Stick with Sparky or expect City crash
Hughes has wealth of knowledge and funds to worry Big Four but priceless commodity of time may elude him.
Sunday 15 March 2009
It is a test that most managers would love, but one that, as history has shown, surprisingly few pass: offered far more money to spend than any rivals, build a squad to outstrip them. Sven Goran Eriksson was able to achieve it at Lazio, winning a first championship in 26 years, yet at Manchester City, where the sums on offer appear to be the highest yet, throwing a team together who moved from 14th place to ninth was considered insufficient progress to merit his continuing in the job.
Now Mark Hughes, solid, dependable and steeped in British football, has taken on the mantle – or poisoned chalice – and supporters have been assured by the club's garrulous chief executive, Garry Cook, that he will not go the way of Eriksson in three months' time. Just to be on the safe side of City's fabulously wealthy Abu Dhabi owners, however, it would be worth maintaining the team's current progress, even if an away fixture against the previous rich boys of English football at Stamford Bridge today is not the ideal opportunity.
Not since the earliest League tables of the season have City been as high as their present eighth, a status all the more impressive in that they were in the relegation positions at Christmas, when Manchester United's favourite carol was (tune – "Yellow Submarine"): "City going down with a billion in the bank."
Hughes's quiet dignity has been a feature ever since the dramatic takeover on transfer-deadline day, when Robinho was snatched from under Chelsea's noses. A phrase he used in the wake of Thursday's 2-0 Uefa Cup first-leg victory over Aalborg summed up the man and his philosophy: "A good professional performance." His maturity may even be matched now by the club, if, as he said on Friday, they will no longer stand for talk of silly transfer fees, whether for Kaka, David Villa or anyone else: "Initially that was the case but now people have an understanding that if the deal's not right for us, we'll walk away. We've done it in other circumstances and it's not as if clubs can say any price and we'll pay it."
It is tiresome, in any case, for him to be talking about transfers six weeks after the last window closed and two- and-a-half months before the next one is thrown open. Drawn on the subject of Chelsea's captain, John Terry, he spoke only of a respected opponent, not a highly unlikely new recruit: "He's a great captain and a great guy as well, and he's a player that everybody in football has a great deal of respect for because of his attitude to the game and his application and the way he leads his team."
Hughes is more comfortable talking about City players, including Robinho, even if the question is usually framed around how long they can keep him: "He says on a regular basis he wants to stay. He is happy here, he enjoys his football and you can see that by the way he plays. He has a group of team-mates who enjoy his company and his ability on the field because he's a top, top player and he will help them win matches. He's as good as I've seen at making the half a yard of space to create something."
Then there is Stephen Ireland, one of the revelations of the season in midfield since putting personal problems and the Irish national team behind him; and Shaun Wright-Phillips, who, like Wayne Bridge, deserves a warm reception at Stamford Bridge today: "I've seen him in situations where you think he's going to get clobbered by two or three players at the same time and all of a sudden he skips out and comes out with the ball. It's a quality I haven't seen in many players."
When the discussion turns back to Chelsea, one of his former clubs, there is a first hint of criticism, based on the decision to dispense with Jose Mourinho 18 months ago: "The surprise was when, from looking in great shape and very solid, Mourinho left under whatever circumstances. Looking from the outside, the change hasn't helped them at times. They got to a Champions' League final and were a penalty kick from winning it, so they haven't done badly, but the perception is that there have been too many changes in a short space of time."
It is a lesson for City to heed.
CHELSEA v MANCHESTER CITY
(1.30, Setanta Sports 1)
Rising up the table and more confident at home, City now have to prove they possess the mental strength to produce some away results similar to the draw at Liverpool. But Chelsea were comfortable 3-1 winners at Eastlands in September, even though Robinho scored on his debut.
ASTON VILLA v TOTTENHAM
(4.00, Sky Sports 1)
After six games without a win, questions are being asked about Villa's strength in depth and, inevitably, their ability to hold off Arsenal for fourth place. Spurs, with their fixture list easing, should continue moving out of trouble, but not necessarily today.
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