If, when he was first recruited to haul Blackburn Rovers away from the foot of the Premier League, you told Mark Hughes that four years later he would be unveiled at a training ground in Carrington as a manager with £50m to spend and Ronaldinho a possible recruit, he could have been forgiven for thinking that life after Manchester United was destined to come full circle. It hasn't, because as Hughes pointed out when Manchester City presented him as their fourth manager in a little over eight years yesterday, time waits for no man in football.
"I can't wait around for opportunities which may be one, two, five, 10 years down the line," Hughes said, reflecting on his introduction at City's training complex, rather than United's – half a mile of farmland away. The old enemy, as United have now become for him, remain quite within Hughes's reach if he delivers on Thaksin Shinawatra's project but for now the 44-year-old Welshman is quite occupied enough, with the acute sense of anticipation he feels about his task coursing right through to his silver football cufflinks.
Sven Goran Eriksson, officially shown the door just 72 hours earlier, was sniffy about the prospect of Ronaldinho but Hughes – hired on a £3m a year, three-year deal – didn't hide his enthusiasm. "It is exciting to be linked with the possibility of bringing those type of players here," he said.
There are also already signs that the respect Hughes commands might also persuade club captain Richard Dunne to stay put, despite £50,000- and £60,000-a-week offers from Spurs and Portsmouth respectively. "It was disappointing that Sven had to leave, but in Mark Hughes we have got an exciting young manager," Dunne said yesterday.
Hughes conceded there are risks attached to joining a club which rewarded Eriksson for City's highest league finish since 1993 by sacking him – though he has fed on high expectations throughout his career.
"I can't be afraid of making the leap into the unknown," he said. "At City the expectation is always there. As a player, I was used to it. The crackle of atmosphere before games, leading into games; the week building up to key games. That's what I want to experience again."
That said,the arrival in tandem of Hughes and City's new executive chairman, Garry Cook, also presaged a striking new tone about the goals of Thaksin's project. More intensity, yes, but while City's owner has spoken of five-year plans, Europe next season and the Champions League a year later, Cook talked of a 10-year plan and insisted that "setting targets on the position in the table is not healthy for the organisation." Hughes' unveiling conveyed the impression that the first year of Thaksin's ownership never really happened and there is now a distinct feeling around City that a tougher culture than the Eriksson era is needed.
That 8-1 defeat at Middlesbrough has become a byword for Eriksson's season. Hughes, whose hugely impressive delivery yesterday served a reminder that British managers can communicate their ethics better than the foreign recruits Chelsea are so intent on, is certainly more uncompromising. As his assistant Mark Bowen, one of the three-man backroom team joining Hughes from Blackburn, revealed yesterday, the new manager doesn't participate in five-a-side practice matches and is rarely to be found in players' communal areas because he prefers to keep his squad at a respectful distance. "He played under the best – Sir Alex – and I guess people would use the words fear and respect with Sir Alex," Bowen said.
His expectations of players, Bowen said, dates back to Hughes' days at United with Eric Cantona who "was always open to new things, how he can improve and take his own game forward – he never thought he was finished. If there are any players at Man City who think we can't tell them the same they won't be here long under this manager." The last words should be heeded by Ronaldinho if Thaksin's representatives – meeting him in Brazil this weekend – do talk him into heading to Manchester.
Hughes, who says he expects a say on Ronaldinho, does not seem daunted by Thaksin's unpredictability. "You can't ask a chairman: 'Even if I have poor results, will you still keep me?' " he said. "That's not going to happen. What I ask for is the resources to do my job and the flexibility to take the team and the club in the direction I want to go."
He was coy about whether he might seek to bring David Bentley with him and the fact that City inquired after Roque Santa Cruz in January might prove significant – though the expected unveiling of the £18m Brazilian Jo next week would seem to take care of attacking options.
And had Sir Alex Ferguson sent him a congratulatory text? "No. What do you expect?" he said. No welcome home just yet, then.Reuse content