The boss opens up on his career
It has been 35 years since Mark Hughes made his professional debut for Manchester United, against Oxford, in a League Cup tie.
Starting at the top, countless highs, a few lows and barely a pause for breath later, he’s still there. The haircut may have changed, but the Southampton boss remains a fixture in the Premier League, with that unique persona of the softly-spoken warrior.
When asked if a new season still gets the juices flowing in the same way it always has, Hughes is typically articulate and patient in delivering the news that he may as well pack it in if it didn’t.
It’s easy to forget the precarious position the Welshman inherited in the spring. By the time Hughes picked up his first win, the victory over Bournemouth in late April that proved the catalyst for survival, Saints had not won a home game in the league for more than five months.
He was aware of the unrest.
“I thought the crowd were a little bit upset with what they were getting, and had maybe gone a little bit away from the players, but in the last eight games everybody came together and got us over the line,” he reflects.
Hughes draws parallels with his first season as a player at The Dell – creating that feeling of unity Southampton do so well in times of need.
What was unusual about his two-year stint as a Saint in the late 90s was that he began to combine the day job with his first foray into management, taking charge of the national team for whom he was capped 72 times over a 15-year period.
mark hugheswe're very fortunate in what we do and should never take it for granted.
That number would have increased had Hughes not called time on his international career at the time of his appointment, embarking on the tricky transition from teammate to manager. “They needed to understand I was in charge, but I didn’t insist on calling me ‘boss’ or ‘gaffer’ or anything like that.”
Hughes was managing former teammates again in his first club job at Blackburn, five years later.
“I’ve never tried to artificially create distance between myself and the players,” he explains.
“It’s just the nature of my job changed, from being a teammate to being the manager, with more demands on me so maybe I wasn’t so accessible. That distance forms naturally.
“If you try to create that distance artificially, you can fall flat on your face because players don’t like it.”
Referring back to Wales, Hughes knew he was taking on a job that would test more than just his ability to inspire his players to victory.
From enjoying such an illustrious career, encompassing Man United, Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Chelsea for the best part of 20 years alone, Hughes had high standards he never felt were met at international level.
It’s one thing trying to change results, but he made it his mission to change a culture.
“I had a clear view with the Welsh job, because I was coming from top clubs and then going into the Welsh environment, which I felt was a big step down,” he recalled.
“I felt it didn’t need to be, and it shouldn’t be. It’s international football, which should be at least on a par, if not higher in those days, but it wasn’t.
“It didn’t bear any reflection to what it should be or what I’d been exposed to, so I had a reference point and I knew what it should be. That helped.
“I had a lot of things I had to address, probably more so off the field, which on occasions I’ve had to do at clubs as well.
“Sometimes you have to park things you’re not happy with, because there are more important things to be done. It’s all part of the process.”
It was a steep learning curve. Hughes knew what needed to change, but how to make it happen was less clear to a man coming into a new line of work.
His five-year spell in charge was a success nonetheless. Wales were 90 minutes away from qualifying for their first major tournament since 1958, and the 2-1 win over future world champions Italy in front of a packed Millennium Stadium is a night that goes down in folklore across the Severn Bridge.
Hughes had brought back the feel-good factor, but craved improved infrastructure.
Fourteen years on from his departure, after spells with Blackburn, Man City, Fulham, QPR and Stoke, what he loves about Southampton is that everything is in place for the team to thrive.
To stay in the same industry for 35 years, you have to love it. There has been the odd sabbatical – never longer than seven months – and he’s grateful for the opportunities time out of the game has presented, but Hughes was always coming back.
“If you feel a bit aggrieved or hard done by, you probably need the break just to reset yourself and give yourself time for different learning – to get out there and experience different things,” he reasoned.
“When I got relieved of my position at Man City, that was the first time I was able to go skiing!
“As a consequence of me not going skiing, my wife hadn’t been and my kids hadn’t been, so we all went together and it was a great family time.
“You get moments like that where the break is good, it’s beneficial and you experience things together – time together with the family on weekends that you don’t get during the season.
“When you think about how long I’ve been in the game and how many weekends I’ve missed because I’m working, it’s quite a significant number. But we’re very fortunate in what we do and should never take it for granted.”
Switching off? Even when the ski slopes are calling, it’s out of the question.
“Every single day of my life, probably for the last 30 years, I’ve been talking about football,” he says.
“Every single day. Whether it’s players, formations, teams, opposition, managers… just because that’s the environment I’ve been in.
“You’re always watching football. The thing this job does to you, and the advantage it gives me and the other guys who have been doing this a long time, is that a lot of what you speak about will always come back to the game itself.
“Even if we’re discussing something on the TV, like a documentary, all of a sudden there will be something in a programme that’s not about football that will resonate with some of the guys and we’ll start talking.
“‘That could be (ex-player) – he’s the same character as him!’ Everything comes back to football again.
“That advantage and knowledge base I’ve got through all those years of discussing football means when things happen out on the pitch, I can recognise them a little bit quicker than most because I’ve seen them before.”
Continually developing that knowledge is critical to Hughes. Football is his passion – he’s not alone there – but with that brings a desire to win that runs deeper than most.
Forget the quiet, unassuming exterior. By his own admission, Hughes changes when he gets into ‘match mode’.
“You should never try to be something you’re not," he says. "My personality is my personality and yours is yours – you should never be embarrassed about which end of introvert and extrovert you are.”
It’s a nice line from a man who has come across both extremes and everything in between.
“It’s what you are and you can’t really change it. You can work with it at times – I don’t rant and rave every single day and I’m not shouting and bawling at the training ground, because I can delegate, but I’ve always felt that when I do raise my voice, it resonates more with players, because they’re not used to it, they don’t expect it and when it happens it has more impact, so actually it’s a good thing.
