Less than two months ago, Mark Hughes was the manager of Blackburn, a team with players more at ease playing soccer’s version of the Highland games or rugby. Effete is not the word here. These players played like they wanted to tear another orifice in their opponent and stick a Union Jack in them. Striding on the sidelines, craggy jawed and thin lipped, Hughes looked like he derived vicarious pleasure from such possibilities.
For five years, Hughes embodied the heart and soul of English soccer. Blackburn were faceless, hardworking grunts; hard hitting and physical and at a fraction of their transfer budget, a thorn to the high flying clubs with their Klieg light players. He prided in his core group of English players only allowing the occasional luxury of an exotic name like Roque Santa Cruz.
Now he manages the richest club in the world, a magnet for high priced overseas transfers. With money sticking out of their ears, the club signed Robinho for £34.2m and tried a brazen last minute heist of Dimitar Berbatov while he was en route to Old Trafford. The club is a veritable UN with names like Jo, Kompany, Bojinov, Etuhu, and Garrido. More are set to come. In all this exotica, Dietmar Hamann sounds perfectly English.
So it would be excusable for Hughes to feel a more than occasional sense of disorientation and discomfort. Why is he even here? He was always a champion of English talent, a vocal presence hacking away at the injustices done on a small and financially outmaneuvered club. It was not long ago, Hughes was using Arsenal’s foreignness to complain of its practice of the dark arts. Now his club is underwritten by a financial behemoth whose primary mover either in dead seriousness or with a wicked sense of humour casually tosses off £135 million bids for Cristiano Ronaldo.
The financial differences between the clubs are of course the primary point of comparison but even stylistically the club, in the one area that Hughes controls, bears no resemblance to the Blackburn teams perfected under him. The playmakers Elano, Petrov, and Robinho are elusive and cagey in midfield, skillful on and off the ball. Even Richard Dunne and Micah Richards with their undoubtedly rugged looks could never be confused with David Dunn or Christopher Samba. Hughes trademark work on his defenses will have to undergo a change in emphasis in managing and developing some of Britain’s best attacking talent in Daniel Sturridge and Ched Evans. He has also promised to carry on the fine work of Man City’s youth academy. But with the amount of unlimited money at his disposal and long suffering fans sensing a dramatic turnaround in their fortunes can Hughes influence the selection of his players even if he wanted to. Could he in an atavistic fit turn down Kaka without incurring the wrath of the fans and the management?
The Premiership’s co-ordinates have shifted to 53° 28′ 59.3″ N, 2° 12′ 1.08″ W. Can Mark Hughes be part of these co-ordinates?