Manchester City's cash can’t buy a winning mentality
Mark Hughes tells a funny story about the one occasion he met Sheikh Mansour, the Abu Dhabi royal who has bankrolled Manchester City to the tune of £1bn and done more than anyone to make tomorrow's derby against Manchester United the game of the season so far.
It was in November 2009, when the club were on a break in Abu Dhabi and Hughes, then the City manager, was invited to tea with Mansour. As he sat in the grounds of Mansour's palace watching a parade of thoroughbred racehorses Hughes put what he thinks was an olive in his mouth when suddenly the Sheikh arrived.
“I'm chewing it, when the tea is served and Sheikh Mansour arrives,” Hughes says. “But I've still got this stone in my mouth and I can't spit it out because I think it will be rude so for the whole time I'm with him it's there. For about an hour. He must have thought I had some kind of speech problem.”
He can laugh about it now, but it was an incredible time, as the oil money allowed City to buy famous footballers as easily as Arab racehorses.
This Hughes interview is the first he has given since he exercised the break clause in his contract with Fulham on 1 June. As a manager, he could be skilfully elusive when it came to addressing controversial issues, but this time he is keen to talk.
Hughes opens up on how it felt to know he had been sacked by City before they told him officially; on his relationship with Sir Alex Ferguson and how, as a former United great, he feels about his old club. He starts with Roberto Mancini, the man who took his seat in the City manager's office, and who takes the club to Old Trafford as the Premier League leaders. There is no love lost.
“I don't know the guy personally, but looking at him from the outside he comes across as autocratic,” Hughes says.
“It's either his way or the highway. I'm not sure he indulges players, tries to get to know them or understand them. I'm not sure he's that type of manager. He looks very focused and very driven in terms of what he gets from his players, but whether or not they will all love him when he leaves, I would think probably not.
“He never can put his arm around a player. He's not that kind of manager. Nobody's right and nobody's wrong. You are only judged on whether you win or lose. His way is achieving a level of success, without a shadow of a doubt. He's got good players, but only time will tell if the potential of the group he has is realised.”
Hughes had been appointed by the previous City owner Thaksin Shinawatra and believes that ultimately counted against him, as it does so many managers whom new owners inherit. Ask Hughes what went wrong and he says it was the “structure”. He says he “compromised” himself as he tried to “buy into” the City approach.
“There were certain things I wasn't comfortable with and I allowed to happen under my watch,” he says.
Asked to be more specific, he replies: “It was really Brian Marwood's role.”
The club's “football administration officer” was appointed in March 2009 to oversee the spending of City's considerable transfer budget.
Hughes says: “The way it was sold to me was that I was still in charge of football things. Really, it's about your relationships with people and that's the strength of your football club.
“Bringing in all these business people and consultants to tell people in the club what to do and how to do structure their club wasn't right. The close relationships I had at Blackburn (his previous job) were a strength and I wasn't able to establish them at City. There were layers of management which really frustrates me, but it was my own fault because I allowed it to happen.
“They did things that maybe they regretted and possibly would have done differently with hindsight.
“There was so much happening and overnight we went from a team that had never been higher than eighth in the Premier League, from having this perception of being middle to top half, to being we should win every week. That was different.”
Hughes was sacked by City hours after they beat Sunderland 4-3 on 19 December, 2009, with the club sixth in the Premier League but having drawn eight of their previous ten games. That day Hughes, and the rest of the world, knew he was finished before the game. Already in the league that season his team had beaten Arsenal and the eventual champions Chelsea but his fate, Hughes believes, had been sealed long before his final day.
“It was results-driven. I was on a bad run, no doubt about that. We hadn't been beaten (only two defeats) but we hadn't won enough games. We drew too many games. Apparently I was sacked four or five games before I actually went. We beat Arsenal (in the Carling Cup on 2 December), we beat Chelsea (league, 5 December) and that postponed it (the sacking).
“Apparently he (Khaldoon) flew in the Wednesday after the Hull game (1-1 on 28 November, five matches before City played Sunderland) and I was to be sacked after the Hull game. Really, that's when the decision was made. We were playing that Wednesday so maybe the assumption was we were going to lose. As it was we won 3-0 (against Arsenal in the Carling Cup).
“I got an inkling because people weren't around. People were going away on trips. It was 'Where is everybody?' With hindsight, I am asking 'What happened there?' and 'Where's the press officer?' She wasn't around. You were left asking 'What's going on?'
“On the day of the Sunderland game, people were phoning me up and saying 'You getting sacked after the game?' Players were seeing that as well and it was very difficult.”
Looking back, does he wonder why he took the team that day with the Saturday morning newspapers already announcing his fate had been sealed? “That's what I'm talking about in terms of compromising myself. I knew it was hanging by a thread and the players did too.”
So what of tomorrow's game? City have beaten United before — although Hughes lost all three of the Manchester derbies for which he was City manager — but rarely have they gone into a game in the modern era with such equality.
“They have players who understand the Premier League. They have foreign players like Kompany and De Jong who have been there now for a few seasons,” said Hughes. “They understand what's required. What they have stands comparison with any team in the league.
“Whether or not the group as a whole work as diligently and with the same mantra that Manchester United have, I'd maybe suggest not. Every United player understands what United is about. The players understand it is a privilege to play for United.
“I'm not sure the group of players at City understand that yet. A lot of people have come together very quickly. At United there has been continuity and it gives them a different dynamic.”