“There’s no right or wrong way of doing this job. The bottom line is getting results and having longevity in the role that you’re in, because if you’re no good you don’t last very long. It’s not about how you do it, it’s how successful you are.”
And as a player?
“Off the field I was quietly spoken, but I used to like the dressing rooms,” he smiles, fondly. “I wasn’t on the outside looking in, but I didn’t need to be the central attraction. It used to quite amuse me watching other guys take that role!
mark hughesi always wanted to win, but i only used to get upset if i hadn't done myself and the people around me proud.
“I always wanted to win – that was what got me to where I got to. I know I said you should never try to be something you’re not, but I actually did change on the pitch.
“I became a completely different individual. That’s why I think people could be taken aback when they met me off the pitch, because they saw this lunatic running around booting everybody and they couldn’t equate it to me.
“Maybe that was the way I expressed myself – I did it on the pitch by being a bit more extrovert, demonstrative and aggressive.
“I was able to allow that side of my personality to come out, which didn’t do me any harm. It was always there as a kid. I’d be quietly spoken, but on the pitch I’d change. It is how it is.
“I would never get upset because I demanded to win. I understood that sometimes you get beaten – that’s a big lesson sometimes.
“I always wanted to win, but I only used to get upset if I hadn’t done myself and the people around me proud – that was my motivation for always wanting to do better.”
Hughes agrees that his management career has been shaped by his playing days. That unwavering desire to win, however innate, could only be enhanced by the demands placed on him by his former clubs, where finishing second was failure.
Recalling his time abroad, he wishes it had come later in life, but encourages young British players to make the same step – if they’re ready.
“I don’t think I was ready when I went,” he opens up. “I’d just had one season, or a season and a half, from when I’d broke through at Man United to getting on a plane to go to Barcelona. I wasn’t ready.
“I was 23, but I was a young 23. I wasn’t ready for the experience. Looking back, I wish I’d gone three years later in my career when I could’ve enjoyed it and been more successful, I think. But that’s history, we’ll never know now.
“In terms of player care, as a foreign player coming into a new country, they (Barcelona) were hopeless at it, if I’m honest, in that day and age.
“There was no player liaison or anything – you went out there and had to fend for yourself.
“The difference when I went to Bayern Munich was like chalk and cheese. The reason being, I think, was that in key positions in the club they had ex-players. Admin people who had been players themselves and understood what had to be correct to enable the players to perform.
“Their player care was outstanding. I’ve always remembered that and how they went about their business – it was ten or 15 years ahead of everybody else at that time.”
By this point, Hughes had only briefly crossed paths with Sir Alex Ferguson, appointed six months prior to his departure from Old Trafford, but when the pair were reunited, the United dynasty of the 90s soon began to dominate the English game.
Hughes’s relationship with perhaps the greatest of all time is fascinating.
“Sir Alex was not someone I’d ever say I was close to as a player – he wasn’t like a mentor who would put his arm around me and say ‘you need to do things this way’,” he reveals, even after seven-and-a-half years playing under ‘one of the key figures in British football’, as he puts it.
“You had total respect for his position and his standing in the club, what he stood for and what he could do with the team and the club.
“I’ve said this many times – I didn’t need him to be my friend. All I needed from him was that he respected my ability and he played me every week. Thankfully, for the most part, that’s what he did.
“That was all I needed from him. Other players needed more things or different things, and probably as a player had closer relationships than I had with him.
“But I have to say that since I’ve become a manager, it’s a nice relationship I have with him now.
“I know I can pick the phone up. I don’t – or very, very rarely – but he will send me texts at key moments in seasons and wish me luck.”
That last bit seems quite typical of Hughes. You get the impression he would rather fight his own battles – even if it means learning the hard way, further enhancing his own teak-tough resilience.
That’s not to say he’s immune from feeling, and his revelation that the pair have grown closer since Sir Alex’s recent illness is heart-warming.
Assuming his former boss is someone he can trust more than most, he’s part of a fairly exclusive club.
“It’s very difficult to know me too well, let’s put it that way,” he says, sternly.
Two men certainly in the club who do are Mark Bowen and Eddie Niedzwiecki – the duo on Hughes’s coaching team he first appointed back in the Wales days.
“I’m fortunate that they’re good friends because we’ve been together a long, long time, but they’re still with me and still around me because they’re actually the best at what they do,” he surmises.
“This game can make you a little bit cynical sometimes; cynical about people’s motivations and what they’re really about.
“You need people you can trust, but if you just have go-to guys who are yes-men and agree with everything you say and everything you do, that won’t last very long in my view.
“They’ve got to be competent and able to do the job you’ve asked them to do. If they can’t do it, they’re going to undermine you in the end. That’s why they’ve stuck around so far.”
The work of Bowen and Niedzwiecki behind the scenes, particularly on the training pitch, will be influential if Saints are to enjoy a successful season.
What would that look like? Hughes doesn’t shirk the question.
“Southampton’s experience since they’ve come back into the Premier League has been success – being a top-half team, playing good football and asking questions of the opposition,” he identifies. “That’s the aspiration this year.
“I think it was a wake-up call to everybody last year, because nobody anticipated the team would struggle like they did, but thankfully we were able to stay in the league and now we’ve got the opportunity to get back to where we feel we are, which is in the top half of the table pushing for Europe every year.
“It gets more and more difficult. You can see this year the amount of money that’s getting spent by teams who are in and around us and have the same ambitions.
“There are a lot of teams trying to do the same thing. We’ve just got to be better than them.”
Hughes will be all smiles and handshakes before kick-off each week. But, rest assured, once the action gets under way, the fearsome competitor will take hold again.
The above interview featured in the Burnley edition of our matchday programme, SAINTS. To secure your copy, or to subscribe, visit saintsprogrammes.co.uk.