By Jason McKeown
It’s madness, really. I mean when you think about it.
Another season, and another manager who our collective hopes are pinned upon to deliver success to Bradford City. You’d think we’d learn after Derek Adams, Mark Trueman, Stuart McCall, Gary Bowyer and a host of others. Managers come along, are quickly acclaimed as the saviour and yet soon enough the latest emperor is found to be naked. Their fall from grace swift and brutal. Before the next victim – sorry, manager – is found and we start the cycle all over again.
The cult of manager has been a powerful urge in these parts, and it routinely fails.
But yet, it feels different this time. The latest roll of the dice appears to have returned us a double six. Leslie Mark Hughes is no ordinary lower league football manager. Plucked, seemingly, from another galaxy. You still can’t quite believe he’s here. And more than that – he actually sounds like he’s enjoying it. Mark Hughes. Sparky. Hughesy.
Mark Hughes. The guy who as manager signed Vincent Kompany for Manchester City. Masterminded a famous victory for his home country Wales over Italy. Led Blackburn Rovers to a top six Premier League finish. Guided Fulham to Europa League qualification. Kept QPR in the Premier League. Elevated Stoke City to a highest league placing in 30 years – for three consecutive seasons. Saved Southampton from relegation.
As a manager this guy has dealt with Craig Bellamy, Roque Santa Cruz, Emmanuel Adebayor, Carlos Tevez, Clint Dempsey, Bobby Zamora, Loic Remey, Adel Taarabt, Marko Arnautovic, Xherdan Shaqiri, Bojan and James Ward-Prowse. The likes of Lee Angol, Levi Sutton and Yann Songo’o can be proud to add their names to this illustrious list.
For those of us a bit older, there’s also Mark Hughes the player. A fearless warrior, who performed brilliantly for Manchester United, Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Chelsea and Everton. One of the biggest names in British football over the 80s and 90s. If Hughes had been announced as the latest guest at Bradford City’s series of After Dinner events, you’d have been impressed and contemplated going. But he’s here for other, far more significant reasons. He’s our manager.
It’s easy to get swept away by the glamour. And in doing so, lose all sense of objectivity. At the recent Bradford Park Avenue friendly I heard one City fan say that even if the Bantams were at the bottom of the league, they wouldn’t call for Hughes to go. It’s a given that Hughes is going to get more time and more positive backing than the likes of Adams and Bowyer experienced. And part of that is undeniably because of Hughes’ stature in the game.
But dig deeper, and there are reasons beyond the Welshman’s football celebrity status to believe that – this time – it really might be different.
Firstly, the way in which Bradford City operated at the end of last season was hugely encouraging. The club had been playing an unappealing style of football under Adams that had turned off many fans. And it wasn’t delivering results. Everything seemed really stale, with the club hopelessly short of its target of challenging for promotion.
Hughes couldn’t alter a mid-table trajectory, but he immediately set about revamping the playing style. Introducing a more technical, attack-minded approach that was pleasing on the eye. Even though results took a while to come, there were evident green shoots sprouting up. Suddenly, attending matches no longer felt like such a chore.
There was warmness about Bradford City that encouraged your buy-in. For sure, you could see that this was only the start of a long journey. But it was a direction of travel to embrace and to want to be a part of. The season ended with three straight wins – a further indicator that something was beginning to work.
The tone was set by Hughes. He talks in glowing terms about relishing managing this club. His enthusiasm is obvious. And with it his motivations seem clear. Yes, this is a guy from another managerial world. But when that other universe turned its back on him and job opportunities were no longer forthcoming, the drive to still want to be a manager took him our way. He’s not here for the money, but for the love of what he does. And the obvious appreciation and gratitude he expresses to be here has rubbed off on everyone else.
There was a genuine low ebb just before Hughes took over. All that big talk going into 2021/22 had fallen flat. Best laid plans had resulted in no improvement on the struggles of before. And when a departing Adams taunted that City would not get a better manager than him, it was hard to disagree. Who in their right mind was going to take on this job? One of the most unstable managerial positions in the country where everyone fails. The club was broken, and it seemed no one could fix it.
Hughes’ appointment provided a vital shot of self-confidence to the club and its supporters. He reminded us that we are, in fact, special. And that whilst we have fallen on hard times on the pitch, that potential is still just as strong.
Hughes has continued that positive, front-foot style through the summer. He is understated – someone with his achievements deserves to brag, but Simon Grayson or Derek Adams he is not. He is calm. He is methodical. He is funny – really funny, actually. And more than anything else he is confident.
The plan – delivered with the considerable help of Stephen Gent and Ryan Sparks – appears to have been implemented smoothly. Player incomings have been swift, regular and – if we’re to believe what we read – pretty much the first choice in every position of what Hughes wanted. Even the unwanted departures of Elliot Watt, Paudie O’Connor and Charles Vernam have been handled with composure. The unruffled approach projected by the club is exactly the characteristics Hughes personifies.
You look at City this season and – if they play with the same style as they ended the last one – it will be really exciting. Hughes got a tune out of a squad last season that was made up of players not his choosing – and he managed to do that in the midst of a busy campaign, where time on the training ground and preparation was in limited supply. Now he will have more of the tools he needs. And he’s had a pre-season period to allow him to coach and imprint what he’s looking for.
Imagine what City will be capable of with this firmer groundwork in place. The reset button has been firmly applied, and on Saturday City start the race to promotion again. The squad looks stronger than last year, where there wasn’t enough behind Adams’ first choice XI. When injuries and suspensions inevitably strike, Hughes has greater depth to cover. If certain players struggle for form, there will be others waiting with a credible case to take their place in the team.
Even if success isn’t immediately evident on the pitch, these ingredients should allow greater supporter buy-in. We want to win games of football – of course we do – but if we can be entertained, and have a group of players showing bravery, we’ll be more forgiving and patient too. Under Adams we weren’t getting results nor enjoyment. With Hughes, we should be at least guaranteed the latter.
And that brings us finally onto the higher league pedigree of Hughes. That glamour. This is an unprecedented situation in the history of Bradford City. Mark Hughes is the 50th different person to manage the Bantams – but did any of the previous 49 have this level of top level managerial pedigree?
There have of course been some brilliant Bradford City managers over the years. There have been some big names at the helm – Roy McFarland, Frank Stapleton and Bryan Robson, for example – but they didn’t have huge track records managing top flight teams. There have been others who had managed in the Premier League – Robson, Colin Todd, Peter Taylor – but they were relatively short-lived spells at the top.
Not like Hughes, who was a Premier League manager for 14 years. Only five managers have taken charge of more Premier League matches than Sparky. Six different clubs gave him an opportunity. That kind of longevity and employability doesn’t happen without keeping up with the times, facing hugely testing moments and coming out the other side.
For Bradford City to have a manager with this sort of background is a remarkable moment in our history. And though League Two is a very different environment to the Premier League, it gives City a real edge and something very different to what the division’s other 23 managers can offer.
It’s going to be so interesting to watch how this works out. Hughes could give City a major competitive advantage over others, one that enables the Bantams to storm their way to success. Or it could come unstuck, the first time a wily lower league manager parks the bus on the Valley Parade pitch and gets their players to time waste and kick their way to success.
Whatever lies ahead, you won’t be able to take your eyes off this one. The cult of manager is a well-worn narrative in these parts of the last few years. But if there’s one manager with the respect, knowledge and leadership ability to make it work, it’s surely Mark Hughes.
So savour this moment. This feeling right now. Because whether you’ve supported Bradford City for 50 years, 20 years, three years, or five minutes – this is not the sort of managerial situation we’ve seen before. And we probably never will again.