Hughes: I didn’t want to leave United
In the latest UTD Podcast, former Reds forward Mark Hughes recalls his move from Manchester United to Barcelona in 1986.
The Welshman was a star figure in United’s team under Ron Atkinson in the 1980s. The former striker joined our Academy in 1978 and made his Reds debut in 1983 at the age of 20, before cementing his place as our main frontman in the 1984/85 season.
Hughes netted 16 times in 38 appearances that campaign and his performances at Old Trafford did not go unnoticed in the world of football, with many clubs keen on the attacker's signature, especially as English clubs were newly banned from playing in European competition.
In the most recent UTD Podcast episode, which is available to listen to now, he told presenters Helen Evans, Sam Homewood and ex-Red David May about the interest from abroad.
“I was getting a lot of notice, just by virtue of playing for Manchester United. I'd done okay in international games, I’d scored that good goal, a volley against Spain - that was one of my better ones that one,” Hughes said.
“The feeling was that a bid was going to come in, from maybe a foreign club, just because that's where the money was. In those days, Italy was the big place or Spain, either Real Madrid or Barcelona. I was in between agents or agents were coming out of the woodwork because they could see what was likely to happen.
“I was just trying to play my game. I was quite happy. I was centre forward for Manchester United, for goodness sake. And I was coming in here week-in week-out to play in front of 40,000. I was having a great time, I didn't particularly want to go anywhere. But I think it got to a point where there was an assumption that well, actually, you want to leave, you're going to leave, so it's going to happen.”
In the summer of 1985, a move to Catalunya was agreed for Hughes, although the Welshman was not keen on the transfer himself.
“Big Ron [Atkinson] was the manager and I think he got to the point where he thought, ‘Well, we may have to cash in because it's going to happen’,” he recalled.
“It got to a point where I'm thinking, ‘Well, it won't get that far’. I ended up meeting the Vice President of Barcelona and the meeting went on and on and I’m not quite sure, it was in Spanish and French and a little bit of English and it got to a point where at some point I agreed that well, at the end of season, if all things being equal, I would go to Barcelona. But in the back of my mind, I'm thinking, ‘I hope it doesn't happen. I don't really want to go and I’m having a great time here.’”
From there, the latter stages of the 1985/86 campaign took a downwards turn for Sparky, with transfer playing on his mind.
“So whether or not that was part of it why my form was hopeless. I think people surmise that it was because I knew I was going - which I did but not because I was excited by it and that I wanted to protect myself and make sure I didn’t get injured. I just didn't want to go there,” he explained.
“But it got to the summer and all of a sudden, I found myself on a plane to Barcelona. But that was probably because of my personality, because I didn't really come out and say, ‘Hang on guys. I don't want to go and I'm not going’. I could have stopped it dead. But because that conversation was never allowed to happen, or I didn't allow it to happen. I ended up in Barcelona, which wasn’t a bad place to go.”
Once the move to Spain was completed, it was all about getting used to a new league and style of football, something Mark admits he struggled with.
“I actually enjoyed it,” he said about playing for the Blaugrana.
“I’d obviously given indication in the January [to join], Gary [Lineker] went after the World Cup in 86. They signed him after that. And I went there, and the football was different. Clearly, it was Spanish football. It was more technical and due to my physicality, and the way I've been able to progress at United, it wasn't going to allow me to progress in Barcelona because the referees were on to me straight away.
“So I ended up getting to a point where I wasn't playing like I knew I could play and I was maybe 60-70 per cent of where I knew I could be, just because I didn't have that physicality to my game. I had a good time there. I enjoyed the city, great city, but football-wise, I look back now and think it was a good opportunity, one that I probably didn't make the best of.”
Hughes returned to Old Trafford for the 1988/89 season, after a season away on loan at Bayern Munich. Settling into life off the pitch outside of the United Kingdom was a challenge at the time, which he believes had an impact on his form.
“I just met my wife about two months before I was set to leave (for Barcelona). So she used to come over every two weeks or so, and that was difficult because I needed somebody there for support,” Hughes said.
“There was no player liaison. There are whole departments for that now. Yeah, but there was nothing, there was no Skype or anything. No Sky. There was only Spanish TV. No internet, there wasn’t anything. So it was more difficult. It'd be a lot easier now clearly. But yeah, it was difficult. And that affected my ability to perform, unfortunately, because I wasn't settled off the pitch. I wasn't happy off the pitch. So that was reflected in how well I played.”
The UTD Podcast episode with Mark Hughes is available to listen to on all major podcast streaming platforms now.