Before he went to QPR, Mark Hughes’ reputation was still strong after a good single season at Fulham, which followed what was widely regarded as an unfair sacking by Manchester City. The reason he had gotten the job at City was because he had managed Blackburn to a top-six finish in 2005-06, and he got that job because he very nearly took Wales to Euro 2004, which would have been their first tournament for 50 years.
This is a man with proper managerial pedigree. Really, Stoke are appointing him for his achievements in all his other positions. He did amazingly well with tiny budgets at Blackburn, with inferior players with Wales and maintained the Roy Hodgson momentum at Fulham. Blackburn and Fulham were mid-sized clubs who needed a steady hand at the tiller and a good eye for a bargain in the transfer market. Sounds like Stoke right? Well, not necessarily.
Hughes failed spectacularly at QPR and underachieved to some extent at Man City. Both of those jobs had exactly the same remit; big money, take the club on to the next level. At City, he tried to ease in Premier League players such as Joleon Lescott, Craig Bellamy, Gareth Barry, Shaun Wright-Phillips and Roque Santa Cruz so that City could more smoothly transition from mid table to top table. Also snuck in there were Vincent Kompany and Pablo Zabaleta. His plan was actually working pretty solidly, and despite the heinous amounts these players cost, they were heading in the right direction. However, they weren’t getting there quick enough for the new owners, and he was sacked.
At QPR then, baring his previous experience in mind, he tried to do things much quicker and at a club with much smaller cache than Man City. City had already been growing under Sven-Goran Eriksson so Hughes was adding better players to an already good squad. At QPR he was adding wholesale to a squad that barely survived relegation. He had to sign, or chose to sign, players who were only coming to the club because of the money offered. He went on a trolley dash, picked up whoever he could and tried to see what he could make of it. Unlike at Blackburn or even City, there was no plan, no end game.
This is what makes his arrival at Stoke so interesting. Stoke sacked Pulis because he can’t take them to the next level. They are the third highest net spenders in the league over the last five years and still haven’t cracked the top half. So, this is kind of similar to Hughes’ Man City job because at Stoke he will have a relatively big budget. The problem is, what is the next level? The top ten perhaps? The trouble is that the Premier League mid table is so congested and teams can’t sign from each other as they all have similar budgets and ambition.
Because of this, he will have to pay bigger sums to get minor improvements to his squad if he shops domestically, which is a very dangerous path and immediately puts a target on his back. It won’t be easy for him to decide on a coherent market strategy. However, he has now got the experience of this type of job and should now know what not to do, which gives him a real advantage. Stoke have more pedigree than QPR and thus this is more like the Man City build.
The other question is about the type of football he will play and in this sense he is a good bridge to better stuff. His teams never played beautiful football as such, but it was much nicer than what Stoke fans are used to seeing. But importantly, it’s not too different. He doesn’t need to change things wholesale to get them playing better, as someone like Roberto Martinez would. He will be comfortable with the more industrial players and more tolerant of the creative players. As a former striker he has an empathy for creators and goal scorers, something Pulis never had, always preferring industry.
Stoke City have a rock-solid defence and goalkeeper, which is a good foundation, similar to what Hughes had at Blakcburn and Fulham. If he can find the right attacking weapons then there is no reason why he can’t get Stoke playing better football in the top ten. He will have the money available to do so and in all his previous jobs has shown he can spend adroitly. He needs to remember what he’s learned about pacing the change properly and he can be a big success.