What are the real reasons behind Hughes snap decision to quit Fulham? And who are the club lining up as his replacement?
Well done Mark for giving the national press a story with plenty of legs just as the close season kicks in and every player bar those obligated to international duty is lounging by a pool with his mobile off. Four days on and Hughes bolt from the blue is still making headlines.
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A degree of slack-jawed reporting since Thursday saw a majority of hacks jump to the conclusion Sparky was looking to plug in to the rising star (not!) that is Aston Villa. While serving his notice period, and therefore technically barred from approaches by outside clubs, most took at face value the party line Mark put out stating, 'he was a young ambitious manager who felt he needed a bigger challenge than Fulham could offer.' At 47 you consider yourself young?
Within 48 hours Mark's name had disappeared from the top page of every betting index for Villa's next manager now Houllier no longer has the heart for it (ouch!). Hughes agent has come out forcefully in stating there has been no contact with Villa, nor indeed anyone. This however makes for poor copy in the tabloid world so the rumour gathering pace now is that Hughes is being lined up for a role at Chelsea, alongside Hiddink. This blogger has been suggesting for weeks that this may have been on Hughes radar as he prevaricated over his contract plans with Fulham.
Has anything concrete emerged through the haze of speculation? We learnt this week that Mark would indeed have been jettisoned last December had the side lost at Stoke City on the 28th. I sensed this at the time after the woeful capitulation to such an average West Ham team on Boxing Day. The previous month a sterile run of performances culminated with an awful home pounding by Man City - after which the chairman paid Mark 'a visit.' If you recall, it was nine games without a win after the 2-0 over Wigan on October 30th into that Christmas week that saw us slip into the bottom three. And the board had seen enough.
We now know it was the senior players, led presumably by Danny, who convinced the board to stay their hand. Bairdinho's unlikely double strike on the day stalled the executioner's axe, saved Mark's skin, and into January we turned it around. With hindsight, when you review the player's reaction with the coaching staff to the final whistle at Stoke you now realise the importance of that day. The team had done it for the boss. It was the defining moment of our season.
My theory in all of this is that, having got Fulham into the top half and added the bonus of the Europa League to boot, Hughes was prepared to negotiate on a new deal that - rightly- should have reflected on his good first season (without BZ and Moussa for lengthy spells). He'd not been panicked into any risky January buys, we saw three exciting young prospects lured to London when they had the pick of bigger clubs, and he was continuing to get the best from those players who had gelled so effectively under Hodgson.
But to really raise the stakes, push Fulham further towards the top six and combine that with a tilt in European competition, be competitive for the two domestic cups (Hughes maintained from last August he would not be fielding weakened sides there) and take the club forward, I think Hughes wanted a bigger transfer fund made available than the club were willing to provide. A proposed bid for Espanyol's Osvaldo last week may well have been the straw that broke his back. We shall find out in time.
As I don't foresee the club making any appointment in the next 10 days, I'll let the rumour mill grind on for a while longer before taking a punt on the next gaffer. But if my reading of the situation proves correct, as Vital Teddy has already hinted at elsewhere, unless Fulham wants to lose this Cinderella tag we are going to be ever cursed for our lack of ambition and/or ability to match the big guns when it comes to splashing the cash. Any applicants for the top job will need to journey down on the understanding FFC might promote Harrods, but we'd prefer you to shop at Quicksave.
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