Ahead of Sky’s Manchester United documentary The United Way hitting TV screens on Monday, LiveScore’s Matthew Hill sat down for an exclusive chat with club legend Mark Hughes.
Read on as Hughes, 57, reflects on his time at Old Trafford, gives his thoughts on the current United set-up and much more.
Mark, thanks very much for chatting to us. The United Way sees yourself and various other Manchester United legends reflecting on some fantastic moments from years gone by. That must have been great fun to be a part of?
It’s always nice to look back at that period, yes. In terms of my playing career it was a really important time but also a very successful one — so it’s a time I recall with great fondness.
Can you tell us about your early memories of football? How did you get picked up by United?
I was actually 14 at the time I got picked up because that was the youngest age a club could approach you in those days.
I turned 14 in the November and by Christmas I was going around the clubs. I had been at West Brom the week before and then spent my week at United and, after a couple of trial games, they asked me to sign schoolboy forms.
Initially, I played for the B team every weekend. I had to get the 4pm train from Ruabon, change at Chester and then through into Manchester. My school had to let me go five minutes early on a Friday so I could catch the train! It was worth it though, I loved it.
You would quickly become known for your finishing ability. Is it true you were initially a midfielder?
Yeah, I was a midfield player as a schoolboy. But when I got to United, I wasn’t progressing particularly well and there were a lot of players in front of me.
The coaches could see that and I think as a kind of last roll of the dice, my coach at the time, Syd Owen, decided to try me up front. We were playing a Norwegian team and I scored a hat-trick, so that was that really!
I was quite a strong boy at the time and could handle myself, so I think that helped me adjust.
Your scoring record at the highest level speaks for itself. Looking back now, which goals stand out as your favourites?
There are three goals that stand out in my career and they are probably the ones I get asked about the most, to be honest.
One for Wales, which was a volley against Spain that probably got me a move to Barcelona. The other two were with United — the volley I scored against Oldham and the second in the European Cup Winners’ Cup final against Barcelona. All great memories.
Many consider you one of the greatest volleyers of a football ever. Was that something you always had a knack for?
No, I had to work at my technique really hard. It’s not something that happens by chance.
You have to work at a skill and do repetition day in, day out. Even if the coaches weren’t organising it, I’d take it upon myself after the session to get someone to cross balls in and I’d keep doing it until I was confident.
I guess I just always preferred volleying to heading so I probably spent more time on it! But yes, I harnessed the skill and scored some great goals with it.
In the documentary, we see United endure a tough period in the late 1980s before embarking on a period of great success at the turn of the decade. What changed?
Well, the key thing was obviously Sir Alex Ferguson’s arrival in 1986.
When he first came in, we were a bit loose in terms of how we behaved and the standards within the club.
I’d just came back from a spell playing in Europe where things were a bit more structured and that was something I’d really bought into.
Coming back to United, that’s something I could see that Sir Alex had changed from my first stint and I really enjoyed that.
That was all well and good, but obviously we still needed to get a trophy in the bag and thankfully we managed it in the 1990 FA Cup.
That really helped that group of players understand what was required to win trophies. Once you have that first one, things become easier.
Sir Alex was under considerable pressure prior to that FA Cup win — many even speculate it saved his job. Were you aware of that pressure as players?
There was always talk about the manager’s future in the newspapers, for sure. But at that time, we found out things at the same time as the fans.
There was no social media, so public opinion didn’t change as quickly as it does nowaday.
The main criticism seemed to be that United hadn’t won the league for so long, so with every passing year that we didn’t win it, the pressure seemed to go up. But we never really felt from inside the club that he was under any extreme pressure. We weren’t exposed to that as a dressing room.
Another man we hear a lot about in the documentary is the mercurial Eric Cantona. How do you describe someone like Eric?
Eric was certainly… different!
When he walked through the door he held himself differently. He had a different manner about himself. He trained differently, had a different mindset in certain ways. But different in a good sense — something we all discovered very quickly when we saw just how good a player he was.
He was Fergie’s favourite, without a shadow of a doubt! But we accepted that as a group because we knew he could help us win the league.
I’ve no problem with maverick players, as long as they produce — and he produced week in, week out. He was a marvellous player.
Before we move on to the current United squad, a quick word on Sir Alex. As someone who has gone on to be successful in management yourself, what do you think made Fergie so special as a boss?
I think it was his drive and his determination but also his resilience. He had an ability to get the best out of players and his drive was infectious, it changed you as a player and as a person.
The group that won the first league title was full of good characters, a lot of leaders. That group that he had were a reflection of his personality at the time.
I think he certainly mellowed with age later in his career — and that was another great skill of his. He had the ability to change because he knew that times were changing. He showed great adaptability and you need that to succeed.
Fast-forwarding to today, what have you made of Manchester United’s 2020-21 campaign?
Well, I don’t think they would have expected to be as close position-wise as they have been to Manchester City.
Obviously in terms of points, they still have a gap to bridge but they can use this season as a springboard to push City close next season.
I expect them to bring in some great players in the summer and push on again. They will need to go some as City are in a good place and have an exceptional group themselves.
But I can guarantee that challenging for the title will be what everyone at United is thinking about next season after the way things have gone this term.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has had to endure some tough moments as United boss but seems to have came through it well. How do you rate his efforts in the dugout?
Sometimes it’s a time thing for managers. They are in a position now with Ole where he has players he likes and support staff around him he is comfortable with.
He understands United as a club and I think sees him get cut a bit of slack, too.
Obviously he is yet to win a trophy and that is something that needs addressing in the near future, but they are improving. I think next season is huge for both the club and Ole.
You’d like to think he will take the club forward in the coming years. Whether or not he’ll have the longevity of Sir Alex, I’m not so sure. Football is a very different game now to what it was then!
Are you eyeing a return to management in the near future?
Yeah, I’ve had three years out now. I needed a break when I left Southampton. I probably needed a little bit longer away than I had after Stoke to be honest, but I jumped straight back in.
Obviously the pandemic has happened and that skewed my timetable even more. But yes, I’m looking to get back into the game now.
I still feel like I have that enthusiasm for the game and the drive. It hasn’t left me, so hopefully I can get back in soon.
What kind of opportunity would tempt you? A long-term project? Something abroad?
If you look at my career, I’ve had long periods in charge. I was Welsh national team manager for over four years. I had over four years at Blackburn, the same at Stoke as well. If you can get that time at the club, it’s great.
Generally that equates to delivering success immediately, so if you can hit the ground running you always have a chance of building something. I like to get a club stabilised and then get them playing the way I think football should be played.
I’m quite open-minded about my next opportunity, to be honest. My family have grown up now and I’m a lot more accessible to jobs abroad, too. But we’ll just have to see how things go.
Watch The United Way on Sky Documentaries and NOW on Monday at 9pm. It is also available to purchase on Blu-ray, DVD and digital download now.