Sacked Mark Hughes looked tired when the Southampton axe finally fell
There were barely a dozen people in the room when Mark Hughes arrived to talk after another monochrome afternoon against Newcastle United a few months back.
What ensued felt less like a press conference than an awkward dinner-party conversation. Everyone struggled for something to say.
It was a sign of what some who know Hughes well have been saying for more than a few months — a little of the fire has gone out of him.
Mark Hughes was sacked by Southampton on Monday after just three wins in 22 league games
There have been occasions in the past five years, such as after a good performance against Manchester United by his then Stoke side — and some searing insight into his old club in the post-match discussion — when you wondered why he’d not been considered for the Old Trafford job himself.
However Hughes just seemed tired in the back corridors of St Mary’s on Saturday, when a piece of Jose Mourinho nonsense about Southampton lacking ambition was tossed his way. ‘Oh for Christ’s sake,’ he replied.
Winning three matches in 22 games is not good. Neither is the brittle defence, carrying echoes of the weakness which saw him dismissed nine years ago as Manchester City manager.
But the evaporation of Southampton as a side with top-10 aspirations is a result of them selling off their best players and being unwilling to spend on remotely adequate replacements.
The Saints have won only one of their opening 14 games this season under Hughes
It’s all very well chairman Ralph Krueger telling Hughes that owner Gao Jisheng wants ‘the Ws’ (wins), but the Chinese businessman in question has also made it known that he wants to sell players in January to fund any new ones.
So it is that the club who sold Virgil van Dijk for £80million find themselves with Jannik Vestergaard, who was twice turned on Saturday in passages of play which brought Manchester United their goals.
Hughes had always been far happier with Danny Ings than either Vestergaaard or Mohamed Elyounoussi, but serviceable forwards like Ings are of limited value when they’re not regularly fit.
Hughes departs St Mary’s after a 2-2 draw with Manchester United on Saturday evening
None of that appears to form part of the calculation to sack Hughes, which is a monumental gamble at best.
That kind of decision is usually pre-empted by catastrophic and irrevocable failure. Southampton no more fit that description than they did when parting with Claude Puel, who’d taken them to an eighth-placed finish and a League Cup final.
There have been barely four months of football since Hughes was keeping Southampton in the Premier League after the disastrous decision to hire Mauricio Pellegrino.
The escape act included the memorable trip to Swansea City, when Hughes and his management team turned the local Marriott hotel’s questionable cancellation of their booking to their favour, motivating the team by turning it into what the local Southampton paper called ‘hotel-gate.’
Hughes’ departure and the relish with which it was being seized upon on Monday, seems to conform to the present requirement for managerial novelty and stardust quality.
Few managers dare discuss it, for fear of seeming out of touch, though Sean Dyche did in a revealing interview for the book On The Brink by the journalist Simon Hughes last year.
‘A few bad results? Sack the manager. He ain’t good enough,’ said Dyche. ‘Soon enough, a new generation of fan will only know Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. This is how it has factually changed.
‘If we live in a throwaway society, why should football be any different? Opinions are made instantly. There is less of a desire to look at the situation and try to fix things.’
The ignominy of becoming the first Premier League manager dismissed twice in a year brings the risk that Hughes will now be consigned to the ranks of the unfashionable, where David Moyes resides.
Sean Dyche says there is a present requirement for managerial novelty and stardust quality
Moyes’ replacement at West Ham, Manuel Pellegrini, arrived with the label ‘world class manager’ because he’d won the league with a team of superstars at Manchester City.
The appointment of Austrian Ralph Hasenhuttl brings stardust through the door and, you have to imagine, no awkward silences in the St Mary’s press room for a few months at least. Dyche will tell you Hughes will be phlegmatic about that.
‘Managers get a thicker skin,’ he said. ‘If it doesn’t work out, c’est la vie. They learn to walk off into the distance.’