Huge as the London Olympics have been, the pull of the Premier League remains an astonishing story as Mark Hughes, manager of Queens Park Rangers, discovered last month.
His club may have just managed to avoid relegation on the last day of the season but, as the team arrived in Indonesia at 11pm, huge crowds met them at the airport. And, on this tour, the match against a local team was streamed to 3.1million viewers in that country.
“As a player travelling with Manchester United, I was aware of the interest in the Premier League in the Far East but I’d never experienced it as a manager. It was a new world for a lot of the guys, a fantastic trip, a record for QPR. This club have ambitions.”
Such talk comes easily in football. It may also seem a touch ironic given that Hughes left Fulham last summer saying he wanted a more ambitious challenge, only to end up with QPR in January. He admits he had doubts about taking over the club who were already struggling to avoid relegation.
“I could very easily have let the opportunity pass me by because it was all based on promises. I had to take people at their word. I had to think: is this right for my career at this point and make a leap of faith. I was convinced by what Tony Fernandes [the chairman] and Amit Bhatia [vice-chairman] said and nothing since has made me change my mind.”
So, while the club plan a move to a new training ground, Hughes is proud of how he has shaken up the existing facilities in the shadow of Heathrow. “When I first came through the door, this building didn’t work for the players. What was happening didn’t lend itself to preparing a Premier League team properly. Now it actually works and we can benefit from that.”
Interestingly, this is just what 48-year-old Hughes and his ever faithful back-room staff of Mark Bowen, Eddie Niedzwiecki and Kevin Hitchcock, did at City when Thaksin Shinawatra took him there from Blackburn in 2008.
“A lot of the things that you need to call on weren’t at City — provision for recovery, preparation for games, all the buzz words that we adhere to. They were there at Blackburn and I assumed they would be at City. So we had to build City from the bottom as well as putting money in at the top. It’s been very similar here and that’s helped.”
Hughes has been busy this summer, letting 10 players go and bringing in seven. “We had to make ourselves more competitive. Experience in the Premier League is vitally important and we needed to bring good quality that understood this League.”
This search has seen the arrival of Ryan Nelsen, Andrew Johnson, Robert Green, Samba Diakite and Fabio da Silva but the key player is Park Ji-Sung from Manchester United.
“He is a statement of what we’re trying to do. We’re trying to be a club that has the ability to attract top players. A key player for many seasons for United, he was always involved in the crucial games, a player you could trust. He has the right attitude, right ability and can affect games at the highest level. He also gives us credibility.”
Not that it was easy to persuade Ji-Sung to leave Old Trafford. “I had to sit in front of him with Tony and convince him QPR was his best next move.”
Hughes was in an almost identical position when he left United for Chelsea in 1995. “I was 31, about the same age. It’s a big step to leave a club like Manchester United. You have to be convinced that it’s the right thing. I understand what Ji and other players are going through. So maybe that helped the negotiation.”
This personal touch also reflects how Hughes likes to conduct transfer negotiations, not based on video evidence or recommendations of an agent. “Ideally you want to get out and understand the player. Then, if you can look them in the eye and get an indication of what kind of individual they are, you’re less likely to make expensive mistakes.
“People suggest that I throw money at things but, if you look at my record, I like to think I know a player. The guys around me have got an eye for a good player and all the players I’ve brought to the Premier League back that up.”
For proof, Hughes can point to the legacy he left at Eastlands including Joleon Lescott, Carlos Tevez, Gareth Barry, Nigel de Jong, Pablo Zabaleta and Vincent Kompany.
This may explain why the pain he confessed to feeling when Manchester City sacked him in December 2009, following the Abu Dhabi takeover, is now a distant memory. “It was raw at the time. Nobody likes being taken from their position but I wasn’t appointed by them. There’s always that nagging doubt in the back of your mind whether or not they’ll back you. I went there at a difficult time. It was a great learning experience that has benefited me here.”
No amount of experience can equip a manager to deal with Joey Barton, a former City player Hughes inherited. His well publicised misdemeanours in the last match of the season mean he is not available until October.
Hughes has until September 1 to decide whether to include him in his registered squad of 25. “Joey’s a contracted player here and his situation isn’t what we wanted to go through. It’s difficult for him, difficult for us. Joey likes an input and to have a voice and I haven’t got a problem with that. He knows what he did was unacceptable. He’s been brought to book and he’s trying to turn it around. I’ve got to make a judgement on whether or not I can afford to put him in the 25.”
Hughes gives no inkling of what he might decide. But one thing he is sure of is that the Football Association’s decision to charge John Terry for allegedly using racist language against Anton Ferdinand will have no effect on the QPR defender or the club. Terry was found not guilty at Westminster Magistrates Court last month but will face a lengthy ban if the FA find, under their terms, that the case is proven.
“Anton didn’t talk a great deal about it. But it must have been difficult and he coped very well. Obviously, it’s still ongoing but Anton’s not involved so we’ve drawn a line under it.”
Ensuring the well-being of his squad is just part of Hughes’s role and he admits that the move from player to boss has changed him.
“I’m a bit of a different personality as a manager compared to when I was a player. However, there will always be a distance between me and the players and that’s difficult to overcome. That is when you have to have good staff round you to fill in the gaps.”
This may not have echoes of the Alex Ferguson school of management but then Hughes, whose relationship with his old manager was once considered frosty, does not see Sir Alex as a mentor, “I don’t wonder what he would do in a certain situation. But, given the amount of time I spent in his company, things must have rubbed off.”
Hughes’s career path could not be more different to Sir Alex’s but, with QPR, he seems ready to put down roots. He has a two-year contract so could he still be there when the club moves to a new ground, possibly in five years? “I hope to be here when that happens. If I am, that means we’ve been successful and we’ll continue to build and get better every year.”
What Hughes thinks about . . .
City will be buoyed by the fact that they’ve won the Premier League. But the second year is always the difficult one, and the challenge for top players is if they replicate what they’ve just done. That was always the job at Manchester United. I remember the first year we won it. Sir Alex Ferguson came in and said: “I’ve got a number of names in this envelope and these names will let us down if we allow them to think we will do it again just because we have done it once.” He never told us the names in the envelope. Probably there weren’t any names. But he’d got us all thinking that we had to show him that it wasn’t us.
I can see United coming back because that’s in their DNA.
Chelsea will challenge again and Roberto Di Matteo’s management will be interesting. They have spent heavily and look like they want to invest in young players as well, so there could be a lot of changes and that might involve transition.
I was a little bit surprised that Harry Redknapp went. He had a good season, although maybe it tailed off towards the end. I wasn’t privy to what went on but maybe the relationship between him and his chairman wasn’t as it should be.
They’ve got a new manager and a new way of thinking. I believe they’ll have a better season. Last term they often dominated but weren’t able to get over the line. I don’t expect that to happen this time: but I don’t know whether or not they can challenge right at the top.
I am an admirer of Arsene Wenger, just by virtue of the longevity he’s had in the game at the highest level. It takes a lot of energy and desire to keep on doing the job year in, year out. This could be a crucial season for them and they’ve invested in two good players, in Lukas Podolski and Olivier Giroud.
It is always difficult for a promoted club. Last year was one of the very few occasions that the three promoted teams survived. But West Ham have a huge following and if they get behind the team that can sustain them. If they get their home form functioning, then they’ll be okay.