In April 1985, Barcelona’s Victor Muñoz, Julio Alberto and Gerardo Miranda travelled to Wrexham for a World Cup qualifier – a little tentatively too. Spain had already been beaten in Britain by Scotland the previous November at a raucous Hampden Park. Each of Spain, Scotland and Wales were sat on four points, jostling for position, as all three headed for a door that was only big enough for one.
The visitors’ nerves were on display for the whole crowd to see as Ian Rush pounced on a defensive disaster to put Wales in front just before half time. Muñoz, Alberto and Gerardo were on the verge of winning LaLiga under Terry Venables at the time but struggled to keep pace with Wales’ more physical approach, which even unsettled Andoni Goikoetxea, the “Butcher of Bilbao”.
Rush and his striking sidekick, a 21-year-old Mark Hughes, were tormenting the Spanish backline, which also consisted of Iñigo ‘Rocky’ Liceranzu, pulling them this way and that. Set pieces proved particularly profitable and produced arguably one of the finest moments of what would flower into a magnificent career for Hughes.
“I remember the ball going into the box,” Hughes told the Independent in 2018. “I didn’t challenge for the initial one – I just stepped out, thinking it might drop. It came into my direction and bounced quite high. I actually thought the referee had blown his whistle. I don’t know whether somebody in the crowd blew a whistle, but I thought there’d been a foul. The ball came up and I thought, ‘Why not just hit it and see where it goes?’”
So, with this carefree approach, the Manchester United forward threw himself up and, with his boot arching above his head, whacked the ball into the top corner with a sensational scissor-kick. It was the second in a 3-0 victory and, despite Wales’ ultimate failure to reach the finals in Mexico the following summer, that Barcelona trio of Muñoz, Alberto and Gerardo knew exactly who Mark Hughes was when he walked through the door at the Camp Nou.
The Blaugrana had just suffered that heart-wrenching defeat in the European Cup final, with Steaua’s Helmuth Duckadam saving all four of the Catalans’ penalties in the shoot-out. Venables wanted to reshuffle his pack during the off-season, picking some aces from the British pile to add some steel to an already impressive squad.
Gary Lineker, fresh from winning the Golden Boot at the World Cup, was brought across from Everton while Hughes swapped Manchester for north-east Spain. Having endeared themselves to Steve Archibald, who they’d renamed ‘Archigoles’, the Culés were more open to British imports than they’d ever been.
However, after just a handful of games and a few lacklustre performances from Hughes, the Barcelona public gleefully retook their stance. Hughes, who had found it difficult to settle in the Catalan capital, was nicknamed ‘El Toro’ for his bullish style of play which didn’t really slot in easily with those around him. An aggressiveness that might have been applauded back home was being frowned upon in Spain. On the other hand, Lineker, five years Hughes’ senior, was adapting well to LaLiga and began to find some form in front of goal.
“Gary was a bit older and he was there with his wife. I was on my own,” Hughes told FourFourTwo in 2007. “I’d just met the girl that turned out to be my wife, so it was difficult being separated from her. Barcelona signed you, paid you decent money, but that seemed to be their obligation finished with. It’s not like now where you’ve got people to organise your house, the kids’ schools, cars, everything. I didn’t speak the language. I didn’t have a car so I ended up hiring one for three months because I didn’t know where to buy one. It was shambolic.”
Hughes’ lack of integration into Spanish culture went hand in hand with his inability to make a real impact on the pitch for Barcelona. Just four goals in 28 league games that season didn’t help his case with the locals, especially when Lineker was scoring hat-tricks in Clásicos, and a summer exit soon seemed inevitable. When the chance to move to Germany, in the form of a transfer to Bayern Munich, arose the following November, both Barcelona and Hughes were happy to accept.
“I’d been out of the Barcelona side for six months,” he said. “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. Uli Hoeneß understood the mentality of players. Straight away your car was sorted, you knew where you lived, what time you had to be in – it was very German in many ways, but because of that I was very comfortable there. The football suited me, it was probably a halfway house between English and Spanish football, and I had a fantastic time. It’s a great club.”
Bayern were reigning German champions and boasted a delicately balanced mix of experience and youth. Jean-Marie Pfaff, Norbert Eder and Klaus Augenthaler were complimented by Hans Dorfner, Michael Rummenigge and Hans-Dieter Flick in Jupp Heynckes’ squad. Then there were the likes of Lothar Matthäus and Andreas Brehme; both were at the peak of their powers and among the best in the world in their position.
After scoring on his debut for the Bavarians against Uerdingen, ‘Sparky’ was due to play for Wales four days later – on the same day as Bayern’s cup tie with Borussia Mönchengladbach. Before joining Bayern, however, Hughes had struck up an agreement with general manager Hoeneß.
After losing with Wales in Czechoslovakia in qualifying for Euro 1988, Hoeness picked Hughes up from the stadium in Prague, flew him over to Munich and sent him out to play the second half with Bayern 2-0 down. It wasn’t a knackered Hughes but Rummenigge who made the difference, inspiring the visitors to a comeback after extra time.
Despite being too tired to really influence the game, Hughes’ commitment earned him plenty of respect within the club and its supporters. Bayern would ultimately lose to Werder Bremen in the Bundesliga title race but Hughes, who scored a goal every three games for Die Roten – including a hat-trick against Bochum – was a firm fans’ favourite.
He returned to Manchester United a more experienced, well-rounded player, with his time abroad aiding his development as both a person and footballer. As well as success in his playing days, Hughes’ spells at two of Europe’s biggest clubs have continually aided him as a coach.
People once raised their eyebrows at the calibre – or lack thereof – of some Stoke signings. After Tony Pulis made way, Hughes began to bring international players into the set-up, ones with Champions League winners medals. Bojan, Marc Muniesa and Ibrahim Afellay may have been persuaded to swap the Camp Nou for the Britannia because their new boss had played in the very same Blaugrana stripes as them.
“You’re able to go back to those experiences [abroad], it helps me when I’m speaking to guys here,” Hughes said, while in charge of Stoke. “I use it when we’re trying to enquire good players. It’s always useful to say, ‘Well I used to play for Barcelona and Bayern Munich.’”
Xherdan Shaqiri was deemed a massive coup for Stoke when they took him off Bayern’s books in 2015 but, when you look back on it, it makes a lot of sense. The same goes for Marko Arnautović. Both struggled to make strides in their careers at Europe’s heavyweights, so what did they do? Seek tutelage from someone who was able to take themselves to new heights after big-time disappointment. Shaqiri rejuvenated his career at Stoke and has now added another Champions League medal to his collection.
In the end, people – not solely footballers and coaches – who spend significant time abroad so often end up benefiting greatly from it, reaping precisely what they sow in terms of life experiences, even if they don’t realise it at the time. Hughes didn’t score goals galore at the Camp Nou, nor lift numerous trophies in Munich, but he’ll admit that he did learn an awful lot from his time away from home and, in life, learning from your mistakes is half of the battle.
By Billy Munday @billymunday08