Mark Hughes: the introvert who saved Alex Ferguson’s job

Mark Hughes: the introvert who saved Alex Ferguson’s job

When the idiosyncratically brilliant English winger Chris Waddle left his job in a sausage factory to sign professionally with Newcastle United at the relatively late age of 19, he thought all his childhood dreams had finally come true. Little did Waddle know that his first two-and-a-half years under his new manager, Arthur Cox, were about to make him wish he’d carried on packing up bangers instead of banging in screamers.

The majority of the pros Waddle joined at Newcastle would have been attached to professional clubs from an early age and were extremely comfortable in that environment. Few are likely to have seen the inside of a factory at any rate, and Waddle cut a quiet and withdrawn figure, intimidated in their company and rarely joining in with the fabled dressing-room banter.

Cox, the traditional footballing man’s man, took Waddle’s introverted behaviour as a sign his precociously gifted young charge was lacking in motivation. He set about rectifying this fault the only way he knew how – and it wasn’t by putting his arm around Waddle and asking if everything was all right. “He bullied us because he could see the talent that I had and he thought I probably had an attitude problem,” said Waddle. “I didn’t have an attitude problem. I was shy.”

Waddle describes the Cox-inspired dread that marked his everyday life as a Newcastle player during that period: “I used to hide in the training ground. I used to come in and sneak in the changing rooms. He’d pick on us for anything. It was like basically at school, someone grabbing you every day and taking your pocket money off you.”

Though Waddle admits to understanding his manager’s actions with the benefit of hindsight – Cox wanted him to achieve greater consistency – perhaps a different method could have been used instead of making a young man’s life a misery because he didn’t carry himself like a “normal” footballer. When the German icon Franz Beckenbauer became manager of Marseille in 1990, Waddle was one of the players he inherited. “Ah, Chris,” said the old master upon meeting his winger for this first time, “My favourite English footballer.” Under Beckenbauer, Waddle tore up trees that season in France.

Stevie Murray, a fine midfielder for Aberdeen and Celtic in the 1970s, was another who suffered for his off-the-field demeanour. In contention for a Scotland cap while at Pittodrie, the national team manager Bobby Brown told him he would have to “come out of [his] shell”. Murray, an intense, cerebral man who went on to become an artist after his football career ended, was unimpressed. “Do you want me to clown around like the rest of them?” I said. “I’m a serious fellow, that’s the way I am. As far as I could see, Scotland had quite enough practical jokers.”

Not fitting in with “the lads”: football’s cardinal sin, especially in the 1970s and ‘80s when the stench of testosterone and stale lager reached from the terraces all the way into the changing rooms. In the 80s, no manager prized the all-lads-together philosophy more than “Big” Ron Atkinson.

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The man who would go onto describe Marcel Desailly, a two-time European Cup winner, as “what is known in some schools as a lazy, thick n****r”, was at this point the ultra-confident, Gene Hackman-esque alpha male in charge of England’s most elite pub team, Manchester United.

The players, unable to emulate George Best’s feat in lifting the league title with the club, were determined to match him in other ways: their drinking exploits at United legend Paddy Crerand’s pub had become infamous. The granite-hard, wonderfully talented trio of Norman Whiteside, Paul McGrath and club captain Bryan Robson were not only the fulcrum of Atkinson’s team but the cornerstone of any night out – their team-mate Gordon Strachan described them as the “A Squad” of socialisers – and Atkinson loved them, inducting them into his “magic circle”.

Whiteside enjoyed the feeling of acceptance. “When I first got into the team, [Atkinson] said, ‘You’re in the magic circle, son,’ meaning I’m part of the first team, which was brilliant.”

Mark Hughes was himself not averse to the odd libation – he nicknamed himself “Old Lager Legs” after weekend boozing sessions in his home town of Ruabon in Wales started to take their toll on his football. But Hughes was not given the same level of acceptance as Whiteside and the rest by a suspicious Atkinson.

Upon his arrival at Old Trafford, Atkinson had appraised Hughes as “a bit dour, a bit deep, not terribly enthusiastic”. Ah, depth: another no-no for any 80s footballer looking to integrate. From depth cometh not banter. It was banter king Atkinson who gave Hughes his nickname, Sparky, an ironic comment on his young striker’s perceived lack of pep at training.

