Southampton must resist giving Mark Hughes the job long-term - even if he keeps them up

Alex Keble by Alex Keble / 16 March 2018, 13:32

The mild backlash against Mark Hughes’s appointment as the new Southampton manager is inherently unfair.

At a time when fans are becoming increasingly irritated by the safety-first decision-making in boardrooms, punctuated by the same few old British managers swapping jobs from one week to the next, Hughes has been placed in the same category as Alan Pardew, Sam Allardyce, and David Moyes – seemingly on the sole basis that he has grey hair and was born in the United Kingdom.

Hughes does not play aggressive old-school British football and does not possess a tedious or mediocre Premier League record. At Wales, Blackburn Rovers, Manchester City, Fulham and Stoke City (every club he has managed bar a brief spell at disaster-magnets Queens Park Rangers) Hughes has performed above expectations, creating competent and relatively attractive teams out of boring relegation candidates. In this respect, he is a perfectly reasonable appointment for Southampton.

But the managerial merry-go-round has sped up significantly over the last few years as the enormous financial strain of relegation causes mass hysteria in Premier League boardrooms, and with it the role of the modern manager has changed. The short timeframe of any given tenure, coupled with the increasing impossibility of bridging the gap between relegation survival and challenging for Europe, means a sense of vision - a grander project – is what the fans and players crave.

Paradoxically, the stability and pragmatism chairmen wish for (and that Hughes can provide) has now become unfairly synonymous with stagnation. It is easy for players to lose faith in their manager and slide towards the bottom in an era when no coach lasts much more than 12 months anyway, and so the abstract feeling of tactical progress has become more important than ever.

For this reason the perception of Hughes, whether fair or not, is more important than his actual qualities. As an older British coach without flashy new tactical ideas, this means he will almost certainly do little more than stabilise the club before slowly wilting as the players await their next adventure. Southampton, then, had best avoid giving him the gig on a permanent basis even if they win the majority of their remaining games and finish mid-table.

Southampton have tried to embrace football’s young idealists ever since “discovering” Mauricio Pochettino, and indeed pursuing attractive attacking football remains the best way for this club to knock on the door of the top seven and challenge for the domestic cups; both Claude Puel and Mauricio Pellegrino were exactly the right appointments even if neither turned out as planned.

Marco Silva remains the best choice moving forward, mixing brave attacking football (perfect to exploit Saints’ youth academy) with a public image as someone with a vision for leading Southampton forward. Graham Potter and Paulo Fonseca would also bring fresh ideas, offering an atmosphere of innovation and progress that Hughes – already firmly established in the public consciousness – cannot.

It won’t take much for Hughes to get Southampton going this season, picking up the two or three wins they need to secure Premier League football for another year. But success in this regard should not be confused with suitability for a long-term role at the club; to give Hughes a full 12 months is to risk turning Southampton into just another bobbing side, desperately treading water as they lurch from one “safe pair of hands” to the next. Is that unfair on Hughes? Yes, but that’s how the fans and players will see it, which is reason enough to avoid the temptation.

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