I was with 14 thousand other people at Hughes’ first game as Fulham manager when we got battered 1-0 first half and came out second half to destroy a good Werder Bremen team. Strange match. I went away cautiously optimistic because I didn’t know what to expect from Hughes as manager and still now it’s too early to judge whether we will have another successful season or not, although the signs are good. We’ve played 5 games, lost none of them and won 2 including our biggest win for years so with Blackburn away coming up tommorow now’s as good a time as any to look back at the first few weeks with our new manager.
He’s been suprisingly honest about his expectations of the club when he came. From the sounds of it he didn’t think that we were as good as a team as he now knows, nor did he think we were ambitious enough for him, I think he actually turned us down before we went looking at Jol if my memory serves me correctly. Hughes was my first choice after Roy left though so naturally I’m pleased he accepted it eventually.
He comes across well in the media. Hughes talks well, honestly and with a level head, infact I was suprised at just how well he talked after the Wolves game when all Fulham fans, and Hughes too I’m sure, weren’t too pleased with the way Wolves played. I like how he constantly talks up the quality of the squad, it’s reassuring to know that he’s pleased with the players here and it’ll give them a confidence boost too. As a person Hughes strikes me as one of them people who are confident in their own ability but who are also quite shy, although he’s prepared to tell the ref what he thinks and he’s constantly standing up on the touchline. He answers questions with a sort of authority and the players seem to respect him, they have mentioned quite alot actually on how refreshing his training is, so good marks here.
Mark Hughes came in with 3 weeks left of the transfer window so he was put in a tough position already but despite that I think he did well. I’ve said before that the most important thing that he did was not lose any big players for us, and apart from Konchesky who wouldn’t have gone if we didn’t sign Salcido anyway we didn’t. There’s been a few comments like ‘At last a manager that will keep our players’ which is doing a bit of a disservice to Roy, we didn’t lose any first team players in his two and a half years (apart from Bullard of course, but look what happened there…). He’s brought in a few decent players has Hughes too. Dembele, a player which Hughes has known about for a while and tried to bring in whilst he was at Blackburn, already looks superb and Salcido seems to be a very good player based on what I’ve seen of him for Mexico and opinions from Holland. Halliche is a bit of an unknown quantity but as a 1.5 million pound buy for 4th choice centre back we have nothing to lose with him, and I’m sure he’ll do well. We lost Konchesky but other than that no one else despite interest (especially for Schwarzer). Probably what bugs me is what activity wasn’t done by Fulham, to bring in a target man as a back up for Bobby most of all, and now he’s out injured for 5 months now minimum we will have to change the way we play until January at least because we no longer have a target man. I’m sure we will adapt but I don’t think we will be as effective, so that’s something I think Hughes could have done better with. Overall in the summer we’ve made a profit on transfers, which is an incredible change from Hughes’ last job!
So he’s done well off the pitch and on it we seem to be getting together well as a team. As I say, we have yet to lose a game (although the only real tough fixture was United at home) and the results are decent. A point and clean sheet at Bolton isn’t bad, we matched United which is all you can ask for, we destroyed Port Vale, Blackpool look like they’ll suprise a few people this season although a draw is still disappointing considering the way we conceded, and of course most recently when we eventually got an result against Wolves which most people would have expected. Hughes hasn’t disappointed there. Nor has he disappointed with the performances which are arguably more important than the results this early in the season, when against Manchester United, Wolves and Bolton we performed well and Port Vale at home could have been double digits. I think we could and should have played better at Blackpool but on the whole it’s been good. One thing that does stick out in the memory is when we were 2-1 down to Blackpool and Hughes brought on Gera for Murphy. I thought then Hughes had lost his composure, putting Gera on would sacrifice team shape, and his next substituion was to bring Greening on to put Gera out wide which I think confirms it. Hopefully that was just a blip because knee jerk reactions as manager can be very very dangerous.
