Hughes toils on rocky foundations of divided City to build for future

The Eastlands manager is facing the grim prospect of a relegation battle despite the club's riches.

There's a new pre-match ritual in the Manchester City dressing room. Someone throws some music on, Robinho starts some keepy-ups, others join in – "the young ones and even some of the British lads," according to someone who has witnessed it – and everyone falls over laughing when the kit man Les Chapman tries his hand.

But that's where the harmony stops. Manchester City are in serious difficulties, their shocking descent to a position one place out of the relegation zone on goal difference somehow obscured this week by the sound and fury emanating from Ewood Park, and though City's managing director, Paul Aldridge, is privately confirming that Mark Hughes is safe, the manager appears to be presiding over a squad fractured by internal conflict.

Hughes, who finds himself facing a relegation scrap at The Hawthorns tomorrow with Robinho doubtful, is known to be nursing a severe sense of frustration about some of the players he inherited, some of whom he feels have got "too comfortable" at the club and are failing to set the right example. The Brazilian midfielder Elano is, in particular, considered lazy and a negative influence. Micah Richards, who has made little headway for the last season and a half, is considered a poor trainer, too interested in the time in the weights room which has contributed to his ballooning muscle bulk. Michael Johnson is at the club each day to do the rehabilitation work on his abdominal injury but is lacking the conviction to recuperate.

Hughes, whose exacting demands on players was part of the culture which brought success at Blackburn, also feels that some of the experienced players are not putting in enough effort. The City manager fell out with Dietmar Hamann early on and believes both his and Richard Dunne's laid-back approach to match preparation is setting a bad example to younger players. Hughes has pulled no punches and this is understood to have alienated some players. There are unconfirmed suggestions from some sources of factionalism – with older players like Darius Vassell and Dunne simply out of kilter with the new City revolution. The language hints at that. Hughes constantly talks of his "young team".

Some of Hughes' frustrations are more questionable than others. He believes, for example, that he was given poor advice at City about the merits of the central defender Tel Ben Haim, though precisely who is to blame remains unclear; the Israeli was his own purchase. One explanation of Ben Haim's arrival is that City, aware of his availability, hired whom they could before their former owner Thaksin Shinawatra's world and finances imploded completely. By then, Sheikh Mansour al-Nahyan had yet to ride over the horizon. The same might be said of the £18m Jo – an unmitigated disaster. City's executive chairman, Garry Cook, did not deny this week that the Brazilian was proof Hughes should never again be lumbered with a player who was not of his choosing.

When Vincent Kompany met Aldridge and Hughes, things were moving. The Belgian was told that "something big is about to happen". Shaun Wright-Phillips was signed the next day, then Pablo Zabaleta and then Robinho. All told, Hughes cannot entirely say he is a victim of circumstance.

He does not feel he must strip away the old completely. Richards has such natural ability that there is a genuine hope he will come to work the manager's way. It is not coincidence that Stephen Ireland has flourished under the new regime. The 22-year-old revealed this week how he spent six weeks in the summer undertaking individualised martial arts training at a gym in Glossop, Derbyshire, clocking in at 7.30am and heading off on long-distance runs with bags on his back. The trigger, he says, was the realisation that there would be "one game in 15 where I would do well" which was driving him "insane". Whether by design or coincidence, it enamoured him to Hughes and the gulf in class between Ireland and other relics of the Sven Goran Eriksson regime shows the difference for those who do conform.

It is often forgotten Hughes had a slow start at Blackburn while he waited for his principles to take root – but he does not have time on his side in east Manchester. Though Cook denied as emphatically as he could this week that all foreign owners like to hire their own managers – Hughes, like Cook, belongs to the Thaksin era – the Welshman knows hiring the marquee names Sheikh Mansour wants will be far harder even if City make it into the Uefa Cup next season.

City do want to buy Gianluigi Buffon, John Terry and Kaka, and though Cook won't give the faintest sense of whether box office purchases are a prospect for January – "because if they don't arrive everyone will say City have failed", as one source puts it – it is understood that they will attempt to bring in someone of that calibre next month.

The club's lowly position is not helping their bargaining position: Lassana Diarra is all but lost to Real Madrid and if Blackburn demand £20m for Roque Santa Cruz City would be well advised just to pay, with Jo and Benjani leading their line. As Hughes grapples with difficult structural change, there is a case for ignoring marquee names, hiring five players he knows with proven Premier League experience and securing some of the many winnable points up ahead, with no daunting opposition until Liverpool on 21 February. That way, he might have nights in Europe, not just dressing-room games, to put in front of the big names next summer.

Who City need for...

Top 3 finish

Fernando Torres His agent has said there have been approaches. Proven Premier League calibre.

John Terry

Richard Dunne and Micah Richards gifted Everton last week's winner. Class required and Terry interests City.



Lassana Diarra

City say they'll fight Real Madrid for him but it's a long shot now the Spaniards have agreed a deal.



Top 6 finish

Michael Owen

Hughes probably needs two goalscorers, with Santa Cruz the most likely arrival, but Owen will soon be available.

Glen Johnson

A right-back with pace is vital. Javier Garrido has been a busted flush since last term's 6-0 defeat at Stamford Bridge.

Esteban Cambiasso

The defensive midfielder – valued at £15m – is badly needed, but would need time to adjust.



Survival

Fabio Grosso

Reported £6m offer for Lyons' Italian left-back, though at age of 31 a few questions about handling pace of Premier League.

Matthew Upson

England international is another established operator for the central defensive slot.

Craig Bellamy

Never a hope of him signing for Hughes last summer, but all has changed now in east London.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Bleacher Report

Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Day In a Page

As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

Mussolini tried to warn his ally of the danger of bringing the country to its knees. So should we, says Patrick Cockburn
Britain's widening poverty gap should be causing outrage at the start of the election campaign

The short stroll that should be our walk of shame

Courting the global elite has failed to benefit Britain, as the vast disparity in wealth on display in the capital shows
Homeless Veterans appeal: The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty

Homeless Veterans appeal

The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty
Prince Charles the saviour of the nation? A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king

Prince Charles the saviour of the nation?

A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king
How books can defeat Isis: Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad

How books can defeat Isis

Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad
Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

She may be in charge of minimising our risks of injury, but the chair of the Health and Safety Executive still wants children to be able to hurt themselves
The open loathing between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu just got worse

The open loathing between Obama and Netanyahu just got worse

The Israeli PM's relationship with the Obama has always been chilly, but going over the President's head on Iran will do him no favours, says Rupert Cornwell
French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

Fury at British best restaurants survey sees French magazine produce a rival list
Star choreographer Matthew Bourne gives young carers a chance to perform at Sadler's Wells

Young carers to make dance debut

What happened when superstar choreographer Matthew Bourne encouraged 27 teenage carers to think about themselves for once?
Design Council's 70th anniversary: Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch

Design Council's 70th anniversary

Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch
Dame Harriet Walter: The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment

Dame Harriet Walter interview

The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment
Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

Critics of Tom Stoppard's new play seem to agree that cerebral can never trump character, says DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's winter salads will make you feel energised through February

Bill Granger's winter salads

Salads aren't just a bit on the side, says our chef - their crunch, colour and natural goodness are perfect for a midwinter pick-me-up
England vs Wales: Cool head George Ford ready to put out dragon fire

George Ford: Cool head ready to put out dragon fire

No 10’s calmness under pressure will be key for England in Cardiff
Michael Calvin: Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links