Hughes the quiet man finally finds his voice

Veteran Blackburn striker and Wales manager has overcome an acute shyness which belied his fierce reputation during a glittering career
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Was there ever a footballer whose personality on the field contrasted so sharply with his personality off it, as Leslie Mark Hughes? Don't bother to write in. It's a rhetorical question and the answer is no.

On the field he's a Mark, off it he's more of a Leslie. At any rate, it's hard to believe that the gentle, quietly spoken, self-effacing man sipping tea alongside me in the lounge of a Cheshire hotel, is the rumbustious, aggressive, rock-hard individual red-carded more times than he cares to recall. And Hughes recognises the incongruity.

"Me and Martin Keown always have a right ding-dong," he says, when I ask him which central defenders have given him the most memorable tussles over the years. "I try to convince him that I'm a nice lad off the pitch, but he's not having it." A wistful look flits across his face. "I don't know how many more occasions we'll have, Martin and me," he says.

The famous Hughes scissor-kicks are perhaps a little blunter than they were, yet he continues to confound the wiseacres who say that only goalkeepers and defenders can cut it in the Premiership at the great age of 38. Last week he rejected a move to Stockport County, and when he comes off the bench for Blackburn Rovers, apprehension still ripples through the opposition defence.

"I know I'm not as good as I was," he says. "But I can still be effective. They say that pace is the first thing to go, but my game was never based on pace. It was about strength and power, and withstanding challenges, and getting in the right position. I can still do that. But this is my last year as a Premiership player. I'm almost certain of that."

Whether or not he chooses to extend his career in the Nationwide League (Sheffield Wednesday reportedly want him, too), Hughes now has other fish to fry. For two years he has been manager of Wales, and insists that the team is going places, albeit not to Japan and Korea.

He evidently believed that qualification for next year's World Cup was a real possibility. "The Irish situation is marvellous for them," he says, "but it [the Republic of Ireland's qualification last week via a play-off against Iran] really brought it home to us. There's great disappointment."

Hughes dismisses the notion that a Premiership career is incompatible with managing Wales, pointing out that he not only sees almost as many games as Sven Goran Eriksson, but actually gets to play in some of them. "There's a full Football League programme every Tuesday, so I see those games, and get to check out people like Paul Jones and Robbie Savage by playing against them."

All the same, international management has been "a real eye-opener," he adds. "As a player I had no idea whatsoever about getting a team ready for a game, what it entails. It's little things, like the bus not turning up on time. At first I was still thinking as a player. People would knock on the door and say, 'what are we doing today boss?', and I'd be thinking, 'I haven't got a clue'.

"Initially, too, it was difficult for me to stand up in front of the players and tell them what to do. They allowed me to do it, and to find my way for a couple of games, because they had respect for me as a player. But after a while, no matter what you were like as a player, they've got to respect you as a manager. I've worked for some of the best, great football people like Sir Alex Ferguson, Terry Venables, Glenn Hoddle, Jupp Heynckes, [Ruud] Gullit, [Gianluca] Vialli, Walter Smith, Graeme Souness. But you can't be a carbon copy. Players aren't stupid, even if people like to think they are.

"They know if I say something that doesn't ring true. You can't be something you're not." There have been times, none the less, when Hughes desperately wanted to be something he was not. When he broke into the Manchester United first team, in 1983-84, he was cripplingly shy, his shyness compounded by the presence of so many domineering characters, not least the manager, Ron Atkinson.

It is commonly thought that Big Ron coined his nickname "Sparky", intending it ironically. Hughes puts me right on this. "It was from school, where all the lads were named after comics. One lad was Beano, and I was Sparky. Unfortunately it followed me to United, because I played against a lad for Wrexham Schools who United signed. But Ron certainly kept it going."

Big Ron, it seems, was not the ideal boss for an introverted youngster. "He liked the senior players around him, people like [Bryan] Robson and [Ray] Wilkins. I used to do the training, go back to my digs and sleep, and that was the sum total of my day. I didn't mix. And when we won the FA Cup in 1985, I remember the celebrations on the pitch but not having anyone I felt close enough to to enjoy the moment with. Everyone says that it's so special, winning the FA Cup, and you should remember everything, but all I can remember from '85 is looking around, thinking 'who can I enjoy this with?'"

I never thought I would feel the impulse to hug Mark Hughes – not even during his brief sojourn at my club Everton, who coincidentally were the losers in that 1985 FA Cup final. But here in the Mottram Hall Hotel lounge, his candour about feeling lonely and uncomfortable at a time when he should have been cock-a-hoop, briefly makes me want to gather his grey-haired head to my chest. Probably wisely, I don't.

