When Manchester United sacked David Moyes in April 2014, it was as big a loss to British management as it was the club or the Scot himself.
The former Everton gaffer could have been the man to make home-grown appointments fashionable once again, but his failures further added to the stereotype of British managers being little more than long-ball survivalists befitting of only the Premier League‘s bottom twelve.
Yet not every British manager should be tarnished with the same brush, and the UK has produced some of the most successful gaffers the beautiful game has ever seen; Alf Ramsey, Bob Paisley and Sir Alex Ferguson are up there with the all-time greats, whilst Kenny Dalglish lifted copious honours with Liverpool and Blackburn and Brian Clough has become the pinnacle of under-appreciated managerial genius.
The rest of the world has clearly caught up, but the idea that British bosses need not apply to the Premier League’s top jobs – as if managerial mediocrity is somehow ingrained into the gene pool of our isles – is a complete fallacy and sooner or later, someone will come along to prove it.
That man could be Mark Hughes. An unassuming and guarded figure when compared to the tenacity and creativity that famed his playing days, but one who has silently, slowly yet surely built up an impressive CV throughout his time in the Premier League – with one notable blotch in the form of QPR.
He took Blackburn Rovers from the fringes of relegation to the Premier League’s top six, reaching three cup semi-finals along the way, laid the foundations for Roberto Mancini’s title-winning tenure with Manchester City, kept the mid-table motor running during his single year in the Fulham hot seat and has flourished since succeeding Tony Pulis at Stoke City.
Of course, his dreaded eleven months at QPR can’t go unmentioned, winning just eight of his 34 games in charge. But the west London club had become obsessed with spending their way out of trouble and left Hughes with the task of forging a squad from has-beens and mercenaries. No manager has performed well at QPR in the Premier League – including one of the division’s steadiest hands in Harry Redknapp – and any accusation thrown Hughes’ way from his Loftus Road tenure is now overshadowed by his transformation of the Potters.
The Welshman has kept the best bits of Tony Pulis’ regime, the traditional physicality, organisation and no-nonsense defending, yet attracted creative talents to make Stoke a multi-dimensional, incredibly entertaining side. At first glance, the seemingly untameable Marko Arnautovic and the epitome of unfulfilled potential Bojan seemed like unnecessary risks for a mid-table club that prides itself on hard work and determination, but Hughes clearly backed himself to get the best out of them and is now reaping the rewards.
It’s opened avenues in the transfer market that once appeared blocked to the Britannia outfit, bringing in Bayern Munich’s Xherdan Shaqiri and as recently as deadline day, FC Porto’s Giannelli Imbula, and in turn has made Stoke one of the Premier League’s emerging forces. This season alone, they’ve claimed three points apiece off Manchester City, Manchester United and Chelsea, drawn with title contenders Arsenal and Leicester City and were unfortunate to be eliminated from the Capital One Cup via penalty shootout after beating Liverpool in their second leg at Anfield.
Following Manchester City’s deadline day announcement that Pep Guardiola will take the Etihad helm next season, Manchester United’s attentions have reportedly turned to Jose Mourinho for obvious reasons, with Louis van Gaal’s summer departure now seemingly inevitable. Of all the managers in world football, the former Chelsea boss is one of the few who can claim to rival the Spaniard’s silverware haul and to have beaten him in a title race. During their two years on either side of the ‘El Clasico’ divide, they both claimed a La Liga title.
But the Portuguese’s miraculous fall from grace this season proves he’s a short-term appointment, a ticking time-bomb that wins trophies in the interim but will eventually explode in spectacular fashion. If he couldn’t stick it out at Chelsea, a club whose philosophy was carved out of his own image and whose fan base treats him like a demi-god, he won’t stick it out anywhere. And the last time I checked, Manchester United still see themselves as a long-term institution above the Premier League’s hire-and-fire culture.
So if United are still interested in long-term appointments, for me, Hughes ticks all the boxes. His transformation of Stoke City has become a master class in evolution over revolution. The style of football on show at the Britannia is far more in line with what most fans envisage than LVG’s possession philosophy or Mourinho’s pragmatism. Having enjoyed the best of his playing days at Old Trafford, the 52-year-old offers an in-depth understanding of what supporters expect. And now getting the best out of Bojan, Shaqiri and Arnautovic, Hughes is clearly capable of working with big talents and difficult characters.
It seems the only real negatives against Hughes are his nationality and lack of silverware, but the former appears to result in the latter in the vast majority of cases nowadays.
If Ed Woodward feels he needs instantaneous success to curtail the seemingly inevitable rise of the noisy neighbours under Guardiola, then perhaps he should go with Mourinho. But if he wants to rebuild Manchester United as a club deeply entrenched into the DNA of English football, who entertain spectators and always build with the long-term in mind, then Hughes – a Ferguson disciple, a Premier League veteran and a manager who has proved himself time and again in the top flight – is the best candidate for the job.
It would be foolish to let the preconception of British managers, and particularly, the after-tremors of David Moyes’ somewhat inevitable failings, stand in the way.