MARK Hughes can’t have had much sleep last night. He was still in a German airport departure lounge past midnight, waiting to fly home from a UEFA Cup win over Schalke.
But he seemed pretty awake when he faced the press at the City of Manchester Stadium at 9.30am today ahead of, perhaps, his biggest test in management yet.
Sunday brings Hughes’ first Manchester derby as City boss. He did, of course, spend 13 years at United, seven of them under Sir Alex Ferguson. Hughes’ first six months at Eastlands have been interesting, and not always in a good way. Thrilling football has been counteracted by wobbly defending this season. This is the team that has beaten Arsenal and lost to Brighton.
Beat United, though, and you become an instant Blue hero. Sven-Goran Eriksson’s truncated reign as City boss is now remembered chiefly for his two derby wins over the Reds – including the first at Old Trafford since 1974.
Hughes today tried to play down the personal significance of Sunday’s match – although he’s not so daft as to try to convince anyone that it’s just another game. He knows that; he played in enough Manchester derbies. Scored in enough, too.
But asked what his emotions would be going into the derby, Hughes said: “It won’t feel different at all. It’s about my team, my club going up against the best.
“They’re European champions, they’re Premier League champions. It’s a huge test.”
But Hughes will create history on Sunday, as the first former United player ever to manage City in a Manchester derby.
Only two other former United employees have ever managed City. Steve Coppell’s tenure in 1996 barely outlasted a bottle of milk, so he never got to experience a Manchester derby as a boss.
That leaves Ernest Mangnall, who never played for United, but did manage them before moving across to City in 1912. His final Manchester derby was in 1921, so the last time any journalist was in a position to ask the sort of questions Hughes faced today, they would probably have sent their stories via carrier pigeon rather than laptop.
Of course, there has been a managerial move in the other direction since then. The late Sir Matt Busby was an impressive wing-half at Manchester City for eight years between the wars – and didn’t do too badly during his time in charge at Old Trafford.
Those City-United links are everywhere. Busby’s son Sandy will be at the City of Manchester Stadium on Sunday for a short pre-match question and answer session in the Citizens Suite, along with Brian Kidd, one of a long list of men to have played for both clubs.
Sandy is a United fan who would admit to a little bit of affection for City. Kidd – who was once Ferguson’s assistant at United – will perhaps find his loyalties are more split.
Hughes (like Kidd, a former Blackburn manager) has no such split loyalties. Today, he made clear his respect for Ferguson, and also his desire to beat him.
That is not lip service. Hughes led Blackburn to two wins and three draws in nine meetings with United. As a manager, he has frequently been a pain in the backside for Ferguson.
Even as a player, he could hit United where it hurt. In his first game against them after leaving for Chelsea in 1995, Hughes scored. He couldn’t, though, prevent a 4-1 United win at Stamford Bridge that day. If City fall short on Sunday, it won’t be for lack of effort – on the pitch or the touchline.
And if City win, their fans may just be prepared to forget Hughes’ 13 years with United at a stroke.