Mark Hughes heads into Manchester City's home match against Sunderland today with his job hanging by a thread. Even victory over Steve Bruce's side or messages of support from his Argentine striker Carlos Tevez are no guarantee that he will remain in his position.
The manager's hope of keeping his job now appear to rest solely with the Arab executives appointed by Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed al-Nahyan, with the Hughes camp of the view that chief executive Garry Cook and football administrator Brian Marwood are trying to remove him.
Tevez said that he was "100 per cent" behind his manager and that Hughes needed more time for the club to realise their vision of finishing sixth in the Premier League. "The reason why I joined [City] was because I believe in his vision... I support him 100 per cent because I believe that we have made a great deal of progress towards reaching our goal."
Even Bruce, his opponent in the dug-out today, said that City should be judging Hughes after a few years, not a few months. "Judging someone on just months in the job and one transfer window seems a bit harsh to me. You hate to see managers treated like that," Bruce said. "Surely clubs have to be better than that but who know with football theses days."
Neither Bruces's nor Tevez's views seem to be shared by the City hierarchy, however. Hughes's grip on his job is regarded as tenuous at best. Though it has been thought that he would have at least the next three games to prove himself – Stoke City at home and Wolves at Molineux follow – the manner of the 3-0 defeat at Tottenham on Wednesday has had a profound effect on the Welshman's standing. Sheikh Mansour's chairman Khaldoon al-Mubarak moves quickly and significant developments this weekend cannot be ruled out. A "Plan B" is in place and it would be likely that any successor to Hughes would be appointed immediately.
There were no denials from City yesterday of reports that Cook might have approached Guus Hiddink's agent Cees Van Nieuwenhuizen, who was also quoted earlier this week as saying that Juventus had approached the Dutchman about the possibility of replacing Ciro Ferrara. But Cook, who had reportedly inquired as to Hiddink's intentions beyond next summer, speaks to many people in the game and Hiddink does not appear to be a part of any plan.
Though Jose Mourinho's name has repeatedly surfaced in connection with City, there are doubts that he is part of a future path for City, either. Rumours doing the rounds yesterday that Marwood might be about to take charge with academy director Brian Kidd alongside him are wide of the mark.
The target for the season appears to have changed since Hughes and Al Mubarak jointly declared on 20 May that sixth place was the aim. The level of summer spending was far more than anticipated – a response to transfer market conditions – and has raised the level of expectation. It is unclear whether Hughes has been told City must finish fourth, though that does seem a safe assumption.
Cook and the Arabs are believed to be uncertain how to view the achievements of the season so far. City have only lost twice, on one of those occasions in an unfortunate way to Manchester United, but they are behind Birmingham City in the Premier League and failing to beat Hull City, Burnley and others is dire for a manager who has had £240m to spend.
A convincing victory for City today might yet change a perspective which looked rosy after Shay Given's penalty save secured victory over Chelsea a mere two weeks ago. But Cook and his Arab employers will need a radical change and the prospect of Hughes wading back into the transfer market is unpalatable at a time when results are so poor.
If Hughes can get through what is his lowest point since previous City owner Thaksin Shinawatra hired him in June of last year, the pursuit of Matthew Upson for a position in central defence does appears to be a relatively straightforward task. West Ham's Upson and Scott Parker are both possible targets for City, with Joleon Lescott and Kolo Touré probably out until late January and Wayne Bridge struggling for form and fitness. Upson is the player Hammers manager Gianfranco Zola appears most likely to let go and the asking price could be close to £10m. Zola has been assured that the money his departure might raise would be reinvested in the squad, creating the opportunity to buy the striker and right-back he needs.
Hughes, meanwhile, was attempting to maintain a straight course yesterday. Neither Cook nor Marwood was understood to be at the club and Hughes led a team meeting to discuss the Tottenham game. His usual Friday press briefing did not take place, the manager having staged pre-planned interviews about the Sunderland game earlier in the week.
Names in the frame to replace Hughes
With money no object where a new manager is concerned, few names can be ruled out as a successor to Mark Hughes. Despite the conversations between the City chief executive, Garry Cook, and Guus Hiddink's agent, the Dutchman does not seem a prospect and it is hard to develop a feeling that Jose Mourinho could be for City either. A report yesterday that Arsène Wenger could be in the frame is intriguing but he has made his own views on the City "project" clear. Roberto Mancini has made no secret of his desire to manage in England since he was sacked as Internazionale coach last year – though City's Arab owners may desire Premier League experience.