x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Hughes is keeping his counsel

Following 'mind-game master' Sir Alex Ferguson's post-Manchester derby comments, the City manager is wisely holding his tongue.

Mark Hughes made his contribution to the footballing vocabulary the best part of two decades ago. After feeling the force of Sir Alex Ferguson's anger and witnessing others receiving a close-range blast from the Manchester United manager, he coined the phrase "the hair-dryer treatment".

As the manager of Manchester City, Hughes is experiencing something rather different: the tumble-dryer treatment. From across Manchester, he can hear Ferguson rattling and rumbling, a noisy irritant in the background who is hoping City stumble, tumble and fall flat on their faces. The past three months have seen a steady stream of snide comments directed across Manchester, from Old Trafford to the City of Manchester Stadium, and aimed over the fence at the bordering training grounds at Carrington.

The difficulty, for Hughes, is how he deals with them. On Sunday, for instance, he entered the media theatre at Old Trafford and discovered many of the questions were attempts to seek his response to some of Ferguson's less credible views. Manchester United, the Scot said, could have won what was a magnificent derby 6-0, rather than the eventual 4-3. Hughes would have been entitled to reply that, by the same logic, as City scored three times and hit the woodwork, they could have won 4-0. Wisely, he didn't.

Ferguson, with his idiosyncratic sense of timekeeping, believed Martin Atkinson, the referee, was perfectly entitled to add on the minutes that allowed Michael Owen to poach the winner. Hughes, predictably, disagreed. The older man also said: "There's a lot of expectation at Manchester City. They have to win something." It was a hint Hughes will have failed if he does not end the season with silverware.

However, that is not necessarily the case and it is merely an effort to undermine a rival. Yet, ever since Kevin Keegan famously cracked under similar provocation 13 years ago as manager of Newcastle United, Ferguson has been branded a master of "mind games", a much less welcome addition to the sport's lexicon. Actually, Ferguson's greatness derives from his deeds, not his words, but any manager who responds with a loss of temper or an attack on him and finishes behind Manchester United is deemed to have succumbed to them.

Equally, a cutting rejoinder to his former manager would endear Hughes to much of the City support and display his allegiance to United is very much in the past. It is not widely acknowledged, but Rafa Benitez's list of prepared "facts" about Ferguson served to enhance his status with many Liverpool fans. Outside Anfield, his January statement has become known as "Rafa's Rant". Ignoring Ferguson does not silence him, so it is a delicate balancing act for Hughes.

Thus far, he has taken the quieter option, which didn't stop Ferguson, in another jibe, calling City "noisy neighbours". Both Hughes and his chairman, Khaldoon al Mubarak, have been rather more restrained in their rhetoric than Ferguson. The Manchester City manager is not a man who courts publicity. Unless he is irritated by a referee or a result, his post-match comments are rarely the most controversial.

Indeed, "the hair-dryer treatment" may be the most memorable thing Hughes has ever said. But unless City falter, Ferguson will continue generating more hot air. Just how important is Luka Modric to Tottenham? Very, the last two games would indicate. It is not that Tottenham have suffered back-to-back defeats to Manchester United and Chelsea - there is no shame in that - but the loss of games has been accompanied by a loss of balance to the midfield. Against United, Robbie Keane was deployed out of position on the left; at Stamford Bridge, Jermaine Jenas, was introduced in an attempt to mirror Chelsea's diamond formation. Neither move worked for Harry Redknapp. It all suggests that, in the age of super-sized squads, some players are still irreplaceable.

It is no coincidence that with Ricardo Carvalho fully fit and restored to the back four, Chelsea boast the Premier League's best defensive record. Nevertheless, the Portuguese can consider himself fortunate not to have conceded a penalty when he tripped Robbie Keane in the 3-0 win over Tottenham on Sunday. As it was 1-0 at the time, it was a turning point. As Carvalho turned around to the referee, the exaggerated gesture of innocence should have been a clue to the official. As a general rule, the more he pleads, the guiltier he is. If Carvalho mimes a ball, it is a sure sign he did not get it in the preceding challenge.

Graham Alexander scored a penalty on Saturday. In one respect, there is nothing unusual in that: the Burnley man has well over 100 goals in his career, the majority scored from 12 yards. But one element made his strike against Sunderland different: it was his first goal at this level. The veteran had completed 900 games for club and country before appearing in the top flight. Approaching his 38th birthday, few deserved a Premier League goal more.

Ipswich Town and Tranmere Rovers occupy 23rd place in their respective divisions, the Championship and League One. It is all the more notable because of the identity of their managers: Roy Keane and John Barnes respectively. There are occasions when the maxim about great players rarely becoming great managers springs to mind. This is one of them. rjolly@thenational.ae