We’ve picked up a habit short term of scoring late goals, 3 league games in a row we’ve scored later than 85 minutes to earn 5 points alone. Hopefully it’s not something to rely on but it shows a determination in the squad never to give up, inherited from Roy’s squad more than introduced by Hughes I think but nethertheless it’s a good trait to have, and I don’t think it’s unfair to say that Hughes would take more risks in pushing for a late goal, for example by how far up the pitch Etuhu and Murphy played in the last 10 minutes against Wolves.
With a new manager comes changes especially when a manager like Roy is replaced by one like Hughes, and it’s interesting to see the differences. Obviously training is different, from the sounds of it they do much more work with the ball now compared to before when they’d spend ages in defensive positions and Hughes doesn’t spend as much time on the training ground with players as Roy (who always referred to himself as a coach rather than manager). The transfer targets are different too. Roy almost exclusively targeted English speaking players, disciplined experienced ones who have some experience of England or Scandinavia. He mentioned that he liked the traits in British and Scandinavian players and playing environments because they tend to have a nice balance between physicality and technique. Immediately though with Hughes there’s a different, first with Dembele who’s very much a flair player who dribbles with the ball (something not seen in Roy’s teams at all because of how it effects team shape, the closest is Duff but he doesn’t play the same game as Dembele), then Halliche who can’t speak a word of English and finally Salcido who looks like a winger playing at left back at times with the flairhe has in his game. Also different are the ages, Dembele and Halliche are 23 and 24 whereas Roy’s signings were all 27 and above with the exception of Riise, Dikgacoi and Kelly (Barnes and Okaka too, but they were short term deals, similarly Smalling was a low risk buy, 50 grand he cost in the end compared to 4 million for Dembele). It shows Hughes is willing to take more risks in player recruitment and with any luck they’ll come off more than they’ll fail.
Similarly on the pitch, Hughes’ Fulham plays more attacking and more through the middle than Roy’s. One thing that everyone’s picked up on for example is Etuhu being released to go forward more often than any centre mids did under Roy. We play more direct and quickly too, not necessarily longer ball but we look for an attacking pass faster I feel, as well as playing further up the pitch and pressing higher. It’s more ‘exciting’ for sure in terms of entertainment but with our Europa League run based on solid defensive performances, none more so than Shakhtar, I’ve grown to appreciate it! Away from home Hughes has publicly come out and asked for more attacking performances which I think everyone can agree with, not that our away form was hopeless (we were infact 9th in the away league table in 08/09!) but to push on we need to pick up more away points from home. Hopefully more positive results and performances will increase our away attendances too. Time will tell who’s approach is more effective, but there’s certainly exciting times ahead.
One sensible thing Hughes is doing is recognising the good work done before him in all aspects of the club. When someone comes to a new club they could be tempted to overturn it, to make sure that it’s ‘their’ club, team, whatever, but I like how Hughes appreciates that the players we have here are all talented and there are certain aspects to our game which need very little tweaking at all. Good and refreshing to see.
I saw an interesting comment though the other day that Hughes still feels like someone elses manager, and it’s very true. It’s all a bit surreal, the two and a half seasons with Roy Hodgson were so successful and Roy seemed so suited to us that it was always going to be hard to adapt to a new man no matter what you feel about his departure or the arrival of the latest Fulham boss. I haven’t heard many chants of ‘Hughes blawhiarmy’ so far this season and they haven’t been sung with as much gusto as ‘Stand up for the Roy Hodgson’ either. However, as I said, Hughes was my first choice, and he hasn’t disappointed. Some expressed doubts with his record at City but what he managed with Blackburn shouldn’t be underestimated at all, he did a really really exceptional job there, a club very similar to us which makes me pretty confident that we have the right man in charge. He also picked up an unfair reputation of long ball football, and yeah whilst he was physical under Blackburn but the likes of Tugay, Santa Cruz and David Dunn aren’t suited to direct football! So to sum up, we as Fulham fans have entered a very interesting and exciting period in our history, we have much to look forward to, both this season and beyond. Based off the last 5 or 6 weeks it may even eclipse the Roy years – but only time will tell.