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Mark Hughes: My first hero

Mark HughesSoon 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.

About Darren Richman

Darren's work has appeared in The Independent, The Guardian and The Daily Mirror. Follow @DarrenRichman on Twitter.

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  1. The Truth says:

    Hughes is a great, but not a legend.

  2. reddevi61 says:

    @the one
    blame Ron Atkinson for the move to Barcelona , how could u sell a 20 year old Hugh’s after scoreing in the first 8 games of the season when all the rumoures about Barcelona started . don’t think me scored again and was sold at Christmas . take a look at the goal he scores against Spain at the racecourse ground (Wrexham ) and you’ll c why they wanted him . robbo, whteside ,Hughes awesome

  3. reddevi61 says:

    we knew Hugh’s was Chelsea fan but that don’t make him a mercenary he gave is all for our great club

  4. DreadedRed says:

    montanared – spot on mate! The ’79 Cup Final was my first game. You’ve described it well. I was pleading and exhorting United, although we had a mountain to climb at 2 goals down. The exhilaration I felt when we equalised still lives with me to this day (I was 13 years old at the time), as does the abject disappointment and emptiness I felt when Arsenal scored the winner.

    Right there and then, I was hooked. United is my drug, and I’m an addict. My habitual dependency has filled my life with a myriad of emotions – especially glee, worry and contentment, in no particular order.

  5. DreadedRed says:

    Coppell was my first hero, but Robbo will always be my all time favourite footballer.

  6. King Eric says:

    DreadedRed – Hello mate, you well? Wow I didn’t realise you were that age! Thought you was younger.

  7. reddevi61 says:

    if u liked coppell u must of liked hill as well what a pair of wingers we had

  8. DreadedRed says:

    King Eric – Good day my friend! I am well, thanks for asking. I’ve been keeping up to date with your posts on Tom and Ruth, great to hear they are doing well. To be quite honest, there are doubtless a few RoM regulars that consider themselves to be Tom’s unofficial ethereal god-fathers. Fuck’s sake, to my mind he was actually born on RoM. Knowing you, he was probably even conceived while you were daydreaming about Robbo!

    Yeah, I’m 2 years off 50, not quite an old fart, but certainly not able to cause the same stink that I discharged daily in my youth. Being exposed to bikini-clad babes on a daily basis is keeping me young, but all the ‘compulsory’ free tequilas/whiskies/beers/etc is somewhat addling my brain and aging my organs at a speed that Usain Bolt would be proud of!

    Perhaps for my 50th I’ll come over to Manchester for a couple of games. That’s the plan, anyway. Born on boxing day, so there’s a fair chance we will have a game that day, and definitely a few that week, making it the best time to cram a whole lot of footie into a short visit.

    Keep up the good work on RoM. It’s posters like yourself that make this my internet home.

  9. DreadedRed says:

    reddevi61 – Gordon was phenomenal, but just before my time. He’d just left when I joined the family, plus I was a bit young at the time to be focussing on ex-players. By all accounts, we had the best pair of wingers around.

  10. King Eric says:

    DreadedRed – Thanks alot my friend. Oh I would love it if you came over for a game. Got to put a face to your posts after these last few years. Top man!

  11. Bobby Charlton's combover says:

    Cracking volley by Hughes when he was at City as manager.
    It pains to see him with that shower but worth watching.

  12. DreadedRed says:

    Cheers King Eric! I’ll be sure to meet up for a few pre-match pints with you and the lads. I’ve a great face for the internet, but my heart is Red, and so is my blood! Looking forward to meeting up with a few others from RoM, like wayne, Costas, etc, etc. Perhaps I can convince other distant Reds to join us at that time. Local lads like yourself, Giggs12, mikekelly12 and James21 (to mention but a few) should easily be convinced. After all, all roads lead to RoM.

  13. reddevi61 says:

    great team the doc had the football we played was brill , it’s a pity he was sacked who knows what the team would of done if he’d stayed!

  14. DreadedRed says:

    reddevi61 – yeah, it’s fair to say that our results didn’t match our performances at that time. There’s a fine line between success and nothing. Today’s fans have a quite unfortunate attitude towards success. They seem to consider trophies as prerequisites, attacking verve as compulsory, defensive perfection as normal, and defeat as an opportunity to attack the fabric of our Club.

    I love winning. I want to win. I believe we will win. Even when we lose. To be quite clear, success is NOT a prerequisite. Football is everything, winning is only our aim.

  15. reddevi61 says:


  16. Norman-85 says:

    @reddevi61 – I didn’t imply that Hughes was a mercenary simply because he was a Chelsea fan – it was more that he was only in the team about 2 years and when Barca came sniffing, he was off. He has always struck me as someone who was more interested in himself than the team – asI said, he scored some great goals, but he also cost us a few points by his attitude and behaviour. He was slightly more under control when he came back but that was probably more to do with the manager than with the player. He seems th have a chip on his shoulder about United ever since he was shipped out in 1995. I actually had the privilege of speaking to Sir Alex in the forecourt @ Old Trafford just before Arthur Albiston’s testimonial in May 1988 (back when the players all came in and parked there before a game and you had the chance to talk to them) and I asked him if Hughes was coming back – his reply was something along the lines of ‘we’re trying to convince him but we’ll just have to see’ – convince him to come back, ffs? This was when he was on loan to Bayern, and I honestly think that, at the time, Hughes thought that he was bigger than United. BTW, I also got speaking to Sir Matt that day in May 1988 – I have the two ‘Sirs’ autographs on the same page of the wee autograph book that I had bought just 10 minutes earlier in the old portacabin ‘megastore’ – ha, ha, oh it was many things but not a megastore :-)

  17. reddevi61 says:

    as I said before I blamed Atkinson for him goin to Barcelona ,his attitude and behaviour I myself didn’t see any thing wrong until we got andy cole . he still had good few years in him as proven joining Chelsea ,but great memory’s we move on

  18. Mr C says:

    Sparky was a fine player, albeit not that prolific in front of goal, a nightmare for opposition defenders, strong as an ox, he gave as good as he got physically.

    Heroes? There have been so many great players at United over the years it seems churlish to pick out names, but for me it has to be my childhood heroes of Best, Law and Charlton, who I first saw play live in ’69, and Eric Cantona. Eric was not the best player ever to play for United but IMO he was the most important. Made the difference between us being perennial also-rans to winners, and ushered in the golden age of Scholes, Giggs etc. Eric Cantona – a legend in his own lifetime. A footballing God.

    @reddevi61. The Doc was a good manager but impetuous. He screwed things badly when he fell out with Gerry Daly, the heartbeat of that side, and sold him – to Derby. Plain stupid. Him shagging the physio’s missus sealed the deal.

  19. reddevi61 says:

    @mr c
    true but at sixteen gutted at the time

  20. tony says:

    66 ,was a great year for english football eric was born,oooooooooh cantonaaa a real fucking liveing legend

  21. blacksocks says:

    Well done to all those who spotted Danny Wallace in the picture. Incidently he and Hughes both scored in the first United game I ever attended on 15 December 1990.

    Coventry City 2 – 2 Manchester United Hughes 5′, Wallace 89′

    In those pre-premier league days I just wrote to Coventry a few weeks before asking after tickets, they sent me a price list and my Dad bought two tickets for their main stand. His only caution was to keep my scarf hidden under my coat! although I did cheer every time United scored.


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