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
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
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 (
That may be some way short of his replacement
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
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
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
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
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
Santa Cruz has struggled since following his manager to City, where Hughes' signings of
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
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
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.