Instead, I ask whether it made it harder for him that Norman Whiteside, with whom he had graduated from the youth team, was at the heart of all the jubilation, having scored the winner? "Yeah, Norman was a man before his time. He slipped into the circle of senior players very easily, while I found it much more difficult. I wanted to be part of it, but I realised that because of my character it wouldn't happen."

How, I wonder, did such a meek lad become such a monster on the pitch? He smiles. "Because when I first signed schoolboy forms for United, as a midfield player, I felt for a while that I was just treading water. There was a build-up of frustration because I felt that I wasn't showing how good I could be, so I started lashing out a bit. And when I started getting aggressive, I started making progress. So I stuck with it."

While Mr Hyde went from strength to strength, Dr Jekyll continued to suffer. But in 1986, when Hughes joined Barcelona, then managed by Terry Venables, he found for the first time that his character on the field was as much a liability as his character off it.

"I was three or four times more aggressive than I am now, and that was a large part of my game. I used to charge around and knock full-backs over, but in Spain I wasn't allowed to do it. So that affected my game and in the end everything just crumbled."

Again, whereas Hughes is not a man to begrudge somebody else their success, it cannot have helped that his fellow Brit in the Barcelona team, Gary Lineker, was lionised by the fans. Lineker tried to be supportive. He once told me that when the white handkerchiefs came out for Hughes at the Nou Camp, he would shout to him: "Don't worry Sparky, think of the readies!" But Hughes, in common with his compatriot Ian Rush at Juventus, made the mistake of not embracing local language and traditions. He acknowledges that now. "Rushy and me thought, 'we'll do this for a couple of years, then go home.' That's completely wrong. You've got to immerse yourself in the culture. I had no idea about any of the Catalan stuff, no idea whatsoever."

It was mightily apt that when Lineker scored a hat-trick in Barcelona's 3-2 win over arch rivals Real Madrid, becoming such an overnight icon that there was even talk of building a statue of him, Hughes was unavailable through suspension. "But I did play in one Real Madrid-Barcelona game," he says. "In fact, I'll give you a world exclusive. It was the scene of my most embarrassing moment. When you come out at the Bernabeu, you have all their fans behind you. And as I came out I turned round to look, tripped over a television cable and ended up in a big heap." Bless. Again, I fight the impulse to hug him, but of course it is ridiculous to cast Hughes, scorer of 163 goals for Manchester United, not to mention subsequent goals for Chelsea, Southampton, Everton and Blackburn, as a footballing misfit.

And when Barcelona loaned him to Bayern Munich, things started looking up. "Bayern was a great club. I remember telling [the general manager] Uli Hoeness that my wife was coming over that day, and when I got to the airport he was already there with a bunch of flowers. The football suited me, too. It enabled me to get my confidence back. If United hadn't wanted me back, I would have stayed there."

When Hughes returned to Old Trafford in 1988, Alex Ferguson had arrived and things had changed. Big Ron might not have communicated with him much, but Ferguson did so frequently, sometimes from less than six inches. Hughes knows what it is to receive the fabled Fergie hair-drier treatment.

"Oh yeah. I never felt intimidated, I just got angry, although looking back I realise he was spot on most of the time. I never saw him come to blows with anyone, but I saw it get pretty close. Some players found it hard to deal with, but they didn't last. One of his great strengths is that he understands Old Trafford is a difficult place to play, and he picks players who are man enough to deal with that."

Does he think United are on the wane? "I never doubt Sir Alex. And criticism just makes them stronger. I'd be very wary about backing against them." In due course – propelled by goals like his winner against Barcelona, satisfyingly, in the 1991 European Cup-Winners' Cup final... not that even he scored many goals quite like that one – Hughes joined the Old Trafford immortals. But by mid-1995 United had bought Andy Cole, and when Eric Cantona proclaimed that he intended to return after his kung-fu ban, the writing was on the wall. Hughes left for Chelsea.

"I remember being on holiday, telling my son that I was leaving United. He was in tears and so was I, because I'd joined United when I was 14, and I was then 31. But I'd actually supported Chelsea as a kid. Because of their success in 1970, you'll find a lot of 37 and 38-year-olds who support Chelsea.

"And I had three great years there. I was very impressed with Glenn, who really knew his stuff. And I started thinking more about the game myself. At United I had never been willing to put my view across, because there were strong characters in the dressing-room like Robbo and Brucie [Steve Bruce] who covered what I thought needed to be said. At Chelsea I was viewed by the players differently. It was an eye-opener. I realised that they expected me to have an opinion. So that was when I went to Lilleshall and started getting my coaching badges, when I realised people would listen to what I had to say."

They are listening still. And when his contract with Wales ends after the European Championships in 2004, Hughes hopes to land a club job. Who knows, if things go well he might one day wind up as boss at Old Trafford, which he would scarcely have imagined possible when he stood on the Wembley pitch after the 1985 FA Cup final, yearning to be one of the lads.