John Hughes can remember the exact moment his managerial career began in earnest. He has former assistant Brian Rice to thank for ensuring he concentrated fully on the job in hand, rather than try to juggle both playing and managing, as he was attempting to do at Falkirk.
“I sit back and look at my career and there is satisfaction there,” Hughes said yesterday. “Not many players play on until they are 40 – that’s an achievement in itself.
“I played until ‘Chipper’ Rice subbed me against Clyde one day. I was player-manager and went off my heid. He turned to me and said, ‘you’re finished.’ And I was. I never played again, that was it.”
Of course, now 50, he wouldn’t be playing now in any case, even if being allowed by assistants more indulgent than Rice to carry on. But the decade-long immersion in solely coaching has paid dividends.
On Sunday night Hughes was crowned manager of the year at the PFA Scotland awards dinner, proof he was right not to get too anxious about a recent spell out of the game before being hired by Inverness Caledonian Thistle.
“Honestly, if I’m not in the game, I get on with it,” he said. “I’m a painter and decorator by trade. I get on with it and would go and do something else.”
Still, Hughes being Hughes, you can tell this recognition from his peers has counted for a lot. While journalists might not all be his cup of builders’ – or should that be painter and decorators’ – tea, he is in line to lift the Scottish Football Writers’ Award later this month as well.
It is quite a turnaround in fortunes for Hughes, who, after being sacked by Hartlepool, spent seven months wondering if he really would have to pursue other options before landing such an attractive post in the Highlands. Many expected the job of maintaining the team’s form under Terry Butcher would be beyond him.
But not only has he managed to maintain it, he has improved it. This is despite being nominated as the bookmakers’ favourite to be first Premiership manager to get the sack at the start of this season.
The club now stand third in the league, and could go a long way to securing this position with victory over Dundee United tonight. They also have the little matter of a Scottish Cup final later this month against Falkirk, hence Hughes being selected over three other candidates in Aberdeen’s Derek McInnes, Hearts’ Robbie Nielson and Ronny Deila, winner of the league title and League Cup.
Has he surprised himself by such a swift return to prominence following his departure from Hartlepool, which he contends was harsh in any case?
“I wanted to try Hartlepool,” he said. “Was it the wrong club at the wrong time? Certainly not, because it’s a fantastic hotbed of football and when they stayed up [in League Two, following a relegation battle this season] I was so delighted.
“I loved it down there and keep saying, the people and the characters I met there are still friends. That’s what football does for me. Never forget we are competitive and get stuck in. But it’s the people that make it unique. Hartlepool got relegated when I was there, but I went in with nine points, took them to the second last game of the season, never got a lot of money to bring a player in and had to work with what I had. I just about pulled it out the bag, but if I had gone in at the start of the season we would have finished in the top half of the league.”
This wasn’t the first time he got the sack. This first chastening experience occurred at Hibs, which was hard to bear for such a proud son of Leith.
He earned the opportunity to manage at Easter Road after leading Falkirk to the Scottish Cup final in 2009. He also helped implement a youth academy at the club that is still bearing fruit to this day.
“I thought, ‘here we go’,” said Hughes. “It never really materialised as I planned at Hibs, but to get them fourth and a European spot was success. It’s pointless looking back at that, you need to take it on the chin. It’s probably the first time I ever got the sack as a manager. But you realise you’re not actually a manager until you have been sacked.”
He has earned his spurs, certainly. He described it as “fantastic” to get the opportunity to return to football at a club like Inverness, where he emerged slightly from left-field to secure the vacant post.
Younger candidates such as Paul Hartley, then at Alloa, had been linked with the position. “It’s great for me at this time and this age,” said Hughes. “It’s been an exercise in re-focusing and getting myself going again. I hope the chairman [Kenny Cameron] takes credit from this award too,” he added. “It’s a unique special club. We have not got much, in fact we have next to nothing.”
Hughes pointed out that the club does not even have a gym. However, when he heads to the dressing-room, he find players doing press-ups and sit-ups on the floor. Whether they win the cup or not at Hampden on 30 May, he will be fiercely proud of the achievements of everyone connected with the club.
“We are small in numbers and supporters as well,” Hughes said. “They are vocal, they get right behind the team, it’s a slower way of life, but what it does when you have nothing is rear guys who really care about the club.
“They put their heart and soul into the football club,” he added. “Real special people, from the groundsman right through to the chairman. And the lassies in the office. They make it special. It’s a good place to be.”