Sparky can win games and admirers with mild Rovers

Hughes returns to Old Trafford as a worthy favourite to succeed Sir Alex
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Whither Blackburn Rovers? On the way up, it would seem, after six seasons of symmetry which at first glance may appear to have left them merely back where they started after returning to the Premier League under Graeme Souness in 2001. League positions since then have been: 10th, 6th, 15th, 15th, 6th, 10th. But last season's placing would almost certainly have been higher without FA Cup and Uefa Cup distractions, and going out of the latter unexpectedly early this time should prove beneficial.

A team once regarded as unsophisticated cloggers are already winning friends and games; only one League match has been lost so far out of 11, including draws with Arsenal, Chelsea and Liverpool. Now for the stiffest test yet, away to Manchester United this afternoon.

For Mark Hughes, of course, returning to Old Trafford is always a special day, a draw and a win in his first two Premier League matches there as visiting manager doing neither his reputation nor his popularity any harm. Those results were followed by a 4-1 spanking last March as United closed in on the title and Rovers prepared for their narrow Cup semi-final defeat by Chelsea. But no away match has been lost since that day and Hughes' main concern, apart from avoiding the curse of the Manager of the Month award this afternoon, must be dampening down a rash of speculation that unfashionable Blackburn might be the side to break into the elite top four.

"The key to the belief that we have at the moment is obviously the start that we've had," he says. "We've never had the benefit of a decent start [before]. In the second half of the season we're always stronger for whatever reason, maybe because of the intensity of our training. With the start we've had, if we have the same finish we've been used to, then who knows?"

Revered as a United player (right) for his combative style as much as his 119 goals, he will be a candidate to succeed Sir Alex Ferguson if and when the great man ever shows any inclination to step down. On the occasion of Ferguson's 21st anniversary at the club last week, Hughes was installed as the 9-2 favourite to succeed him, a point that embarrasses yet flatters him: "Sir Alex is probably fed up with me being asked the question every time I go up against him. I like to think that the job I'm doing, people think that I have the capability to take a top job. But until you do it you don't know, do you? I'm still a young man-ager. I'm enjoying what I'm doing here and we're successful and still growing. There are things to be done here but you never say never. As a player I always wanted to be the best that I could be, and as a manager I'll try to do the same. How far that takes me we'll have to wait and see."

It is hardly an answer to deter any admirers at Old Trafford who may be turning their thoughts towards the long term. Hughes, a thoroughly modern manager with his ProZone statistics and ice baths, who was recently linked with jobs at both Tottenham and Newcastle, clearly has the self-belief to match his ambition, however carefully couched.

"I've shown I can affect football teams and make them betterthan they were before I was involved. I think I've shown I can do that on two occasions now. The things that myself and my staff do allow our team to become better. I've got good people around me as well that sing from the same song-sheet. They know what I want and they're my voice around the club when I'm not even here. It's an ongoingthing and continuity helps, because you need that. You can't get everyone buying into what you're trying to do if you're only here for five, six or 10 months or however long managers seem to be at clubs these days. So the fact that I'm going into my fourth year here, you can make a biggerimpact on the place."

That place has responded well to him, though attracting support from a small town (population 130,000) in one of the North-west's less affluent areas has never been easy. In 1995, the Premier League was won on gates of 25,000 (up from only 17,000 the previous year). Last season's attendances were the fourth lowest in the League; but this season, despite three times recording crowds of less than 20,000, Rovers have inched above Fulham and Reading after commendably reducing prices.

The club chairman, John Williams, says: "We've tried to make top-flight football as affordable as possible for our supporters. We decided toinvest the television money to make it cheaper to come, decreasing season-ticket prices by up to 25 per cent. Sales went up from 13,000 to 15,000, so that's obviously worked."

Last weekend, the ground was almost full with more than 30,000, who should have seen Liverpool beaten to record an eighth successive win in all competitions. Hughes, typically, takes it all as part of the challenge: "It's been great going up against teams and managers that have been doing it for longer with bigger resources. When we do overcome teams that we know should be beating us because of the resources that they have, that's something that is a motivating factor for you."

Motivation is something the once wild Rovers will not be short of this afternoon.