Profile: Main man of United

Ian Ridley assesses the warrior-like qualities of a striker giving new heart to Old Trafford Mark Hughes
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The Independent Online
MANCHESTER UNITED has always been a football club torn between heart and head, perhaps more so now than ever. Its supporters' demand for sport with a red flourish has ever been the spiritual foundation; its shareholders' need for a balance sheet with black figures the material cornerstone. Old Trafford has had other soul-searching matters on its agenda of late but the case of Mark Hughes illustrates the dichotomy.

Two months ago, the boy from North Wales who grew into the man of Man United - a player with more winners' medals than any other in the club's history - was deemed surplus to requirements, a victim of the policy to offload non-English players to further the quest for European Cup grail. It clearly hurt, though it made sense. Heart and head. A transfer, probably to Everton, was in the offing.

United's game at Newcastle looked certain to be his last for the club. Then, with familiar bravado and customary grand gesture, he chased a pass, turned the ball into the net but collided with the home goalkeeper Pavel Srnicek, sickeningly gashing a knee. The wound was stitched, the transfer unpicked.

Ten days later came Crystal Palace, Eric Cantona et al. Now United had to think again. In another 10 days, the two-year contract that the 31- year-old Hughes was seeking as security, and which had been more likely to come from another club, had been granted in place of the one year on offer. Now it was sound business.

The ground, packed as usual, rose to greet the announcement before the match against Aston Villa. Sentiment had been sustained. "I have had great moments here. That was one of them," Hughes says. He has responded by shouldering more responsibility. Two goals in that dressing up to the nines against Ipswich were the basis. There was also the sight of him setting up goals with threaded through balls la Cantona.

Bobby Charlton, perhaps also Denis Law, inspired the gamut of emotional rewards but generally Old Trafford accords awe to its prodigals - Best and Cantona - and affection to its favourite sons - notably Robson, now Hughes. Not only God loves a trier; fans do. It was Hughes, deemed an appropriate modern pulse of the club, who was brought to the press room just over a year ago to pay a current player's tribute to Sir Matt Busby.

To meet Hughes is to discover the contradiction of his character. On the field he is an imposing, rampaging striker. "The centre- forward with the on-pitch disposition of something let loose on the streets of Pamplona," Jim White wrote in his book Are You Watching, Liverpool? Off it, he is quietly spoken and self-effacing. Today at United's Cliff training ground, he is a little embarrassed by his flash new leather-upholstered BMW. A personalised number plate - M44 RKH - is in the boot. "What do you think?" he asks Peter Schmeichel. "It's shite," the goalkeeper says. "Yeah, you're right," Hughes says and closes the boot.

He is pleasantly surprised when you tell him that his medal haul of seven makes him the highest achieving player in United history. He has won two Championships, three FA Cups, one League Cup and a European Cup-Winners' Cup. In addition, he has been PFA Player of the Year twice. Nine more goals will take him to sixth in United's all-time goalscoring list with 169.

His career forms a pattern of persistence and durability, a lesson in how to cope with the physical demands of being a striker at the top level. It is one that the gifted but so often injured Les Ferdinand, who comes to Old Trafford with Queen's Park Rangers for an FA Cup quarter-final today, might study.

After his initial impact with United, the club he joined as an apprentice, Hughes was sold by the then manager Ron Atkinson to Barcelona in 1986. A trademark volleyed goal against Spain - in one of Wales's best ever wins, 3-0 at Wrexham the year previously - had convinced Terry Venables that the Catalans would take to him.

Hughes was homesick and alone, however, his lack of flair for languages isolating him more. While the Nou Camp warmed to Gary Lineker, Hughes's link play was deemed unremarkable and gradually became negated by Spanish referees clamping down on the physical tussling with defenders that was, still is, so central to his game. Exhortations by Lineker to "think of the readies" failed to lift his spirits.