“Privately, my recollection is that his favourite pastime … was taking the mickey out of the likes of me,” said Hughes. “Naturally, it didn’t go down a bundle with the victim, but the other players lapped it up. What worried me most was that I was never quite certain in my own mind whether Ron was being serious, or just having a laugh.”

Like Joe Pesci’s Tommy challenging Ray Liotta’s Henry in the film Goodfellas after Henry’s assertion that Tommy’s a “funny guy”, Atkinson’s “banter” left the victim confused and insecure while eliciting a good laugh out of the senior players he was obviously dying to impress. And of course, when it’s over, it’s all just a big laugh, isn’t it? Lighten up, Sparky, you dour git. (Joke!)

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Atkinson’s dislike of Hughes initially saw the player consigned to the reserves, but an injury crisis eventually forced his manager’s hand and the young Welshman seized his chance, rattling in goal after goal to make himself undroppable. Not that Atkinson’s attitude towards him changed much: “Ron had no option but to keep me in [the team]. Even if he still didn’t stop taking the mickey, with me believing I was public enemy no. 1.”

Nevertheless, Atkinson wasn’t prepared to cut off his nose to spite his face and Hughes remained in the team, scoring five from 10 starts in his debut season and 24 goals in all competitions in 1984-85 as United finished fourth in the league and reached the FA Cup final. It was in the Wembley showpiece that Hughes was to first display his taste for the big occasion.

The game against Everton, who were gunning for a treble after winning the league and Cup Winners’ Cup, would be remembered chiefly for two things: Kevin Moran becoming the first player to be sent off in an FA Cup final and 20-year-old Norman Whiteside’s sumptuous extra-time winner.

Whiteside was justifiably feted for the way he took his goal, cutting in from the right-hand side and throwing Everton left-back Pat van den Hauwe a stepover that bought him the chink of light he needed to curl the ball beyond Neville Southall for one of the great FA Cup final goals. What is often overlooked is how the big Northern Irishman received the ball in the first place.

Hughes had already set Whiteside up with two finely judged pieces of skill before the latter’s moment of glory; Whiteside had squandered both chances but Hughes kept working, kept showing for the ball. Receiving possession deep in midfield and dismissing the attentions of Paul Bracewell with what would become a trademark show of brawn, Hughes looked up and saw Whiteside sprinting into space on United’s right, arcing his run so as not to be caught offside. Hughes caressed a delightful outside-of-the-foot pass through Everton’s midfield to the onrushing Whiteside, who calmly did the rest.

That pass, and his overall contribution, proved that Hughes was at ease on the biggest stage and confirmed his ability as a creator as well as a goalscorer. His prowess with that particular style of pass would later serve his manager when he needed it most. That manager, however, wouldn’t be Ron Atkinson.

Although Atkinson had picked up two FA Cups with United, in 1983 and 1985, he had been brought to the club to do what no manager had done since Matt Busby in 1967: namely to win the First Division. In 1985-86, the signs looked good. United had won their first 10 league games of the season with Hughes thumping in 11 goals before Christmas; the team was top of the league and looking unstoppable.

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But Barcelona, managed by Terry Venables, had been alerted to Hughes’s talents and made a bid for him midway through the season. Hughes did not want to go but, having played the stooge in Atkinson’s daily stand-up act for too long, he did not feel his manager wanted him to stay either. A deal was arranged, with Hughes sworn to secrecy until the season’s end. Atkinson was to pay dearly for his failure to include Hughes in his “magic circle”. “I think maybe if the club had put me on a par with some of the senior players, the type of money they were earning, I wouldn’t have gone anywhere, but they didn’t and I left.”

With Hughes unable to go public about the transfer, he sought solace in the traditional United way: by getting battered into the Don Revie. “In the final six months at United before heading off to Spain I was living a nightmare. I hardly spent an evening without hitting a bar somewhere in town. That’s when the boozing got a bit too serious and it was undoubtedly closely linked to the transfer developments and the daily speculation of a £2 million move.”

Hughes’s form dipped badly as the drink sapped his energy: Old Lager Legs had very little in the tank come Saturday. United finished fourth in the league and Atkinson’s time was brought to an end after a disastrous start to the following season, with strikers like Peter Davenport unable to fill the hole left by Hughes’s departure.

