Armchair Pundit

Hughes taking on impossible job

Alex Chick

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At first glance, Fulham looks like a terrific job for Mark Hughes.

They are a stable club with a sensible chairman, appreciative fans and an atmospheric ground. There is a positive vibe about the place, and they go into the new season with much the same squad that reached last season's Europa League final.

A far cry from the madness at Manchester City, who sacked Hughes last December when they were just a handful of points off the fourth place their owners craved - by the time the whistle blew in his final game, Roberto Mancini had already been given the key to the stationery cupboard.

Hughes has already fallen victim to impossibly high expectations once. Now he risks doing so again.

For all the condescending pats on the head doled out to 'lovely little Fulham' they have become accustomed to no little success.

Roy Hodgson has just led them to the two best seasons in their recent history; finishing seventh and qualifying for Europe, then reaching a continental final which they lost agonisingly in extra time.

Now it falls to Hughes to extract the same level of performance from a modest group of players. Old stagers like Danny Murphy and Damien Duff must hold back the advancing years; Brede Hangeland and Aaron Hughes must continue to play like Baresi and Costacurta; and Bobby Zamora must maintain the amazing form that might have taken him to the World Cup if not for injury.

And that is if Fulham just want to stand still.

Hughes has inherited an ageing group of players - not one first team squad member is under 25 - and he has neither the money nor the time to revamp it.

Where City wanted Hughes to take them to previously unattained heights (for 30-odd years at least), Fulham want him to keep them at a stratospherically high level. Hodgson did an astonishing job, now Hughes must do the same or be branded a failure.

It might just be the most thankless task in professional football.

Expectations are everything in sport.

Take poor Iain Dowie, handed the job of following Alan Curbishley at Charlton. Curbs had miraculously made a mid-table side out of the Addicks, but when Dowie failed immediately to work the same wonders he was done for.

Dowie was sacked by November of his first full season, quickly followed by the hapless Les Reed. Only once all hope of survival had been extinguished could a manager come in (Alan Pardew) and last more than a few months.

Likewise Sammy Lee and Chris Hutchings, who took the respective hotseats at Bolton and Wigan following periods of success under Sam Allardyce and Paul Jewell. Neither manager made it past bonfire night.

I'm not saying Hughes should start applying now for a job as Father Christmas at the Westfield shopping centre. But Hodgson has raised the bar so high, Sparky has a near-impossible task satisfying expectations.

The lower mid-table finish that befits Fulham's pool of talent simply won't do.

On the other side of the coin is Martin O'Neill, who timed his arrival at Aston Villa perfectly.

Between 1995 and 2002, Villa finished in the top eight seven seasons in a row. But a wobbly spell followed, and after David O'Leary dragged Villa to the depths of 16th place, O'Neill could scarcely fail to look like a genius when he restored them to their former status.

Coming sixth three straight years looks like a stunning achievement, when it is no more than Villa achieved with regularity just a few years earlier.

That's not to belittle O'Neill, who is a fantastic motivator and boasts an enviable track record, just to say he got to Villa Park at the right moment.

And Hodgson himself has shown deft timing, arriving at Liverpool at a time of deep depression and following a thoroughly miserable season.

The signing of an England fringe player on a free transfer was greeted rapturously, as was the news that the club captain is staying put. Imagine the reaction if they actually win some games.

All Hodgson has to do is return Liverpool to their natural level in the top four and he will be a hero. Fulham's natural level will almost certainly earn Hughes the sack.

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