May 11, 2018 / 3:23 PM / 2 months ago

Soccer: Safety-conscious Hughes goes from zero to hero

(Reuters) - It says much about an eventful season for Mark Hughes that in a week during which he has won so much praise for almost certainly keeping Southampton in the Premier League, he has also found himself being blamed for taking his previous team down.

Soccer Football - Premier League - Swansea City v Southampton - Liberty Stadium, Swansea, Britain - May 8, 2018. Southampton manager Mark Hughes celebrates after the match. Action Images via Reuters/Peter Cziborra

On the day Saints won their crucial relegation showdown with Swansea City, Hughes’ previous club Stoke City, who had their relegation confirmed last weekend, released a statement from their owners suggesting they should have sacked him earlier.

“It is right that supporters will question whether we should have made a managerial change sooner,” said Peter and John Coates, who got rid of Hughes in January. “With hindsight, we perhaps should have made an earlier change.”

Stoke fans accused Hughes, who was axed with the club in the relegation zone, of failing to organise or motivate a talented squad who under-performed amid reports of ill-discipline and open revolt. Few supporters bemoaned his departure.

Yet within hours of the Coates’ barbed statement, Hughes was lauded by one of his new players for his transformative work at Southampton.

Oriol Romeu said that Hughes “made a huge difference” since replacing Mauricio Pellegrino in March, overseeing two wins and two draws in their past four league games.

“He has been positive and tried to make us better players and a better team. He has done it and put everyone together.”

In other words, Hughes was acclaimed for doing exactly what he was accused of failing to achieve at Stoke.

SUPERSTARS

As a manager in his 19th year who has been in charge of six clubs and the Welsh national team, Hughes will appreciate the irony of his situation.

He was once sacked by Manchester City, who Southampton face on Sunday, for being unlikely to cope with the superstars they planned to sign even though few of them had a playing career as stellar as the one Hughes enjoyed.

At Friday’s pre-match media conference, Hughes did not want to hark back to a relationship at Stoke that ended in some acrimony, preferring to stress instead that Southampton are not yet completely safe.

“On Tuesday night everyone stepped up,” he said. “Being destructive is more easy to accomplish than to go out there and win, especially in the Premier League.

“The win at Swansea was a big step but not the final step. The focus and commitment has been unwavering ever since and we’ll be ready to go again on Sunday. Today I wanted to see the same focus we displayed [at Swansea].”

Yet it would take a sporting earthquake for Saints to fail now, given the three points and plus-nine goal difference that separate them from Swansea, who need to win well against Stoke and hope Saints implode against Pep Guardiola’s champions.

Another win would round off City’s triumphant season nicely by making them the first team to reach 100 points in a season, which Guardiola believes is incentive enough for them not to relax.

For Hughes, whose contract expires at the end of the seaosn, another huge effort is required before the subject of his own personal future can be raised.

“I totally understand that the club need to know where they are going to be next season. They are a very good club, a very well-run club.”

Asked if he would like to stay on, he smiled and said: “It would be a very good opportunity for whoever gets it.”

Even if he does not, he can console himself with the reported one million pound ($1.36 million) bonus he will receive for keeping them up which, given where he was in January, would represent a remarkable outcome to a season that had gone sour.

($1 = 0.7371 pounds)

Reporting by Neil Robinson; Editing by Ian Chadband

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