It is not what you expect of the man who owned the biggest emporium of over-priced tat in the world, the man so ensnared by conspiracy theory that he routinely accuses the royal family of murder, a man pilloried by Private Eye as a swivel-eyed potty mouth. But it is hard to argue with the contention that Mohammed al Fayed - the old fugger himself - knows what he is doing when it comes to appointing managers of his football club.
Sure, the Fulham chairman hasn't always got it right. Giving Lawrie Sanchez the job of keeping the club in the Premier League wasn't perhaps the wisest decision he ever made. But not even those who have managed to accrue a profit somewhere north of a billion out of flogging Harrods are entirely immune from mistakes. And the fact is, Al Fayed may well have produced another master stroke after he replaced Roy Hodgson this week with Mark Hughes. Martin Jol may have been his first choice, but Hughes, you feel, has all the credentials to build on the brilliant work of Hodgson. He has precisely what it takes be an excellent manager. All he needs is the right place to work. And Fulham could prove just that.
Hughes did very well at Blackburn, a club in scale, if not geography, almost identical to Fulham. There, working within the kind of restricted budget that will be in place at Craven Cottage, he produced a decent team, uncovering one or two gems like Roque Santa Cruz along the way. A thinker rather than a ranter, a stickler for detail and an adherent of sports science, he brought stability to a club that had lost its way towards the end of the Graeme Souness era, imposing his own systems and beliefs without any overwrought displays of ego.
He was just quietly effective. His own natural ambition took him to Manchester City, where he became victim of the worst thing that could happen to a manager: a change of ownership. New owners at the club were never going to be convinced by the previous regime's appointment and he was a dead manager walking the moment the Abu Dhabi team moved in. He did his best, but he never really looked comfortable flinging their cheque book around. His body language when Robinho was signed clearly that of a man who knew it wasn't going to work out, either for the player or him. And he was right.
Fulham is much more to his scale. Particularly as Al Fayed has proven over the years - perhaps contrary to common perception - to be an owner happy to let his manager get on with it. Hughes will be given a budget - nothing like the eye-watering project he had at City - and told to do his own thing. The good news for him is that the ambition will be very much closer to reality. At City, he had to win everything yesterday. At Fulham, the instruction will be simply to build on what has gone before. Last season was the best in the club's history: a little bit more of that will go down very well.
To do that, Hughes will be given the one thing he was never gifted at City: trust. The fans are likely to warm to his quiet dignity, quickly forgiving that brief dalliance he had at Chelsea. The players will respect his credentials. His contacts are good: he will be able to attract in some decent talent. This could be the start of a very fruitful partnership.
True, he will have a tough act to follow. But in a sense a manager of his experience would not even have been in the frame had Roy Hodgson not done such a good job. It is fair to say, had Hodgson not been appointed two seasons ago, Fulham would now be in the Championship, scrabbling for survival, and Mark Hughes would still be biding his time, waiting for the right opportunity to come along. Hughes owes Hodgson, all right. Which will make him fit right in with everyone else at Fulham.
- Mark Hughes
- Roy Hodgson