The Mark Hughes era begins at Craven Cottage tomorrow afternoon with Fulham’s final pre-season friendly against Werder Bremen. Normally frendlies aren’t much of a crowd puller as they don’t carry much weight with the season just around the corner, but this one might just be a little different. The club will certainly hope so – given the hype they’ve attached to this fixutre in their marketing and e-mail campaigns this week – but the new manager’s first game in charge might give us all a few clues as to how life under Hughes might shape up.
The Welshman’s first week down by the Thames has thrown up a few bits of tittle-tattle in the papers. Today’s Fulham Chronicle carried an exclusive with one of his former charges, who emphasised that Hughes was far from an arm-round-the-shoulder sort of boss. One of the reasons why he might be a good fit for Fulham is that Hughes absolutely hates losing. At times, Fulham have been a bit too honest, a bit too nice and guilty of giving opponents too much respect. Whilst Roy Hodgson made Fulham harder to break down, the dismal away record didn’t exactly improve on his watch. You can be sure that Hughes won’t tolerate such travel sickness.
Much of the media attention has centred around how Hughes might respond to the aspirations of his former employers at Manchester City. Questions about the Eastlands outfit took up most of the broadcast boys’ time at his first press conference and the transfer speculation has seen plenty of players who featured under Hughes at the City of Manchester Stadium linked to Fulham. Names like Joe Hart, Stephen Ireland and, especially, Craig Bellamy have been mentioned, but all we seem to know for certain is that Steve Sidwell won’t be completing a move that seemed to have been lined up prior to Hodgson’s exit.
The fans would be wise to dampen down expectations ahead of tomorrow’s test against a strong Werder Bremen side. The new manager will have had the best part of five days with the players and seems to have spent some of that time trying to impress upon Mark Schwarzer and Paul Konchesky that they are integral to making further progress at Fulham and shouldn’t be tempted by a move elsewhere. What will be most interesting will be just what time of side Hughes builds over time.
Those who dismiss Hughes as a rough and ready manager dismiss all too easily just how attractive his City side could be. Equally, they place greater weight on the style of football employed by Blackburn than some of the lovely stuff that took Wales to the brink of qualifying for Euro 2004. Whether his international experience will see Simon Davies regain a regular starting spot remains to be seen. If Davies does get back in, does this mean Clint Dempsey will have to prove himself to another coach?
There will, undoubtedly, be changes in the method. This season’s football might not be as possession-orentiated as during the latter stages of Hodgson’s reign, but it will probably be a bit quicker and sharper as Hughes isn’t as much of a football scientist as his predecessor.
I’ve seen questions asked elsewhere about the formation he might employ. Given the dearth of striking options at the club currently, he might have to adopt the ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ mantra in the short-term. Hughes might have played with a front three at Manchester City, but that struck me as the only way to shoehorn the array of creative and attacking talent into an eleven rather than his favoured formation. Unless he brings in a partner for Bobby Zamora, Hughes might have to start the season the way Fulham ended the last campaign, with Zoltan Gera playing behind Zamora, and Dempsey providing a goal threat from the bench.
The lateness of this managerial appointment means the first few weeks of the season will be a ‘getting to know you’ phase. That should certainly make things interesting.