone here. We are trying to make Fulham better for the next day. That's a great atmosphere to work in."
It will be a rare atmosphere if they take three points this afternoon.
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