’90s Heroes: Mark Hughes

’90s Heroes is a series by Adam Hurrey on the Bet Bright football blog which looks back on the legends of the game in what now seems a simpler time for football.

Duncan FergusonJurgen KlinsmannFaustino AsprillaJuninhoTony YeboahGeorgi KinkladzeDavid GinolaChris WaddleGianfranco ZolaNiall Quinn and Kevin PhillipsDion DublinRobbie Fowler; Stuart Pearce.

Some players are simply built for it. Gianfranco Zola’s genetics meant he could turn on a sixpence, Chris Waddle’s frame allowed him to swerve his hips round a full-back at will. For the tasks of winning the ball, keeping it, and then ramming it into a goal with as little fuss as possible, the footballing gods gave us Mark Hughes.

The half-volley to end all half-volleys – for Wales against Spain in 1985 – was his first notable scrapbook entry, but the 1990s – between the ages of 26 and 36 – was where Hughes perhaps performed his most accomplished work.

While hardly tall enough to be a genuine target man, Hughes nonetheless found an airborne niche for himself throughout his career. Technique, timing, power and confidence – Mark Hughes truly nailed the art of the volley.

Man Utd vs Liverpool, October 1992

Perhaps it’s the context in which it’s scored – 2-0 down at home to Liverpool in front of a building site of a Stretford End – but you have to admire the way Hughes treats such a gorgeous finish as if it was pure routine. Football commentators like to talk about “difficult skills” – most of which are a variety of first-time shots – but this genuinely is one: a side-foot lobbed volley, first-time, on the run, with the ball dropping over his shoulder.

If the quality of the goal is still in doubt, note that it comfortably meets the threshold for earning a brief Andy Gray pretend-conversation between goalscorer and goalkeeper:

“He has a quick look – there it is – sees Bruce [Grobbelaar] off his line and thinks: ‘have some of that.’ Superb finishing.”

It’s the sort of goal that usually only happens when an impending 4-0 victory needs to be polished up into a 5-0 one, where the crowd doesn’t really celebrate, just melts into smug, satisfied applause. But Hughes was often in the salvage business, dragging his teams back into games rather than daintily icing their cakes.

Man Utd vs Oldham, FA Cup semi-final, 1994

“I enjoyed the big games, the bigger the better. Some players have difficulty with that, which I find strange. I just soaked everything up: the game itself, the fans, I loved it, so more often than not I had an impact” – Hughes to FourFourTwo, 2007.

Such relentlessly sound technique duly lends itself to crucial moments.

The 120th minute of an FA Cup semi-final seemed as good a time as any to provide one of the first great adverts for the concept of Fergie Time, that occasional period of time in which even the most perfectly poised neutral would find themselves sighing “oh for f…” as United’s pressure finally told.

Oldham had broken the deadlock 16 minutes into extra time through Neil Pointon, and the scene was set for an exquisite Wembley de-perching of Alex Ferguson’s side at the hands of a neighbouring underdog. United poured everyone forward. Nicky Butt aimlessly pokes the ball in – it’s headed away. Lee Sharpe hopefully lofts it back again – it’s headed away again. Nicky Butt nods it back yet again…

At the moment the ball’s “hooked back in for HUGHES!….” the loitering No.10 still has three Oldham players – Pointon, Mike Milligan ad Craig Fleming – ahead of him in the queue to reach it. Anyone watching on TV, though, knew the game was up as soon as the camera hurriedly panned right to keep track of Brian McClair’s flick into the box. Hughes’ right boot finishes the job. Actually, it devastates the job.

United took the replay 4-1, won the Double, Oldham were relegated and are yet to resurface, and Pointon had to console himself with Dani Behr. 1990s football in a single, thunderous volley.

Chelsea vs Liverpool, April 1998

It’s unclear how a boy from a village near Wrexham came to be a Chelsea fan but, when United dispensed with his rugged services in 1995, the 31-year-old knew he still had plenty to offer at the top level – and the £1m move came at just the right time.

Hughes’ overall goal record at Stamford Bridge was a modest one, but his big-game temperament was undimmed. As the likes of Ruud Gullit, Gianluca Vialli and Gianfranco Zola began the process of transforming Chelsea into a perennial contender, Hughes added some much-needed steel to a still hugely inconsistent team. 

In his second season, Chelsea ended a 26-year wait for silverware with the FA Cup. In his third season, now 34 and with his curls now well on their way to grey, Hughes dragged them a step further. A stunning volley against Liverpool at the Bridge would be his fond farewell but, nine days before that, he had some business to attend to first.

A Cup Winners’ Cup semi-final against Vicenza was slipping away with 14 minutes left of the second leg, when Ed de Goey took the direct route with a booming punt upfield. Once the ball had fallen for Hughes, even on his left foot, that familiar body-shape gave little doubt of what would come next.

That’s not a volley, though – and nobody wants to have that debate – but Hughes’ final contribution in a Chelsea shirt certainly was, and it came against his favourite victim. The previous season, Ruud Gullit claimed to have heard a Liverpool player – with Chelsea 2-0 down at half time of an FA Cup fourth-round tie – claim that “we’ll be OK as long as they don’t bring Hughes on”. On he came, scoring almost immediately, and Chelsea won 4-2.

Fittingly, then, another win over Liverpool would be sealed with another Hughes masterclass in the art of volleying.

Southampton vs Newcastle, August 1999

Just as beanpole strikers like Dion Dublin move back to become centre-halves in their twilight years, the only logical pasture for an ageing 5ft 10in warhorse like Hughes – with ankles thicker than your head – was as a midfield enforcer.

In two snarling seasons in the late 1990s and his late 30s, Hughes was booked 28 times. Tasked with reinforcing Southampton for their relegation battles after leaving Chelsea, Hughes would score only twice for them. Fortunately, amid the blizzard of yellow cards, he hadn’t forgotten how it goes when the ball drops to you around the margins of the penalty area.

The ball loops between such also-rans as Ripley, Ostenstad and Soltvedt before falling within the remit of, as Martin Tyler calls him here, “Mark Hughes, the Great Volleyer!”

That such a volley had to be scored into such unaccommodating a goalnet as the Dell’s is something of an insult to the man and his craft, but there we are.

Manchester City training session, 2009

Hughes’ permanent snarl has continued into his managerial career. From Blackburn to Stoke, he has cut a consistently dissatisfied figure in the technical area, suggesting a manager who – technically, physically, mentally – is hard for a modern player to please.

With opposition centre-halves now out of reach, Hughes’ considerable reserves of passive aggression are frequently expended on unfortunate nearby fourth officials. Or Arsene Wenger.

Such is that post-playing-days frustration, it’s hard to imagine a manager more intent on showing the youth of today how it’s done than Mark Hughes. It’s not clear who arranged for this 2009 Manchester City training session to include – oh, look – a volleying drill, but my mortgage is on Leslie Mark Hughes.

Look at the way he waits, impatiently, for the pass. Look at the frankly absurd body shape he adopts to set himself for the volley that is almost certainly going into the top corner. Look at that connection.

Just look at Mark Hughes.

For the next instalment of ’90s Heroes, on Matt Le Tissier, check out the Bet Bright football blog on Wednesday.

’90s Heroes: Mark Hughes
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