Defeat to Coventry brought dismissal by Stoke City, yet first game for Southampton sees him two games away from title
What a way for Hughes to make his mark as Southampton reach FA Cup semi-finals
Mark Hughes’s spell at Southampton may span only a couple of months, but it could leave him the answer to a couple of quiz questions.
He may yet join Billy McNeill, manager of Manchester City and Aston Villa in 1986/87, in the select band of managers who supervised at least part of two top-flight relegations in the same season. He could become the manager who was knocked out of the FA Cup by a League Two team in the third round and still won it.
That defeat to Coventry brought his dismissal by Stoke City. His first game for Southampton threatened a second ignominious exit from a competition he won four times as a player.
His new charges were out-passed and outclassed in the first half. So it is not strictly accurate to say he made an immediate impact. Rather, it is truer to say his half-time words sparked a dramatic improvement. He had been a hyperactive, visibly frustrated presence in his technical area in the technical area.
Words brought a result that animated gesturing had not.
“Second half, I wanted us to be a bit more dominant and play in the opposition half,” Hughes said. They did, providing a contrast with the passiveness Southampton showed under the dismissed Mauricio Pellegrino.
“We had to show a lot of the qualities and traits a good team needs to show on a regular basis,” Hughes concluded. “All in all, it has been a good start.”
Wigan had claimed a hat-trick of Premier League victories, including the leaders Manchester City, but there was no fourth upset.
“I think it was a bit harsh on us,” said Paul Cook, the League One side’s manager, but Southampton advanced to a first FA Cup semi-final in 15 years as Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg and Cedric Soares both scored their first goals for Saints.
The Dane struck after a gameplan of deceptive cleverness. Dusan Tadic aimed successive corners at the midfielder. Hojbjerg met the first with a header that Christian Walton saved and the second with a prodded shot to break the deadlock. Then, in stoppage time, right-back Soares ran the length of the field to finish after the catalytic substitute Nathan Redmond led a counter-attack.
“I am not quite sure what Cedric was doing that far up the pitch but I will forgive him on this occasion,” Hughes smiled.
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Perhaps it was as well Hughes sourced goals from unlikely scorers. He switched to 4-4-2 in an attacking gambit, but the enduring struggles of the strikers continued. The £19 million (Dh97.3m) club record signing Guido Carrillo is no nearer to opening his Saints account.
The recalled Manolo Gabbiadini spurned two glorious openings. He latched on to Nathan Byrne’s lax backpass, but Walton saved. The goalkeeper produced a still better stop to keep out the Italian’s penalty after Redmond released Gabbiadini and Dan Burn fouled him.
Burn had summed up Wigan’s belief when a giant centre-back embarked on a 30-yard solo run before the break. It was an indication of the confidence forged by their giant-killing exploits. Many another impressed, with Gavin Massey a fearless runner and Michael Jacobs suggesting he should be plying his trade at a higher level.
At times Wigan almost overplayed, forever looking for the extra pass. Their pressure should have brought more chances, though Max Power almost scored direct from a corner that caught the wind.
Nathan Byrne’s deflected shot rolled through a crowded penalty area, as if in slow motion, agonisingly close to Chey Dunkley and the far post, but finding neither a teammate nor the net. The breakthrough eluded them.
“I was fearful at half time because we had played so well,” Cook added.
He was right to be afraid.