"Along with not reaching the finals of a major championship with Wales, it is the main regret of my career that I didn't make the most of that opportunity," Hughes says. "I set out thinking I would be there for two years. I should have said to myself, `Right, I'm here for good,' but I didn't have that mentality at that time." A sad Venables describes the parting as being due to "personality and immaturity".

He was loaned to Bayern Munich and began to enjoy his football again but the Continent held little appeal for a home-loving man. When Alex Ferguson brought him back to Old Trafford, the relief was huge. Gratitude has been mutual. "Mark is a warrior with whom you could trust your life," Ferguson wrote in the foreword to Hughes's "autobiography", Hughesie - The Red Dragon, penned by David Meek.

Typically, Hughes begins his book not with himself but a tribute to Eric Cantona for lifting his career. Until the Frenchman's arrival, Hughes was criticised for being difficult to partner, blamed for the drying up of goals from Brian McClair. "With Eric, I hadn't heard anything for two and a half years until Andy Cole came, though the 9-0 seems to have quietened it down." Indeed, he believes that the differences of the pair - he liking ball to feet, Cole wanting it in his path - might even bring more attacking options.

Hughes, incidentally, has been through a Cantona incident himself. Last season, he was punched by a spectator at Swindon but it was submerged when Cantona was later sent off for stamping on John Moncur. "Nothing was ever done. I reacted angrily at first, like any normal person would have done, but you have just got to hold back. I don't find it hard to walk away."

He has had trouble doing so on the pitch, however. Last week against Wimbledon, for example, Hughes - sent off six times in his career - kicked out at Alan Reeves but missed. "I have never been happy about my disciplinary record," he admits. "But I could say that I have been lucky not to be booked or sent off more."

Not the big man he looks on the pitch - 5ft 9in and 12 stone - he has nevertheless made the most of a stocky frame. "A freak of nature. He's built like a brick wall," says the Liverpool defender Neil Ruddock. Hughes concedes that his technique was found wanting on the Continent - seeing him flounder on Luton's plastic pitch a few years ago confirmed it - but in the hurly burly of the English game, he has been the bane of many a defender and a boon to many a young striker.

"I feel the need to be physically involved in a tough match, otherwise I don't feel any sense of fulfilment," says the Hughes auto- biography. "I will stress one simple fact: nobody ever gets seriously hurt against me . . . They know they are not going to get crippled high across the knees or have an elbow smashed into their faces."His lack of height has always meant that, though a powerful header of the ball when in space, he was never going to win too much in the air against defenders. Consequently, he has developed other aspects, notably the volleying technique. It has led to his being described as a scorer of great goals rather than a great scorer of goals.

"It's probably true, because I am more of a link player," he says. "I am not the type that can keep out of the game hoping just to get on the end of something. I need to be involved for 90 minutes or my concentration goes." His book explains further. "If I am involved in setting up play it is very difficult to get myself into the goalmouth before the ball. A poacher or sniffer of goals hangs around the six-yard box and you don't often find him dropping back to take part in approach play."

Probably his most celebrated volleyed goal was the last-gasp equaliser against Oldham in the FA Cup semi-final at Wembley that put United back on course for the Double. "I remember thinking it was going to miss the last defender and I had a yard on him. I didn't see it hit my foot . . . that's when all your training comes in; you just switch to automatic. I remember hitting it and thinking, `Well, it's the last chance I have got to hit the target.' The fear of failure came into it. `If you don't score, that's it. You've got to score. That's it.' " It was a goal that sealed his place in the Old Trafford pantheon.

With the two-year contract, he is a man at peace. The livewire childhood nickname of "Sparky" was changed to "The Ledge" (for legend) by Paul Ince. Now he is the Duke of Mottram, coined by Les Sealey last year when he bought a Range Rover and started building a new house, into which he moved with his wife Jill and children Alex, Curtis and Xenna six weeks ago, at Mottram St Andrew. He is, however, unlikely ever to be a man at peace on the field.