Next up in our ‘Top Boyos’ series is one of the all-time Welsh centre forwards: Mark Hughes. Steven Carroll reveals why he’s one of his favourite ever Welsh players. Steven is currently editor of Swansea City fanzine ‘Swansea Oh Swansea‘.
He was the type of player you loved if he was on your side and hated if he played for the opposition. Never say die attitude, strong on the ball, one of the deadliest volley’s in the game, good in the air and at linking play and a true leader. Sir Alex Ferguson once described him as “the best big game player I have known” and with his record of scoring six goals in cup finals and numerous top of the table clashes it’s easy to see why.
Mark “Sparky” Hughes was born in Wrexham in 1963 and signed schoolboy forms with Manchester United in the summer of 1980 after leaving school. He had to wait over three years to make his debut but when he did he joined the elusive club of scoring on his Red Devils debut against Oxford United in a League Cup tie at the Manor Ground.
Over the next two and a half season’s he established himself as first choice striker at Old Trafford alongside Frank Stapleton and in 1985 he won the PFA Young Player of the Year award which coincided with his first major honour – the FA Cup after Norman Whiteside’s extra time strike prevented league champions Everton completing the double.
Hughes had the most productive campaign in terms of league goals scored in the next campaign when he netted seventeen times but it wasn’t enough to help United win the league as they finished 4th. Due to the Heysel disaster twelve months earlier a lot of British players were looking to move abroad in the late 1980’s to taste European football and Barcelona manager Terry Venables used this to his advantage when he tempted Hughes to the Nou Camp to form a partnership with Gary Lineker for a fee of £2 million.
His spell in Catalunya wasn’t a successful one however as he scored only four times in twenty eight appearances (you can read about Mark Hughes’ troubled time at Barcelona on Lost Boyos here) and was loaned to Bayern Munich where he fared a little better with six strikes in eighteen games.
During his time on the continent Ron Atkinson had been replaced at Manchester United by Alex Ferguson but fortunately for Sparky the new manager was looking for a new striker and parted with a then club record £1.8 million to bring him back to the club. It proved to be an inspired decision and in his first year back at Old Trafford he won the PFA Player of the Year award thus becoming the first United man to win the award in its sixteen year history.
Club honours in England continued to evade him though with that solitary FA Cup success still his only major winner’s medal. In 1989 Ferguson’s job was under threat and a game at Nottingham Forest in the FA Cup was regarded as a do or die one for the manager. Fortunately for Fergie his team won 1-0 after Sparky’s cross was headed home by Mark Robins and four months later they found themselves in the final against Crystal Palace. This was where Hughes came into his own. He was first to react to a loose ball and blasted it home with his left foot to put his side in front in the second half and came to their rescue late in extra time with a controlled right foot finish to force a replay which was won 1-0 through a Lee Martin goal.
The ban on English clubs playing in Europe had now been lifted which meant United would get to showcase their talent in the Cup Winners Cup the following season. Ferguson guided his team to the final where they would meet Johan Cruyff’s Barcelona who were favourites for the tie. After a goalless first half Steve Bruce’s head met Bryan Robson’s free kick which was going to treacle over the line but Hughes made sure as he tapped the ball in from a barely a yard in the 67th minute. Just seven minutes later Hughes found himself in on Barca keeper Carles Busquets but it looked as if he’d blown his chance after he knocked the ball very wide after rounding him. The Welshman was not to be denied though as he unleashed an unstoppable first time shot before the goalkeeper returned to his line which was enough for United to celebrate their first European triumph in twenty three years.
The league was the one Hughes and his team-mates really wanted though and they once again missed out in 1991/2 finishing in 2nd place behind Leeds, but he did at least have the consolation prize of a League Cup winner’s medal as his team saw off Nottingham Forest and he once again was awarded PFA Player of Year from his fellow professionals.
The wait for the title was finally ended in the following campaign and Hughes top scored with fifteen league goals – a number of them crucial strikes including two against arch rivals Liverpool, a winner against early pace setters Norwich, an equaliser to prevent main title rivals Aston Villa winning at Old Trafford and his volley which helped secure an unassailable championship lead at Crystal Palace was his 100th league goal for the club.
It was back to his trademark of scoring at Wembley 1993/4 as he scored in front of the Twin Towers in three different matches. The first of these was a mere consolation as United lost to Villa 3-1 but in the FA Cup semi-final he scored arguably his most famous and best goal for the club. In the dying minutes of extra time Oldham were on the verge of a shock win and place in the final but after Roy Keane hooked the ball into the box one last time there was Sparky who volleyed the ball into the corner to give United a replay which they comfortably won 4-1. The final itself of course wouldn’t have been complete without a Sparky goal and he duly delivered it in the 68th minute in a crushing 4-0 win over Chelsea and after the league title was successfully defended a few weeks earlier United had completed their first ever double.
The next season turned out to be his last at Old Trafford as he moved to Chelsea in the summer of 1995 after fearing for his first team place following the arrival of Andy Cole. United surrendered the Premier League crown to Blackburn by one point and lost the Cup final to Everton meaning a season without a major honour for the first time since 1988/9. He scored 163 goals in 467 games over his two spells at the club and remains popular amongst the supporters to this day.
They say the only way is down after leaving Manchester United, but Hughes proved there was life in old dog yet scoring 39 times in 123 games at Stamford Bridge. He formed a potent partnership with Gianfranco Zola and in 1997 added a fourth FA Cup to his CV after the Blues defeated Middlesbrough and followed it up in 1998 with the League Cup and Cup Winners Cup after beating Stuttgart 1-0 in Stockholm.
This was Sparky’s last major honour and he finished his career four years later at the age of 38 after spells with Southampton, Everton and Blackburn.
On the international front Sparky appeared 72 times for Wales scoring 16 times which was a slightly disappointing return considering his ability. There were some great moments for Hughes in the red of Wales though such as when he scored the winner on his debut against England and an acrobatic volley in a 3-0 victory over Spain in qualifying for the 1986 World Cup. That campaign was the closest he would ever get to a major championship with a late Scotland equaliser in the final group game denying Wales the opportunity to go to Mexico.
After he finished playing he turned his attention to management and took over Wales in 1999 – and turned around the team’s fortunes and oversaw one of the greatest night’s ever for the national team with Italy being toppled 2-1 in the Millennium Stadium in the qualifying campaign for Euro 2004. The campaign culminated in a two legged Play-Off with Russia for a place at the finals but like so many other times with Wales it ended in disappointment with a 0-1 home defeat in the second leg killing off all hopes.
Soon afterwards Hughes moved onto Blackburn and has since managed Manchester City, Fulham, QPR and was recently appointed as the new boss at Stoke City. It remains to be seen how he will do in his latest position but whatever your thoughts on Sparky the manager – never forget that Sparky the player was one of the finest to ever be raised from these shores.
Steven Carroll (@StevenSOS1987)