For Manchester United fans growing up in the 1980s and early 1990s, the current Southampton manager Mark Hughes was a genuine hero.
With his thunder thighs, trademark spectacular volleys, brute strength and, at times, over-the-top aggression, the Welshman was a focal point of the attack. Yes, he would go on long scoring streaks (sometimes enough to land personal seasonal awards) and then have occasional barren spells in front of goal. Yes, he did leave for Barcelona in 1986 – which seemed rare at the time, that somebody would actively seek to further his career elsewhere.
Yes, the red mist did descend sometimes and he would get into trouble with referees. Sheffield United away in 1994 springs to mind, when I recall one of our fanzines suggesting the kick at David Tuttle's rear was an act even a schoolboy would deem juvenile!
However, ‘Sparky’ was behind most of the iconic moments of my United-supporting youth. A classic homegrown talent, who rose through the ranks, the striker was the ultimate big-game player. Yet it was not only on the grandest of occasions, he would also deliver when we needed it most. Down to 10 men against the country’s best team at the time in Everton, in the 1985 FA Cup final, he came deep to pick the ball up and swept a glorious pass into the wide open space at Wembley to release Norman Whiteside. It proved to be the assist for the Northern Irishman’s curling winner past Neville Southall.
During the following season, when we finally looked set to end our long run without a league title, he was at the forefront of the 10-game winning start. Instead of firing the Reds to the trophy, we ended up in fourth as his much-leaked talks with Barcelona came to a positive conclusion with the £2million deal agreed long before the end of the campaign.
It felt like a kick in the teeth, to be honest, but Alex Ferguson re-signed the fans’ favourite when things did not work out at the Nou Camp – despite intense pressure from other clubs, including Bayern Munich where he had starred on loan. Sir Alex declared that bringing Hughes home was a gift to the supporters and he would repay the Scot handsomely.The Mark Robins goal that is credited with keeping Sir Alex in a job, in the third round of the 1990 FA Cup, was created by Sparky. Receiving possession from Lee Martin, he produced another outside-of-the-boot pass, like the one against Everton, and the ball arced perfectly into the path of Robins, who nodded home. Hughes was capable of such moments of sheer quality and came up trumps on numerous occasions as Ferguson ended up lifting trophy after trophy.
That first one, in 1990, would not have been possible but for Sparky’s double in the final against Crystal Palace, the second one forcing a replay when Ian Wright had threatened to earn Steve Coppell’s Eagles a famous triumph. When he scored again against Palace, at Selhurst Park, with a predictably thumping volley, it helped the Reds take a huge step towards that elusive first title since 1967. Before then, his brace against former club Barcelona ensured victory in Europe in the Cup-Winners’ Cup as the winning mentality returned to Old Trafford and he endured some sweet retribution on the Catalans.
As somebody who shared accommodation at University with a number of Liverpool fans at the time, I was particularly grateful for his two goals that prevented the Merseysiders winning at Old Trafford in the first year of the Premier League. Who could forget the injury-time volley at Wembley against Oldham Athletic in the 1994 FA Cup semi-final that kept the Double hopes alive? He scored in that final too, against Chelsea as the Reds won 4-0 in torrential rain, but, a year later, joined the Blues and, for some people, severed all ties with United. Whether the fact the Londoners were competitors for honours at the time, and Hughes was always the sort of player who would aggravate any opposition – even a team where he was idolised – led to this fracture is not certain.What is for sure is Sparky seemed to swiftly be aligned to Chelsea despite only spending three years there, before moving on to Southampton, Everton and Blackburn Rovers to continue waging war with Premier League defenders. After managerial spells with Wales and Blackburn, his next move was one that was always going to go down badly with the red half of Manchester.
Joining City further distanced Hughes from Old Trafford and, to make matters worse, after losing to Michael Owen’s late, late goal in the derby in September 2009, he made a comment that suggested United have always received favourable amounts of injury time. This was obviously untrue and, even allowing for the way he must have been feeling after such a dramatic conclusion, I admit it did hurt to hear such an accusation from a Reds great.
Maybe Hughes’s popularity with younger fans would have soared had his Queens Park Rangers team not conceded two injury-time goals that allowed Manchester City to take the title at United’s expense in 2012. Our own paths have crossed many times since he became a manager – 25 in total, and he has won four of those, losing 13.As his Southampton side currently sit in the relegation zone, the pressure is on the 55-year-old to turn things around but he will be getting little sympathy from anybody at United on Saturday as we look to discover some form in the Premier League. However, older fans will certainly still retain respect for Sparky and all those magical moments in the 1980s and 1990s and hope he can improve the Saints’ fortunes.
Mark Hughes may be a rival these days, and has been ever since 1995 (aside from that stint as Wales coach), but, in my eyes, he will always be a Manchester United legend worthy of affection.
The opinions in this story are personal to the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Manchester United Football Club.
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