Somewhere else

ON May 2, 2008, Mark Hughes was manager of a team lying eighth in the Premier League. On May 2, 2009, Mark Hughes is manager of a team lying eighth in the Premier League. So what’s changed? Everything, that’s what.

Hughes was quoted in several newspapers this morning as saying that he would have left Blackburn last summer, even if Manchester City hadn’t moved to appoint him as their new manager.

It has been, to say the least, a turbulent ride since. But as City and Blackburn faced each other at Eastlands this afternoon, would Hughes have wished – even for a moment – that he was still on the away bench? I very much doubt it.

A glance at the away end this afternoon would have told him that he’d made the right decision. Rovers’ travelling support was something in the hundreds. That is poor for an away match just 30 miles from home.

Now you can point to the fact that money is tight at the moment, and that fans have to pick and choose their games. And you would have a point. But my point is that, even when times were better, Blackburn did not have enough support to sustain a club with top-six ambitions.

When Hughes guided Blackburn to the FA Cup semi-finals two years ago, they faced Chelsea at Old Trafford – again a trip of around 30 miles – and failed to sell out their ticket allocation. There’s no question that Rovers have some very loyal fans. But they don’t have enough of them. Hughes realised this, and worked out that if he wanted a crack at becoming a top-class manager, he would have to move on.

When he accepted Manchester City’s offer of the manager’s job last June, though, he could hardly have foreseen just what a turbulent first season lay in wait.

There was: A club takeover, the smashing of the British transfer record to sign Robinho, a 16-match UEFA Cup run (City’s best in 30 years), embarrassing domestic cup exits at the hands of teams from lower divisions, internal disciplinary problems, maddening inconsistency from his players, an audacious attempt to break the world transfer record by signing Kaka, a heap of criticism dumped on City when it fell through, endless speculation linking them with multi-million-pound bids for everyone bar Roy Race and Albert Steptoe, and more endless speculation touting anyone from Jose Mourinho to Britney Spears for Hughes’ job.

It has, in short, been rather eventful.

At a press conference last week, I asked Hughes if he felt he was a better, wiser manager for having gone through this season.

“I think you’re shaped by your experiences as a person, as a player and as a manager,” he said.

“Certainly, this year has tested everybody. I think, on occasions, there have been things that have come from leftfield that I didn’t anticipate.

“One of the key skills as a manager to try to pre-empt things and see things coming if and when you can, so that you can have the right response.

“On occasions, there have been things that have happened on the field of play and away from it that have caught a few of us unawares.

“But you’re absolutely right. The experiences this year will make everybody stronger, myself included.

“And it’s about learning from mistakes and experiences that you go through.”

City, for all the money they have spent this season, may not qualify for Europe. Hughes has rarely let a press conference pass of late without mentioning the chase for seventh place, which will bring with it England’s last Europa League spot.

I suspect he says it just as often to his players, to remind them not to slacken off in the closing weeks of the season. In each of the last three seasons, City have collapsed during the run-in, a habit which reached ludicrous proportions last May, when they ended the campaign with a 8-1 capitulation at Middlesbrough – their worst defeat since 1962.

This time, City are at least finishing with a bit of a kick. Having narrowly failed to complete an heroic comeback against Hamburg in the UEFA Cup quarter-finals last month, Hughes’ men have won three league games in a row for the first time under his management.

The third of those wins came comfortably this afternoon, at the expense of a Blackburn side who might, with some better defending, have come away with a draw. This was functional rather than fantastic football; the kind of workaday win over the Premier League’s lower orders that Manchester United have become so good at down the years.

After a slow start, City put the game to bed by half-time. Felipe Caicedo scored from one of the most muddled set-pieces of the season, Robinho struck for the third game running, and Elano netted a penalty in first-half stoppage time after Gael Givet had handballed while on the ground.

“Hughes was right, you’re fucking shite,” chanted the City fans to the Blackburn following.

Rovers pulled a goal back midway through the second half after Nedum Onuoha clumsily tripped Morten Ganst Pedersen. Shay Given saved El-Hadji Diouf’s penalty, plus his follow-up diving header, but Keith Andrews scrambled in the loose ball.

Blackburn will be glad just to get through their first post-Hughes season with their Premier League status intact. Paul Ince was in and out inside six months. Since then, Sam Allardyce has used all the survival knowledge that he picked up during his first couple of seasons in the top flight with Bolton to steer Rovers to the brink of safety. While it’s unlikely they will go down with 37 points, he would like another win or two, just to be sure.

“I think this season has been a shock to the system for this club,” he said. “They had been doing very well on limited resources for a few years.

“But if you don’t start right, then you start playing catch-up, which is a hugely difficult thing to do. But we’ve got ourselves into a position now where we probably need one more win. We’ve just got to finish the job off.”

Hughes’ sights, understandably, are set much higher than those of his former club.

“We’re still very much in the mix for seventh spot, if we can get it,” he said after today’s game. Seventh, incidentally, was where he finished last season with Blackburn. A repeat performance might not seem like progress at first glance. But given that City have never finished in the Premier League’s top seven, Hughes would definitely be able to count it as a step forward.

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