For a decade now, as the number and pace of matches increase for top-level players, the issue of burnout, particularly towards the end of a season, has come to the fore. Unfairly, some fans have suggested all they do is a few days of light training and an evening match to collect their wage. Those allegations, however, cannot be levelled at Mark Hughes. He played twice in one day and did so without making a fuss.
Was it an incredible act of professionalism? No, this was a man who enjoyed his football. Here’s the story of how Hughes hot-footed across the continent to play two games in the space of a few hours.
With English football in dire straits after the tragic Heysel disaster, Hughes, like many professionals in that period, left the domestic scene to try his hand in Europe.
In the summer of 1986, then-Barcelona manager Terry Venables completed a sensational double swoop from his home country to sign Everton’s Gary Lineker and Hughes from Manchester United for £2m. His dream was for Barcelona’s front line to be led by a talented and dangerous British pairing. Sadly it never became a reality.
Hughes had signed an eight-year deal at the Camp Nou and his impact wasn’t a patch on Lineker’s. “It was shambolic – I didn’t speak the language and I didn’t have a car so I ended up hiring one for three months because I didn’t know where to buy one,” said Hughes, in a FourFourTwo feature in 2007. “Gary’s style of play was more suited to the Spanish game. He was all about movement and getting on the end of things whereas my game was physical and the referees didn’t like it. I was an aggressive player, but by the time I left Barcelona I wasn’t playing as aggressively as I knew I should be, so I was less of a player. I don’t regret it; I just think I didn’t realise what an opportunity it was.”
Some people just aren’t suited to certain clubs and Barcelona certainly wasn’t Hughes’ right match. As he entered his second season the manager who signed him, Venables, had departed, and German giants Bayern Munich came in with an offer of a loan move for Hughes. He didn’t take much convincing.
“I’d been out of the Barcelona side for six months. I had an eight-year contract so I was looking at another six years of training and going back to my apartment – that’s all I did. But I wanted to play and Bayern was perfect. The comparison between the two clubs was marked. Bayern have football people in charge.”
As he sat down to dinner for negotiations with general manager Uli Hoeness to seal the loan deal, Hughes mentioned his upcoming international game with Wales. “What time do you play?” asked Hoeness. “4.30pm,” replied Hughes. “That’s OK then, you can play in the evening as well,” replied Hoeness.
Hughes didn’t know how to respond, wondering how it was logistically possible. He didn’t question Hoeness, who had previously done the same thing with Denmark’s Søren Lerby.
Hughes completed his Munich move and the following week he lined up as Wales captain to play against Czechoslovakia in Prague alongside the likes of Ian Rush, Kenny Jackett and Neville Southall, ahead of an important tie in qualifying for the following summer’s European Championship.
Watched by Hoeness in the stands, Hughes’ Wales were subject to a 2-0 defeat, and as the players exited the field to wash off and recover from the game, Hughes, who had just played the full 90 minutes, made a quick exit from the stadium and headed straight to the airport.
Bayern, meanwhile, were kicking off against Borussia Mönchengladbach in the DFB-Pokal. It wasn’t far from the German-Czech border but even Hughes and Hoeness couldn’t make it on time on their super-mission. Better late than never. “We actually flew over the ground and missed the first half.” He said. “But I got there at the start of the second half.”
After being named on the team sheet, Hughes was able to come onto the pitch as a second-half substitute. With the score at 2-0, any fan would be forgiven for putting their impeccable 3-2 turnaround down to the Welsh striker. “I’d like to say I turned it around but I didn’t because I was hopelessly knackered.”
Humble? Maybe so. But the fact he made the effort and played a part in both games is something that deserves immense credit and recognition. Can you imagine some of today’s Premier League players making the effort – or perhaps being allowed – to play two friendly matches in a day, never mind competitive fixtures? Admittedly he was a substitute in one of those but had he arrived for the game earlier, he would’ve warranted a start for sure. That was Die Roten’s plan.
Lerby’s feat was just as impressive two years earlier. His Denmark side were playing Ireland in November 1985 and the former Ajax, Monaco and PSV midfielder was substituted after an hour in order for him to fly to Bayern’s cup game against Bochum. The games ended in a 4-1 victory and 1-1 draw for the dedicated Dane.
Granted, you wouldn’t see an international game played on the same day as top flight football nowadays, but if it occurred, it would be interesting to see what depths players would go to make both matches and most of all, to see who those players would be.
By George Pitts @GeorgePitts_