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Fulham Were Just Pawns in Sparky’s Game

June 2, 2011

From the heights of trying to make Manchester City a force to be reckoned with in 2009 to the relative travails of an injury-assisted relegation struggle with Fulham last Christmas, it is hard not to feel Mark Hughes’s managerial career has taken a significant deviation from the path he had envisaged.

Certainly, dismissal from his tenure on Eastlands would not have been a wanted addition to his CV, but after a decidedly topsy-turvy campaign with the Cottagers, which recovered from relegation worries to an eighth place finish and Europe, his reputation as a Premier League manager looks at least partially, if not significantly, restored.

It seems that last summer Sparky played a smart hand. Six months after his City dismissal, with seemingly no top level job offers coming his way, the Welshman was faced with more time out of the game. Instead, he opted to step down a level to the comparatively modest ambitions offered at Craven Cottage. On the back of what is widely regarded as a successful season with Fulham, the self-described ‘young, ambitious manager’ has now made himself available for one of the many bigger jobs that he has been linked to (Chelsea, Bayern Munich and Aston Villa – all clubs accustomed to either challenging for titles or regular European qualification). His smart hand: keeping himself in the game whilst waiting for a bigger and better opportunity to arise.

The truth is that whilst Fulham might well have ‘pushed on’ under his tutelage next season, they will struggle to improve on the eighth place achieved this time out. Europa League success might have transpired, but is by no means certain. For Mark Hughes, he’s done ‘a Fulham’ before whilst at Blackburn, where he took a similarly-sized (support-wise) club to regular top ten security. He’s been there and done that and now wants a t-shirt in the next size up (in spite of his time on Eastlands); in his words: ‘I wish to move on to further my experiences.’

Whether he goes to Aston Villa (as is widely expected), Chelsea or Bayern Munich, Hughes will undoubtedly be moving to a club with a larger fan base, a more successful and illustrious history, a more generous Chairman, and – significantly – a club with higher realistic aspirations that those held at the Cottage.

With Chelsea and Bayern these are taken as a given, but even at Villa – seeing as this is the club whom he is being heavily linked to – this remains very much the case. Average attendances around the 40,000 mark, seven top flight league titles, seven FA Cups and one European Cup, and – of late – consistent top six challengers whilst under Martin O’Neill, testify to as much. The latest campaign under Gérard Houllier was an undoubted disappointment, yet the Villains still finished only one place behind Fulham, who themselves enjoyed their second most successful season (position-wise) in their history.

And then there’s the financial aspect. Whilst Fulham’s Chairman Mohamed Al-Fayed has just sanctioned a £10.4m bid for Espanyol’s Pablo Daniel Osvaldo, his counterpart at Villa Park, Randy Lerner, agreed to a move which could rise to as much as £24m for England striker Darren Bent. Such comparatively baggy purse-strings would undoubtedly entice most managers, not least as such generosity will likely be extended to the manager’s salary as well, one would assume…

And there, in its sum, is the crux of the matter – Fulham as a club neither match Mark Hughes’s aspirations nor what his potential suitors can offer. It is not limited solely to financial considerations of course, but runs across the board to already mentioned factors. Craven Cottage has been little more than a stop-gap for Hughes. He has played a smart game to keep his name in the public eye post-City, and is now likely to have opportunities to reap the benefits.

Consequently, the Fulham fraternity of staff and fans alike might well bear a grudge to the departing Welshman, but Hughes is too thick-skinned and the game too fast-moving for that to hold any real significance. Yes, he has used Fulham, a fact that won’t be lost on Chairman Mo or the supporters, but one gets the feeling he never really settled into the Fulham family anyway, especially in comparison to his predecessor, the gentlemanly Uncle Woy. Hughes’s in-match posturings and persistent touchline disagreements with other managers (notably Tony Pulis) and officials were, to say the least, a tad un-Fulhamish. In all truth, it never really felt like he fitted, nor looked like he was going to be around for the long-haul anyway.

Regardless, Fulham enjoyed a decent campaign under Hughes; they are still in the Premier League and have another European adventure to look forward to as a bonus. They are an attractive proposition for numerous respectable potential suitors, along the lines of Steve McClaren (the Eredivisie-winning manager who wants a return to English football), Martin O’Neill (who is believed to want a return to management), or maybe even Martin Jol – the ex-Spurs and Ajax boss who was Fulham’s first choice to replace Hodgson last summer. Providing a suicidal appointment (à la Avram Grant) is avoided, Fulham look well placed to survive Hughes’s departure.

As for Hughes himself however, one finds it hard to criticise the Welshman for looking after his own interest and ambitions, especially in a business where clubs and owners can be just as disloyal towards their managers when the boot is on the other foot – as Hughes knows all too well from his time with City. He played a smart hand in spending a season rebuilding his reputation with Fulham, but it is a gamble that looks like it has paid off; unfortunately for Fulham however, they were no more than just pawns in his game.

For Mark Hughes, whether the grass proves greener at the Villa than it was at the Cottage remains to be seen; only time will tell for certain, but it will be an interesting episode for sure. Relative success with Wales, Blackburn and Fulham still sits in the shadow of his awkward stint on Eastlands, and Hughes will be hoping his next career move will be the one that confirms him as a genuinely talented manager in the modern game. One thing’s for sure though, he has given himself an almighty good chance of meeting his aspirations, although he might have lost a few admirers on the banks of the Thames in doing so…

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