SOME OF those who turned up for an FA press conference in London last week had been involved in football for more than 30 years but admitted that they had never before seen the man who for a decade has been among the most important in the English game. Charles Hughes, 60, the director of coaching and education, emerged from Lancaster Gate like a Dickensian clerk, sallow, bespectacled and academic. If Graham Taylor's days were numbered, what Hughes said guaranteed that it would be a low number.
Most of his previous public appearances have been at launches for his own books. As for seeing him at a match, that would qualify for bonus points in an I-Spy book of football. So the rare chance of sighting this recluse, nicknamed 'Howard', drew an almost capacity crowd. The fact that he was announcing a scheme to allow coaches greater access to schoolboy players and reduce the number of games was almost irrelevant. It was more important simply to have an audience with the 'professor of kick and rush', the man portrayed as the purveyor of the long-ball game which is seen as a root cause for England's decline as an international football power.
There had been strong rumours that if Taylor was to be dismissed, Hughes would be the next to be shown the door. Far from it. On the day Taylor resigned, the FA's Chief Executive, Graham Kelly, assured us that there were exciting times ahead in the development of football and Hughes had an important part to play. Hughes had survived another managerial change. But on this occasion the criticism of his methods had forced Hughes into the daylight. Facing his most vociferous critics head on was risky, but he came out of it well, even to the extent that one respected football writer admitted that he had talked a lot of sense, 'although the gap between academics and professionals remained as wide as ever'.
Hughes has less playing experience even than Taylor, having appeared only in minor amateur football. He went to Loughborough College to study physical education and taught at Bradford Grammar School. He passed his FA coaching badge before the then director of coaching, Alan Wade, invited him to join their staff as assistant director of coaching in 1964. He managed the Great Britain Olympic and England amateur international sides until 1974 when amateur status in British football ceased to exist. His record over 10 years as a manager was played 77, won 48, drew 17.
He was promoted to director of coaching early in 1990, the FA emphasising that he was merely administering coaching and education on behalf of Bobby Robson, who had previously combined being national team manager with that of the FA's chief coach. In 1984, the pair of them had set up a network of schools of excellence but, finally, Robson had to concentrate only on the senior and under- 21 teams, leaving Hughes the rest.
Over the past few years, Hughes has written three books and produced several videos on coaching. Ironically, one of them, Soccer Tactics and Skills, was praised by Kevin Keegan and involved Ray Wilkins - two men now seen as the young innovators who will claw England back from outmoded ideas - and, significantly, Don Howe, whom Hughes calls 'arguably the best coach of association football in the world'. The author denies that in any of these works has he used the term 'long ball', and certainly he always stresses the importance of accurate passing and ball control.
Hughes, like Taylor, believes in the accurate long pass and points to great teams whose most significant goals have come from five passes or fewer. In upholding the concept of using the accurate long pass as a legitimate tactic, Hughes is in good company. The late Arthur Rowe, architect of Tottenham's aesthetically attractive push and run, once said: 'If I had players who could kick the ball with accurate precision 50 yards all the time, I would use them.'
Hughes, who was famously, if erroneously, reported as saying that English football had nothing to learn from the Brazilians, tends to dismiss the notion that a lot of people actually enjoy a flourish or two before the ball is dispatched into the net. Yet if, as his critics say, he has been holding English football to flat-earth ideas for so long, how has he navigated the corridors of power so successfully? As soon as England were eliminated from the World Cup, everyone connected with that failure would try to absolve themselves from responsibility; Hughes told his curious audience last week where England under Taylor had gone wrong and suggested that Norway, who had done so much to get England eliminated, did so partly because they recognised the sense in what he was saying. If not quite a treasonable remark, it posed some questions about whose side he was on anyway.
He countered with claims of having influenced the coaching of at least 50 countries. If Taylor chose to mess about with different playing styles and lose continuity that was something he regretted but it was not his problem. The England senior team have not come under his jurisdiction, but the grass roots have. Some months ago, Taylor admitted to me that he was wrong not to get involved in the development of young, potential England internationals, but he had seen what too much responsibility had done to his predecessor.
Hughes's latest plan for getting professional coaches more time with youngsters inevitably brought a shower of criticism, but he is used to being maligned. Nobody seems to remember that when he put together the Blueprint for the Future of Football in 1991, he supported a reduction in the size of the Premier League and took on board the vision of having the England team at the top of a pyramid supported, not eroded, by league football.
Throughout his years at the FA, he has always been close to the power base. Indeed, when Ted Croker retired as the secretary in 1989, Hughes was one of those interviewed for the post of chief executive. Although he failed to get the top administrative job, he continued to be consulted over a broader span of the game than was the England manager.
When the blueprint was being discussed, he chaired the meetings. Alex Fynn, whose background is in advertising and who was also one of the chief architects of the report, found him 'willing to listen, but he was really paranoid about the media, whom he said were mischievous and out to get him. He always seemed a fish out of water.' In reality, Charles Hughes has never been more than lightly battered by the media, while Robson and then Taylor were fried.
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