Manchester United should ignore ‘super-coach’ cultists who want Jose Mourinho and bring in Mark Hughes

The former Old Trafford striker has shown as manager of Stoke that he is capable of making bold acquisitions in assembling his squad, writes the Independent's chief sports writer Ian Herbert

Let it be said that for many Manchester United supporters there’s a barely suppressed thought that the nadir of FA Cup defeat to a 21st-placed League One team, at Shrewsbury Town on Monday night, would bring a silver lining: the spectacle of Louis van Gaal marching off into the dark night and Jose Mourinho spinning past him through Old Trafford’s revolving managerial door. 

Well, if that’s the case, be careful what you wish for. Manchester City’s chief executive, Ferran Soriano, has a very shrewd perspective on Mourinho. “A potential source of conflict within the club” is how he viewed him when he was selecting a new coach for Barcelona in 2008. Mourinho, who is always busy on these occasions, delivered a “comprehensive PowerPoint presentation” at the interview, as Soriano recalls it. But Barça knew exactly what kind of trouble they would be storing up. That’s why they took a punt on Pep Guardiola instead.

This could be the week that brings a Van Gaal sacking by tomorrow and a Mourinho installation by Friday, but the collateral damage runs incalculably deeper than the embarrassment to United of their manager causing a row in an empty room. At stake are the club’s attempts to construct a modern academy out of what Sir Alex Ferguson left behind: a mission which is based on an understanding that young, often Mancunian, talent must be at the core of their identity. So many of the informal arrangements that Ferguson bequeathed were unfathomable to those who followed him. Reassembling things after Ferguson left in 2013 was akin to finding a “black box” flight recorder, one source said in the early days. Though Nicky Butt’s appointment as academy director last week was a welcome part of the rebuild, it still feels like the work has barely started.

It’s a travesty that Hughes’ big managerial moment seemed to have passed when City let him go

 

Van Gaal’s successor – and there must be one by this summer because the club is slipping into something irreversible – must be someone willing to see the significance and complexity of rebuilding United, in a football sense. Mourinho is pathologically incapable of that. His Old Trafford PowerPoint is no doubt ready to roll – as slick as the choreography of his weekly “come and get me” act – featuring mean and moody images of himself in a football crowd somewhere. But he brings the same short-term view of progress which only the self-absorbed can truly know.

The problem with the current discussion of who should be the next keeper of the flame is that it morphs into which of the supposed super-coaches might be available. The only names to have seriously entered the national conversation where United are concerned have been Van Gaal (failed), Carlo Ancelotti (out of the picture), Ryan Giggs (unprepared) and Diego Simeone, whose brand of football may or may not translate from the underdog environment of Atletico Madrid. 

Since events at Chelsea and United in these past six months have deconstructed the cult of the super-coach, why is there no consideration of such an individual who knows United’s philosophies to their core, understands what it is attempting to recover as much as anyone and, so important in the age we occupy, articulates it in a way which United supporters expect? It’s a travesty – and an indictment of the way we throw away British talent – that Mark Hughes’ big managerial moment seemed to have passed when Manchester City let him go, though he has picked himself up from that indignity. It’s been more than six years: long enough for a rehabilitation.

Certainly, there is the embarrassment of what followed at Queen’s Park Rangers to factor in, and though there were certainly misjudgements along that particular road, the story of proprietor Tony Fernandes’ infernal and disastrous meddling in the club’s transfer policy and acquisitions has never been fully told.

Hughes has since emerged from that period to redefine the way Stoke City play, in the white heat of the Premier League. Defensive failings were considered to be his flaw at City, where it was the Abu Dhabi view that he lacked a willingness to accept their help, though that is no longer an accusation which can be applied. In his seven full Premier League management seasons since a difficult first year at Blackburn, Hughes has never finished lower than 10th and his mean average finish is 8.42.

Hughes clashed with City’s academy head, Jim Cassell, because he felt the younger players should be coming through to the first team far more quickly. Youth development was a part of his ethos. He bought well at City, at a time when good talents – Vincent Kompany, Carlos Tevez and Gareth Barry – did require some persuasion as well as slabs of cash. The technical director Hughes brought in, Mike Rigg, later proved instrumental to the signing of Sergio Aguero, Yaya Touré and others.

Those to whom the notion of Hughes over Mourinho is anathema will doubtless operate within the narrow confines of Stoke’s performance at Old Trafford earlier this month – anaemic, in a 3-0 defeat. There were factors at play. The absence of Ryan Shawcross is always significant, while the inside view from Stoke is that it is proving harder to get consistency from some of the foreign players in the depths of winter. Marko Arnautovic’s outlandish contract demands are not helping his own mindset, either. There is a vastly bigger picture than one defeat, of course. The assembly of a squad with Xherdan Shaqiri, Bojan Krkic, Arnautovic and £18.3m Giannelli Imbula in its ranks reveals Hughes to be bold in his acquisitions and substantially unworthy of the “small club” tag which the super-coach cultists would attach to him.

“You’ve got to factor that for years, they’ve had no change, and haven’t really had to deal with change,” Hughes said of United recently, reflecting on his 13 years there as a player. “Now there are different ways of thinking and working, and some people can deal with it better than others. That’s right through the club as well. I’ve experienced that at clubs I’ve been at, where changes have been difficult for people.” It was a characteristically understated delivery which screamed “meet this man” to United.

 

The equation is not so very complicated, you see. Mourinho brings attention and dazzle and clickbait and Jorge Mendes and, let it be said, trophies. But you can pack up your academy, your first-team pathways and your Class of ’92 because his arrival takes the club on a road away from their glorious past. Hughes, with Butt and Giggs developing alongside him, might just bring the success while saving United’s soul. It would be an unpredictable move – with risks attached, you’d have to say. But that’s just how United have always liked it.

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