The WOAP new season verdict: Mark Hughes is a remarkable Bradford City managerial appointment, and he can succeed where so many have failed

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.

Categories: Opinion, Season Preview

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13 replies

  1. An insightful article. If we can step back from emotional involvement for a moment, it might well be that we are about to discover something about managerial success – viz. whether, at our level, a talented manager can beat the divisional promotion specialist. Hughes has no experience of the lower football tiers and it will be fascinating to see whether such obvious skills as he possesses can get the best out of players of comparatively less ability than those with whom he has previously worked. So far it seems he can, but we have yet to see him under pressure and having to take personal responsibility for, say, a run of defeats. These are now his players, most of them recruited by him, and he will be judged on what they do. I personally have faith he will succeed. – where so many have failed – but the supporters must play their part and not start to moan if results are not immediately favourable. Next Saturday we embark on a marathon not a sprint.

  2. Can Mark Hughes deliver in league 4 is a massive question for me.

    • Looking forward to finding out

    • I’m not certain why the division he is in matters.

      The only negative will be his knowledge of players at this level. But he’s sensibly got others (like Hodges) to do the research on those players.

      For the other part, motivation, tactics etc – he’s got all the advantage. Players of the right stuff, will want to play for him. Look at Smallwood. He’s not joining if Hughes isn’t in charge.

      But it could take time to get going and todays team have been very underrated and I think we’ll start with a draw.

  3. Great piece. Patience is the key. He has virtually a new squad of players. They have to bed in together. We’ve seen 2 sides of this new squad. Superb against Sunderland but ordinary against Chesterfield. Mark will have seen this and his task is to prepare them for the Doncaster game. It will be tough but I will be more interested in performance as apposed to the result. It’s a long season. Continued improvement should be our aim.

  4. Absolutely right Jason, its definitely a moment to enjoy!

    A manager for Hughes’ manner and temperament as much as his stature is just what we needed to help try and stop this rollercoaster ride City has been on for the past few years.

    All fans want their club to win, it goes without saying – the real pull is that there is something that makes you enjoy the experience of supporting your club when you draw or lose too. 100% commitment and the intent to play attractive football are always appreciated whatever the result, and managers will get more leeway from board and fans when lean runs come (as they will always do) because the fans are not fed up to to back teeth of giving up their afternoons and evenings to watch dross.

    The style I saw from Hughes’ team at the end of last season rejuvenated me – I will admit that there had been a handful of home games I had been relieved to miss towards the end of Adam’s reign, almost thankful for an excuse not to take up my seat and waste another afternoon in the life of my teenage son too.

    Roll on Saturday – lets see what this season brings…

  5. The cityvent talked about us being a big club. That is right we are and should act as such (not in an arrogant way). We are no Sheff Wed, Sunderland or Ipswich but suffer in a similar vain, where the weight of expectation has the ability to paralyze us. Being an underdog suits us but unfortunately we are not in league 2 due to our size.

    The appointment of Mark Hughes and has seen by the recent player recruitment, will fingers crossed, provide a platform for club to climb back up the leagues. However, the players need to want this as much as the fans to truly make this a reality.

    Let’s get behind the club and players and ensure that VP once again lives up to being one of best footy grounds in the land for atmosphere and a cracking day out.

  6. Great article, the one thing you don’t really mention is the fact that MH ‘gets’ this club too – in the same way Parky did (and to a degree that Bowyer ‘tried’ to do) and that will also help if things start to get hard result wise.

    Let’s hope he also brings some of that ‘Fergie’ time attitude along as well.

    Can’t wait!

  7. This has got to be our best chance of getting out of League Two, for years. For once, in a long while, it just feels right.

    If this doesn’t work then I’m not sure what will. No it’s, no buts, we’ve all got to do our bit to get behind Mark and the team and maximise the opportunity that’s been presented.

    Saturday is going to be some occasion and we need to make sure the gloss doesn’t wear off and the atmosphere is maintained throughout the season.

  8. New Manager
    New Team
    New Season
    Progress this season can only be measured in not making the same mistakes we have before, too many times we have capitulated mid season after starting brightly and fallen away only to have a final push and fall away at the end.
    Consistency is the key and looking at the squad depth we seem to have players who can step up as required, with the new sub’s rules I am expecting us to wear teams down and stay strong throughout games. It is not going to be easy and teams won’t roll over for us, we have to be adaptable, be able to change tactics and formation during games if we are to overcome teams who come to spoil the game.
    As a group of supporters too, we need to stay positive when things go wrong, as the 12th man we need get behind the team and not allow our negativity affect the players on the pitch. If we don’t other teams will feed off this.
    Let’s make it a season to remember.

  9. Well, I for one can’t believe that a new season is starting this Saturday. I think that I am correct in saying that this will be the first time that I have seen Bradford City play a league game in July.
    Those of us who have supported Bradford City for many seasons we will be aware of the pre-season hype that has been generated before previous seasons. Personally, I prefer it when we are the underdog. However, with Mark Hughes as our manager (did I just type that?) I get why we are one of the favourites for promotion this season. Start brightly this time around and I don’t want to hear the arrogant boasting of 100 points. Start the season badly and I don’t want to hearing calls for Hughes to depart. I believe, rightly or wrongly, that a lot will depend upon how quickly our new look squad gels together, both on and off the pitch. Let’s hope that after 56 years to the date since England won the World Cup, Bradford City can start the new season with a 4-2 home win against what will be a tough game against Doncaster Rovers.

  10. I think he will mess it up

  11. Related to good starts and promotion, last season was a mixed bag for the final top 7 sides. Only 4 were in the top 7 places after ten games. Forest Green’s form dropped off badly in the last 15 games, but was the best in the first 30 games. Mansfield were bad, then good in the middle before tailing off and missing out via the playoffs. Exeter were most consistent but still dipped in form towards the end. Bristol Rovers occupied 20th place after 10 games but consistently improved their form, crucially in the last five games.

    Getting into the playoff positions would represent a good improvement on previous seasons. I don’t think we should settle for that, but it may be that we come close this season and then become a real force next season. Time will tell. Good luck Bantams!!!!! CTID

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