Soon after he announced his decision to retire, I was asked to compile my best XI of the Ferguson era. Of course these things are entirely subjective and possibly pointless but that doesn’t stop them being quite good fun. It was an easier task than I’d anticipated and, after due consideration, I went for Schmeichel in goal, a back four of Neville, Ferdinand, Stam and Irwin, a midfield comprising Ronaldo, Keane, Scholes and Giggs then Cantona and Van Nistelrooy up front. I picked substitutes too, primarily because I got carried away. On the bench then, Van Der Sar, Bruce, Vidic, Robson, Beckham, Solskjaer and Rooney. All under the watchful eye of Mike Phelan of course.
It struck me that we really have been exceptionally lucky. No place in the squad for the likes of Cole, Kanchelskis, Evra, Sheringham, Fletcher or Yorke. Not the only notable omissions. I tweeted my verdict and immediately received a text from my brother, an Arsenal fan. ‘What about Hughes? You loved him as a kid.’ I did. I still do.
Now there is only one valid choice of favourite player for any United fan of my generation. King Eric. Le Dieu. But just as there is only one correct answer to the question, ‘Who’s your favourite Simpsons character?’ sometimes it’s worth thinking outside the box and determining a number two. And though he may not have even made my bench, best and favourite are not the same thing, and Sparky is unquestionably my Chief Wiggum.
Mark Hughes played for Manchester United from 1980 to 1986, then again from 1988 to 1995. During those two stints he notched up 467 appearances for the club and scored 163 goals. That tells the whole story in one sense but in another it tells you nothing. Those statistics are not the reason I loved the man and his thighs like tree trunks. Age is a key factor. I am too young to remember Hughesy’s first spell at Old Trafford but his second neatly coincided with my burgeoning interest in the game.
One of my earliest sporting memories is the Welshman’s brace against Barcelona in the Cup Winners’ Cup Final of 1991. Both the competition and United’s goalkeeper on the day are no longer with us but to me it feels like yesterday. I can picture the second goal perfectly and regularly do. My mind’s eye always opts for the angle of the camera placed in the bottom right hand corner of the net. The ball breaks free, Sergio Busquets’ Dad (yes, really) comes charging out of his goal in those ridiculous tracksuit bottoms, Hughes knocks the ball past him but he’s gone too wide surely, Barry Davies thinks so, the 6 year old me thinks so, and then, from an impossible angle, bang, it nestles beautifully into that bottom corner. I didn’t know the game was against the former club at which he’d been deemed a failure, or that it was United’s first European trophy in 23 years, or that Barcelona were huge favourites on the night. It didn’t matter. Everything and everyone seems larger than life when you’re small and Leslie Mark Hughes seemed the biggest of the lot.
Fast forward to 1992. The inaugural Premier League season. I distinctly remember larking about with my toys on my own. In the next room my Dad is watching United take on Liverpool at Old Trafford. He had sat me in front of the European final but clearly decided a league game was less crucial in terms of building character. Still, the TV is on in here too even if I’m not focused on it. A cheer from the next room alerts me to the fact that United have pulled one back with ten minutes to spare. I look up and see it’s that man Hughes again. He’s lobbed Grobbelaar. It only dawns on me as I type this that it might just have been the first lob I ever saw. I put down Kermit and Fozzie and decide to watch the remainder of the game. Teams don’t come back from two goals behind surely? 90th minute. Diving header. Hughes, M.
Fast forward again, this time to 1994. I am by this stage an addict. I have seen lobs, headers, volleys, you name it. I’ve also seen my team win the title. As my Dad informed me, with more than a hint of irritation: ‘I’ve waited 26 years for this, you saw it in two.’ I was blessed. And now United are on the verge of the double for the first time in their history. At this point I am well read on such matters and am aware of the fact that even the great Matt Busby never managed to lead his side to the league and cup in the same season. Deep into extra time of the FA Cup semi-final and Oldham are 1-0 up. United look devoid of ideas. The ball is hopefully punted long, Oldham fail to clear, it hangs in the air for an eternity before Sparky strikes the sweetest volley you will ever see. Pandemonium in our household. We scream then run round the dining room table before collapsing in a bundle on the sofa in hysterics. He’ll hate me for mentioning this but it is the only time I can recall my brother celebrating a United goal before or since. Let the record show it was the goal that won the double. To this day, if the team are behind late on I will implore them to ‘Do an Oldham’.
We all have hundreds of such memories. People and places that perfectly evoke an age to which we can never return. Do I care that the lad from Wrexham went on to manage City? No. When I see him on the dugout now it is almost akin to Invasion of the Body Snatchers, it seems almost impossible to believe it’s the same person. Or maybe it’s closer to that beautiful ex-girlfriend you run into years later in the street to whom the years have not been kind.
What I remember is my Dad’s VHS of the 1990 FA Cup final that I watched and rewatched at a time when live football on the TV was still a rarity. Yet another double from Hughes. And the moment on the 92/93 season review video when Giggs skins his aging marker and the commentator says ‘It’s like a Mini trying to catch a Porsche’ then a pause as the young Welshman whips in a perfect cross for his compatriot to bury, concluding ‘And there’s the Rolls Royce waiting in the middle.’ Perhaps I think of those goals more often than the man himself, maybe that’s the nature of being a fan. Hughes was everything I’d like to be if I were a professional footballer and boy would I like to have been one. Strong, brave, and with a propensity towards scissor kicks and outrageous volleys that bordered on the staggering. That’s not to mention the incredible awareness and ability to hold the ball up when in possession that has never been bettered. Calm and quiet off the field, quite the opposite on it. If my relationship with Wayne Rooney is much like Mad Men, almost impossible to love however hard I try, then Mark Hughes must be compared to Breaking Bad. Pure, unadulterated enjoyment. And he had two spells for the club.
They say you can never go back. Fuck ‘em.