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Hughes the right choice for Fulham


Managers are a bit like prom dates: It always feels better to have one whom everyone else wanted. So it is perhaps understandable that, having initially had their team's advances warmly received by the massively popular Martin Jol, some Fulham fans are not quite so excited about buying a wristlet for the slightly less affable Mark Hughes instead.

But while Hughes might not have the rosy-cheeked charm of Jol, nor even the reputation for attractive passing football, he is hardly a bad fit for Fulham -- if chairman Mohamed Al Fayed was, in the end, choosing between Hughes and Sven Goran Eriksson, he picked well. And let's not forget the lukewarm reception Roy Hodgson, the man being replaced, got when he arrived in 2007 -- much like that which greeted Jean Tigana, who arrived 10 years ago.

From the doubt and uncertainty surrounding the appointments of both managers, each took Fulham forward: Tigana immediately secured promotion to the Premier League as English League champion (by 10 clear points) and established the club in the top flight; Hodgson took Fulham to its highest top-flight finish (seventh) before reaching the Europa League final last season. It's natural to pre-judge a new manager, but on this evidence, it's a less than reliable measure of their suitability to the post.

Fulham's European adventure last season has elevated expectations, and it is perhaps by such expectations that Hughes is being judged. But it doesn't seem right to set the sights for this season according to the achievements of last -- whether Hodgson himself would have replicated them successfully is doubtful; such is the capricious nature of knockout soccer. The outgoing manager likely could have pleased fans with a top-half finish and a decent FA Cup run, and there shouldn't be too much pressure on Hughes to do more than that in his first season.

Besides, assumptions that Hughes is not a manager capable of pushing Fulham to the same heights as his predecessor are misplaced. The circumstances in which he served at Manchester City were extraordinary -- three months after arriving, the wealth of new owner Abu Dhabi United Group instantly rewrote City's ambitions and the manager's job spec. Even so, his 18-month stint is wrongly written off as a disaster. City won 47 percent of games under him, an improvement on his two immediate predecessors (Stuart Pearce and Eriksson) by an average of about nine percent.

That may be some way short of his replacement Roberto Mancini's record at Internazionale (62 percent), but Hughes has improved results for every team he has managed and, in any case, is best judged on his four years at Blackburn. Though the role at Fulham is not the rescue mission he took on when arriving at Ewood Park in 2004, Blackburn encourages comparisons with Fulham both in terms of its league form and ambitions in the past 10 years, as well as its annual turnover.

Rovers were second from the bottom when Hughes arrived a month into the season, and his appointment was first and foremost a bid to avoid relegation (when Graeme Souness' departure for Newcastle looked a lot like jumping before the push). Hughes steered them to the safety of 15th place by turning defeats into draws, stealing points at Maine Road, Anfield, Old Trafford and White Hart Lane, whose residents all finished in the top half of the table that season. Backs-to-the-wall defending and Brad Friedel's elasticity in goal had a lot to do with those results, but a team that was struggling to score at least needed to prevent leaks at the back.

And in 2005-06, Hughes' first full season in charge, Blackburn was transformed. The organization that the Welshman had already added was complemented by the signing of Craig Bellamy from Newcastle, who scored 13 goals in 22 league starts. Having won more road games under Souness, Blackburn's home form improved dramatically -- 68 percent of visiting teams went away empty-handed, including the top three (Chelsea, Manchester United and Arsenal) and the bottom nine. It was form enough to carry Rovers to a sixth-place finish (how Fulham's away form would benefit from a similar turnaround) and UEFA Cup action.

That European campaign ended at the knockout stage, when Blackburn (which topped its group) encountered German outfit Bayer Leverkusen. But Hughes has proved more than capable of steering clubs through knockout competitions, taking Blackburn to three consecutive domestic cup semifinals, including one in that first rescue-mission season, when Arsenal finished Rovers' FA Cup ambitions. The year after, United put them out of the League Cup. In 2006-07, Chelsea won their semifinal meeting after extra time. On each occasion, Hughes' side was beaten by the eventual winner of the trophy.

Questions have been raised about Blackburn's style of play under Hughes, who was himself politely labeled "combative" during a successful playing career up front for Manchester United, Chelsea and Blackburn, among others. And it's true that Rovers were at the bottom of the disciplinary table in each of the four seasons Hughes ended in charge. But Blackburn needed to toughen up to avoid relegation, and once that was achieved Hughes focused on the prettier side of the game. For all their solidity, Hughes' men knew how to play football, with Morten Gamst Pedersen and David Bentley crafting opportunities from the wide areas and the likes of Bellamy and later Roque Santa Cruz working through the middle.

Those names raise one of Hughes' key strengths as a manager: his canniness in the transfer market. He was smart to bring in superb (but little known in England) defender Ryan Nelsen from D.C. United on a free transfer, and the signing of Genk's Aaron Mokoena helped strengthen Hughes' "needs must" five-man midfield for cents. A couple of years later, Christopher Samba and Stephen Warnock arrived for less than $3 million. Samba formed a formidable central defensive partnership with Nelsen that endures as Blackburn's first choice (at least until Phil Jones gets a bit more experience), while Warnock progressed well enough to make a $10 million profit when sold to Aston Villa two years later.

In more creative roles, Hughes took a dejected Bentley from Arsenal for $780,000 and turned him into one of Blackburn's pivotal players -- in 2006-07, he scored six goals (including this peach) and set up 13. Benni McCarthy cost only $4 million from Porto four summers ago but scored 24 goals in his first season. Roque Santa Cruz cost slightly more at $5.5 million, but the former Bayern Munich man repaid Hughes' confidence with almost a goal every other start in his two seasons at Blackburn.

Santa Cruz has struggled since following his manager to City, where Hughes' signings of Jo and Joleon Lescott for a combined $63 million don't look like money best spent either, but their fees were massively inflated by City's newfound wealth (just ask Roman Abramovich about that -- he recouped less than a third of the $26 million he paid for Damien Duff after arriving at Chelsea). On a budget, Hughes has typically excelled and his failures have been inexpensive (Francis Jeffers bombed at Rovers but cost nothing and was sold for a reported $1 million after one season).

At Fulham, Hughes inherits a strong, close-knit group of players and there is no reason to think he cannot continue to extract the best out of the core of Hodgson's squad while making one or two adroit (and necessary) additions. Fulham could use more depth up front to avoid situations like that which saw Bobby Zamora struggling through the end of the season injured, and if Hughes can uncover another bargain, or encourage an attacking player of Bellamy's quality to follow him, there should be few complaints at Craven Cottage.

His people skills (Bellamy has had tempestuous relationships with other managers but is lapdog-keen on Hughes) might also help to keep Fulham's best players from going elsewhere in the wake of Hodgson's departure. Several players have less than a year left on their contracts, including Zoltan Gera and John Paintsil. Publicly at least, existing players have responded positively to Hughes' arrival, with Stephen Kelly and Dickson Etuhu telling reporters that the squad is "delighted" and "excited."

They may be the words of players concerned for their places, but Hughes is intelligent enough to recognize some of the quality he has at his disposal as well as where the squad needs strengthening. Ultimately, of course, he'll be judged on results. The real judgment begins Aug. 14 when Fulham kicks off the new season with a trip to Bolton, but there's plenty to recommend Hughes as manager for now.