Two Premier Leagues, four FA Cups, three League Cups and a trio of European trophies. Bradford City boss Mark Hughes’ CV is something to behold.
The former Wales Manager has taken charge of over 450 top-flight games – the seventh-highest total of Premier League fixtures in history – but it was time to hit pause on his career.
It therefore came as a surprise when he attracted the attention of the Bantams midway through the term.
“A lot of people said at the time, ‘what are you doing that for?’” Hughes explains. “That was probably people’s opening line. Even some Managers after games at times, but it’s what I do – it’s what I’ve always done as a player or a Manager. It’s been my life, so people shouldn’t be too surprised that I want to still be involved.”
Hughes – who managed at the highest level with the likes of Blackburn Rovers, Manchester City, Queens Park Rangers and Stoke City – took a hiatus from the hotseat in 2018 after leaving his post at Southampton.
But it took Sky Bet League Two to whet the appetite to dust off his suit and tie and take to the dugout once more.
He continues: “There is a question in your mind of whether you still have the energy or enthusiasm for the game to do the job to the level that I’ve always done it and I had nearly a three-year break, but I always felt that once I got back in, I’d know very quickly whether or not I still had the enthusiasm for it.
“I look back on my time in football and there have been very few times over the last 40 years when I’ve taken a step back. It’s a long time. I’ve loved being back and we’re all very excited by what’s ahead of us, so that question has very much been cleared from my mind.”
For all of his experience and silverware, Hughes was not immune to the fear of rejection, and faced a number of setbacks when he decided it was time to make his long-awaited comeback, after admitting to falling out of love with the game for a time.
“I started having conversations with people about coming back into the game, but actually, in truth, I didn’t get as many conversations as I would have liked or expected, which disappointed me,” he concedes. “I was getting a lot of feedback from Clubs that I’ve been out of the game a while or I haven’t managed at this level, so I’m not the right fit.
“I still view myself as young enough to do this job at 58 years of age. I think sometimes experience is not acknowledged as much as it should be. It can sometimes be seen as a negative thing, that you’ve been around too long and on the managerial carrousel, but actually experience helps you so much in this job, it really does.”
In dipping his toe into uncharted waters, he, by his own admission, risked his reputation, but there was something intriguing about a new challenge.
“When my boy who represents me came to me and chatted about Bradford City, he said to me, ‘hear me out, there’s an opportunity that’s a little bit left field than what we’ve been looking at’,” Hughes says. “He asked me what I thought, and I had never thought about Bradford, in truth, but once I looked at the Club and looked at the opportunity and the fact that they wanted a conversation with me made me want more information from them.”
His appointment turned heads after inking a deal which keeps him at Valley Parade until 2024, shining a spotlight on the platform that League Two can provide, but Hughes insisted the focus is entirely on the task in hand at Bradford.
“There was a part of me that was thinking this was a challenge and wanting to prove people wrong, but it’s certainly become less about me now I’m here and more about the challenge of really getting this Club going,” he explains.
“People from the outside will be looking at how we finished the season and see that we’re in a good place at the moment and a good option for players. I think it’s obvious that we’re going to have a real good go next year.
“There’ll be a lot of big Clubs who will have something to say about that. It will by no means be easy but that’s the challenge and we’ll make sure we’re up to it.”
For a man who knew so little about the nature of the division, he’s learnt so much in a short period of time.
Perhaps one of the biggest takeaways for Hughes was how much results matter for both the fans and the players, who pull on the jersey for their livelihoods on a weekly basis.
“I think the biggest difference at this level is, sometimes at the top level you make decisions that change players’ lives and release them for example, but as a Manager you don’t always get to speak to those players that your decisions impact the most – that’s not the case at this level,” he acknowledges.
“I don’t mind that though, it’s better and it’s healthier because you have that one- to-one relationship with the player, and you can give them the advice to walk out and go and be a better player for it.”
The West Yorkshire side finished the 2021/22 season in 14th – the same position the Bantams found themselves in when Hughes was appointed as the Club’s new Manager.
But despite sitting 19 points adrift of the Play-Off places when the curtain came down on the campaign, he was buoyed by what he saw, particularly in Bradford’s final run-in. The Bantams ended the term on a high, registering three successive wins against Scunthorpe United, Sutton United and Carlisle United.
“Coming in with 13 games to go gave me an opportunity to have a real snapshot of the Club and understand what was needed going into the summer,” he states.
“In the 13 games I had as Manager, we pretty much played everyone above us in the table, so I feel it’s given me a pretty good understanding of the division as well, so I know what to expect. I’m really encouraged by what the team showed me in those final few games.”
Hughes took some time to get his bearings after succumbing to a 2-0 defeat at home to Mansfield Town in his first game in charge of the Club, but he’s ready and raring to go for what’s to come.
“The season just gone doesn’t really illustrate what we’re about or what I want us to be about – next year we have to be successful,” he adds. “That will be the expectation and there’ll be a huge expectation of success and focus on that, too.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if some people want me to fail – I’ve had that a lot through my career! But there will be a lot of other people who want me to succeed and that’s something as a Manager that you have to deal with.”
European success and claiming every domestic honour on offer have made Hughes – who adopted the nickname of ‘Sparky’ during his playing days – somewhat used to the taste of victory during his career and he has no intention of leaving Bradford City empty-handed.
Nevertheless, he knows his latest role could pose his greatest challenge yet.
“Is this my biggest challenge in management? I’ll find out,” he answers. “Until I get right stuck into a full season, I can’t say whether it’ll be my biggest challenge, but a very different one, yes.
“There is a big difference between this level and the Premier League and what you’re playing for. I’m conscious of that, that’s something different I perhaps haven’t experienced before and therefore players need managing differently.”
Despite all the uncertainty about his return to football management last season, one thing was crystal clear to the former Manchester United forward – he will make it his mission to get Bradford, a Club who were plying their trade in the top flight just over 20 years ago, back on the right path.
The Bantams extended their three-season stay in League Two after posting a mid-table finish last season, but this marks a new era for the Club now that they’ve landed their man in Hughes.
“I know a lot of Managers like to play down the expectation of their group just so they can overachieve if they do well, but I’ve never done that,” he asserts. “I’ve always tried to raise expectation. I think expectation is important; important to the players so you can challenge them, but also for the fans. Fans want to hear that we want to get out of this division and that is our intention.
“We want to go straight up next season; the intention is to be right in the mix next year as the bare minimum requirement. I’m not going to beat about the bush in terms of that. For me, it was quite clear that the Club has huge potential, it’s got a huge fanbase and it’s underachieving.
“The excitement is there and I want the new season to start now. I’m ready and want to take this Club forward.”
Only time will tell how his latest managerial move will pan out, but if anyone can steer Bradford back on track, Hughes has the know-how to pull it off.
This feature originally appeared in the summer 2022 edition of the EFL Magazine.