United’s wait for a First Division title now stretched to 20 years and the players were coming to accept their status as second-class citizens compared to Liverpool’s title-hoovering aristocrats. United needed a man capable of changing the whole mentality of a club, someone able to turn perennial nearly men into the real deal. Chairman Martin Edwards lifted his eyes to the north.

Alex Ferguson had completely revolutionised Aberdeen in his seven seasons at the club, smashing the traditional Old Firm dominance of Scottish football. “Right away he set the bar high,” said Alex McLeish, a stalwart defender in Ferguson’s great Aberdeen side. “He came in and was talking about winning things, where our mentality had been that we’d done well if we got to the semi or the cup final. That was never good enough for Fergie.”

Win things Aberdeen did. After three league titles, four Scottish Cups, one League Cup, the Cup Winners’ Cup and the European Super Cup, Ferguson was looking for a new challenge. Edwards appointed him in November 1986 and Ferguson immediately saw a similarity between his current United team and the Aberdeen team he’d inherited in 1978. “I realised what Manchester United was in the previous few years. They became a cup team. The support were looking forward to cups rather than league campaigns.”

But despite overhauling the personnel and shipping out some of the socialisers-in-chief, McGrath and Whiteside among them, not even cups were forthcoming, let alone the league. Three years went by without any silverware before, famously, Ferguson’s United faced Nottingham Forest in the FA Cup third round on January 7, 1990. Miles off the pace in the league – they would go on to finish 13th – United knew the FA Cup was their last chance of silverware that season. Ferguson’s job appeared to be on the line.

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Luckily for Ferguson, he’d had the foresight to bring Mark Hughes back from Barcelona the previous season. In so doing, he altered the course of United’s destiny. Though often himself characterised as a bully, Ferguson took a far more nuanced view of Hughes’s personality than the brash Atkinson had done. “Mark’s such a quiet person. He’s last in, first out … I always say, you can’t leave your character in the dressing room, you take it on the football field with you. But yet with Mark, it’s two different personalities.”

Hughes had endured a miserable time in Barcelona, eventually being loaned out to Bayern Munich, but he had made a new friend in Spain who was a bit different to Hughes’s drinking buddies back home in the Welsh village of Ruabon. Hughes allowed his new pal’s influence to help him dry out.

“My old sparring partners were left behind and at Barcelona I soon met a new buddy – England striker Gary Lineker. Even from long range you can see he’s not exactly a barfly. His favourite idea of an enjoyable night out is a glass of wine over a restaurant dinner. So suddenly I was out of boozing pals and I can’t say it broke my heart.”

With his Old Lager Legs alter ego vanquished, Hughes now had the energy required to bring his ability to bear over the course of 90 minutes. When Alex Ferguson later said that Hughes “does well in the big games”, he might well have been thinking of that fateful Nottingham Forest match. Mark Robins usually takes all the credit for scoring the goal that secured a 1-0 victory and Ferguson’s job, but it was Hughes’s virtuoso skill that allowed the journeyman Robins to claim the headlines.

In the 56th minute, a sterling bit of work from Lee Martin saw him dispossess Forest’s Toddy Örlygsson on United’s left flank. Martin did well to keep the ball in before drawing right-back Brian Laws and feeding Hughes, lying in a deep position in the inside-left channel.

“He’s got a lot of room,” noted BBC commentator Barry Davies as Hughes looked up to assess his options. Having spotted that Robins had stolen a yard on Stuart Pearce, Hughes bent the ball round Des Walker with the outside of his right boot, an exquisite pass hit with such pace and spin that Robins simply had to let it hit his head to beat Steve Sutton for the winner.

United went on to win the FA Cup that year and the story of what happened after that is well-known: the Cup Winners’ Cup, the Super Cup and the League Cup followed before, in 1993, Ferguson secured United’s first league title in 26 years. Hughes was instrumental in all these successes and the United fans loved him. “I think on the pitch I can express myself a little bit better than I can off the pitch,” said Hughes after the 1993 championship success.

Atkinson didn’t understand that and it fatally affected his team. Ferguson did, and it saved him his job. But then that’s why Ferguson is arguably the greatest manager of all time and Big Ron is what’s known in some schools as a washed-up old anachronism.

By MJ Corrigan @corriganwriter

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