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Last Updated: Wednesday, 13 October, 2004, 22:42 GMT 23:42 UK
Hughes deserved a better farewell
By Dewi Hughes

Wales manager Mark Hughes
Mark Hughes' record
Played 41; Won 12; Drawn 15; Lost 14
Typical of a man famed for his no-nonsense approach as a player, Mark Hughes was frank in his assessment of his time as Wales manager.

Essentially his remit when he took over from Bobby Gould in 1999 was to qualify for either the World Cup or European Championship finals.

He came close - arguably closer than any of his predecessors since 1958 - but yet again Wales failed at the crucial final hurdle.

But the Euro 2004 play-off defeat to Russia almost a year ago to this week was the culmination of a qualifying campaign which brought pride, respect, hope and, above all, enjoyment back to Welsh international football.

And for that, only the most hard-nosed of critics would label Hughes' five-year reign a failure.

On paper, Hughes' record in competitive matches is far from impressive. Six wins from 26 is hardly a statistic to earn a job in the English Premiership.

But four of those wins came in the opening four games of the Euro 2004 qualifying campaign, ensuring Hughes a place in the history books by setting a new record of 10 matches without defeat.

That spell between October 2001 and March 2003 was Hughes' golden period - a time which should ensure a lasting reputation as a successful manager, despite the bitter disappointment of a losing finale.

He always stressed the Fifa world rankings meant little to him, but knowing that Wales made the greatest leap of all nations in 2002 - up 48 places - would surely have given him great satisfaction.

It certainly mattered to the fans.

Craig Bellamy scores the winner in 2-1 win over Italy
The win over Italy was Hughes finest hour with Wales
The 2-1 win over Italy in the Millennium Stadium will live long in the memory, and it will take an extra special game to match the thrill of that emotional occasion in Cardiff.

Back then, such were the confidence levels flowing in Welsh football that almost a year later an unprecedented 8,000 fans descended on Milan expecting another performance to savour.

It wasn't to be, and Wales stumbled into the play-offs after managing just one more point from two home matches in the remaining qualifiers.

The Wales revival under Hughes had been based on defensive organisation rather than attacking flair, but no-one was complaining as long as the positive results kept on coming.

He was even managing to persuade Sir Alex Ferguson to release Ryan Giggs to play in a few friendlies.

Hughes was also given support from the Football Association of Wales when he demanded the finances to bring a more professional approach into the Welsh set-up.

Even when he came within 43 minutes from equalling Wales' record of 13 games without a win after two difficult years in the job, Hughes was given the benefit of the doubt.

Away draws in Poland and Ukraine had given evidence that the days of conceding four, six and even seven goals on their travels was a thing of the past.

But when the onus was on Wales to attack - particularly in the second half against Russia - Hughes seemed unwilling to budge from his rigid 4-5-1 formation.

He was accused of being tactically naive for not turning to Robert Earnshaw, whose pace would surely have tested the Russian defence down the middle.

Earnshaw and Gabbidon feel the pain of defeat to Russia in the Euro 2004 play-off
Earnshaw and Gabbidon feel the pain of defeat to Russia
Hindsight is a luxury never afforded to any manager and had Ryan Giggs' shot gone in rather than hit the post, such criticisms would have been immaterial.

This was Hughes' first taste of football management, remember. He had no experience of countless club games to fall back on.

The former Manchester United striker never attempted to hide his ambition of eventually leaving Wales to manage in the Premiership.

But after promising to stay in charge for the 2006 World Cup qualifying campaign, there was a sense of betrayal when he announced last month he was joining Blackburn.

Would he have rejected Blackburn's advances had Wales have won rather than drawn both of the opening qualifiers against Azerbaijan and Northern Ireland?

Victory against England and Poland would have been a perfect send off.

Instead he leaves Wales under a cloud having failed to win any of his last 10 competitive matches in charge.

But now it's time to move on, and there is no doubt that Hughes' successor will inherit a side in better shape than the one left by Gould five years ago.

It is an ageing side, however, and there is precious little quality waiting in the wings.





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