ON THE ROAD: It may be brutal and haunting at times, but Mark Hughes is happy to be back in the old routine of management despite losing his first match in charge of Bradford
- Mark Hughes seems to feel restored to football coaching in its purest sense
- Before a ball had been kicked, fans sang the name of the new Bradford boss
- Hughes’ Bradford lost 2-0 to Mansfield and are currently 15th in League Two
Blink and you’d have missed Mark Hughes, standing at the back of the press room in front of the pie ovens, quietly embarking on surely the most low-key post-match discussion of his 20-odd years in management.
Many of the new surroundings, which he has boldly taken the challenge to work within, speak to the way that Bradford City have been neglected and mismanaged in the last decade or so. The pitch surface is poor. The Kop, bouncing in the days of Premier League football 21 years back, could badly use some paint.
Yet at 3pm on Saturday, Hughes found himself in a stadium where the fans sang his name before a ball was even kicked. It was the kind of welcome which, when asked, he could not quite remember at any of the Premier League clubs he’s managed.
Mark Hughes has taken the bold step of becoming the manager of League Two’s Bradford City
‘Not from memory,’ he said. ‘Certainly not at Stoke! I think they wanted me out before I got there! It is what it is. I thought it was a fantastic reception and hopefully I’ll be able to repay that in the weeks and seasons ahead.’
The way things turned out at Stoke, and later Southampton, contributed to the curious way that Hughes fell out of fashion, and it is a measure of him that he has sought out a position in League Two’s lower reaches. He certainly didn’t need the money.
It may be brutal. Mansfield’s fans gleefully sang ‘sacked in the morning’ after he began with an emphatic home defeat by Nigel Clough’s Stags, who haven’t lost in the league since November.
Hughes found himself in a stadium where the fans sang his name before a ball was even kicked
It may be haunting. The ‘take me home, Midland Road’ anthem that City walk out to echoes the ‘take me home, United road’ that greets the teams at Old Trafford, which seems a lifetime away.
But by 5pm on Saturday, Hughes, 58, already seemed to feel restored to football coaching in its purest sense: offering new ideas to players and watching them follow his orders.
‘The one thing I’ve probably taken from today is that players at this level are really honest, in terms of really wanting to do what you ask them to do,’ he added. ‘Unfortunately that comes with its own problems when they take you too literally. When they do what you ask them to do from a coaching point of view but at the wrong time or the wrong place. That’s understandable. I’d never criticise them for that.’
By 5pm on Saturday, Hughes seemed to feel restored to football coaching in its purest sense
He was talking about the way the team attempted to play the more progressive football they had discussed in their first few sessions with him, last week, rather than lump it up to the strikers — as they had under predecessor Derek Adams.
As winger Alex Gilliead put it: ‘With the old gaffer it was more going long and we sat a bit deep.’
The problem was that they sometimes played the ball forward at the wrong time. ‘The better they become at the decision-making, the better we will be,’ reflected Hughes. ‘The best teams and players are the ones who make the best decisions more often than not.’
Of course, it’s not quite as straightforward as that. The ‘best players’ don’t necessarily wash up at places like this and he won’t have a fortune to spend. The owner, Stefan Rupp, had been entertaining selling the club to a crypto-currency firm.
There would have been more obvious places for Hughes to re-emerge, considering his willingness to begin again.
Like Wrexham, his hometown team, who have spent very heavily under their new Hollywood owners to put themselves into National League play-off contention playing long-ball football under former Bradford boss Phil Parkinson.
It won’t be total football here. ‘I wouldn’t approach this with the intention of changing everything and making them play a wide, expansive game. That would be crazy,’ added Hughes.
But his pulse was racing on a Saturday once more — and he gave thanks for that, given that his routine at that time of the week had been watching the pundits on a TV screen.
‘There was a danger I was going to become one of them!’ he said. ‘I think that made my mind up.’