Roberto Mancini and Mark Hughes both tried to play down their meeting at Craven Cottage tomorrow after the acrimonious replacement of the latter by the former as Manchester City manager last December. But a disagreement emerged over the manner of Hughes's dismissal: the Welshman said that he never has and never will speak to a club over filling a managerial role that was already occupied, while Mancini claimed that this "is the life" of managers, and that "if the manager doesn't accept this, he isn't doing his job."
Hughes was sacked halfway through last season. After a good start City went on a run of seven consecutive League draws, including home games with Fulham, Burnley and Hull City. These imperilled his job and a decision was made on Hughes's dismissal after a 3-0 defeat at Tottenham on 16 December, although he was not replaced until after their next match, a 4-3 win over Sunderland.
The club justified Hughes's dismissal as being because the "trajectory of recent results" was beneath expectations. City were eighth after the defeat to Spurs and Champions League football was the target. There was criticism of the decision from some quarters but Mancini did not express any misgivings over how he came to gain the job. "No, I have no regrets," he said. "This is our life, this is a manager's life. Today you can stay here, tomorrow you can be at another club. When one manager doesn't work at a club, there is another manager. The world is full of football managers. It's not my problem. If the manager doesn't accept this, he isn't doing his job. This is the life."
Hughes, unsurprisingly, thinks differently of last December's events. "It doesn't sit comfortably with me, I don't think I've ever done it, it is a little bit of disrespect for their position. Clubs certainly come to you and ask 'are you interested', but from my point of view I always say 'I wasn't aware there was a vacancy.'"
But 13 games into this season, City are doing no better than they were at this stage last year: with 22 points, and with a worse goal difference. It has not been achieved in the same way: there have been fewer draws and fewer goals at either end, but the outcome has been the same. Nevertheless, Mancini feels City have improved under his management, and can point to an improved League position: they are now fourth, while they were sixth at this point last year.
"We are in fourth position, three points behind United," Mancini said. "I think we have improved a lot as a team. We don't concede a lot of goals. I have said always that we must improve because in just six months we [will] not become a strong team.
Pointing to City's improved defensive record – they have conceded seven fewer goals than at this stage last year – he said: "We beat Chelsea, we didn't concede any chances for them to score. We didn't concede any chances for Manchester United to score. I think this is very important because if we don't concede any chances to our opponents, when we have all our players available, we won't have a problem scoring."
Having made his point over the manner of his dismissal, Hughes went on to say that he will not be complaining too openly about it. "From my point of view I have tried to keep away from it and I haven't spoken a great deal about Man City. I think that is the right thing to do. I could have come out and criticised all and sundry, but that is not the correct thing to do.
"Once the door on my career as a manager at Manchester City was closed then I moved on," he said. "I don't hold grudges. I'm not bitter about the situation. The only thing that affects is yourself. Why drag yourself down with things that have happened in the past? You have to move on and look for other challenges."
That said, there is still a desire to succeed against his former club at Craven Cottage tomorrow. "It is always nice to go up against former clubs and show that there is life after you have left them," Hughes said. But will they win the title? "At some point in the future, almost certainly," he added.
Hughes v Mancini
City's record after 13 games: Mark Hughes 2009-10
A good start but a run of seven straight draws cost Hughes his job.
W5 D7 L1 (sixth in Premier League)
GD: +7 (scored 24, conceded 17)
Roberto Mancini 2010-11
Better defensively but still drawing too many at home – and also on 22 points.
W6 D4 L3 (fourth)
GD: +5 (scored 15, conceded 10)