CYCLE rides down the coast to North Berwick. Rounds of golf at the highly-rated Craigielaw course. Hanging out with professional golfers.
Being out of football doesn’t sound so painful as you listen to John Hughes explain how he passed the time during his latest enforced absence from the game he adores. However, Hughes could not now be happier that such pursuits have been curtailed as he engages with the task ahead at Inverness Caledonian Thistle. Whatever enjoyment he gained from these activities, they were forced on him after being sacked by Hartlepool in May. Now ensconced in the Highlands, football remains his natural habitat.
Hughes has enough self-awareness to play down the extent to which he despaired as he looked on from afar while vacant managerial positions came and then went again. “I’m experienced to know that there’s a life to live outside of football,” he says. He does admit to some frustration, but only when he went to watch games. “I would come back exasperated,” he adds. But he made sure it wouldn’t get him down for long. “You have to have a quality of life and for me to go out and play a game of golf or cycle down to North Berwick every now and then was great,” he says. “To keep fit and have my health, I realised that people would give their right arm to be in the position I was in where I could look after myself in that way. So I went and enjoyed it.
“And I didn’t worry about getting back in. I have great self-belief and confidence in my own ability and believed it would happen for me.”
Indeed, rather than obsess about his own predicament, Hughes found himself cast as a motivational guru for Elliot Saltman, the East Lothian-based golfer banned for three months by the European Tour for incorrectly marking his ball during a minor tournament in Russia. Saltman originally accepted the allegations but then recanted.
“Elliot feels he’s been hard done by,” says Hughes. “I asked him why he hadn’t appealed but he says he needs to take it square on the chin and get on with it. We talked about it and I just said: ‘go and play yer golf big man, go and win tournaments!’”
Hughes cherished these days at the golf club with his preferred playing partner and former Celtic team-mate John Collins.
“It was like going into the dressing room,” he says. “We’d have our lunch down at the golf club and afterwards we’d have our cup of tea. Me and Collins would be sat with the salt and pepper pots and the cutlery. We’d be talking about the game and tactics and all the golfers would be listening in.”
Considering he is explaining how he used earthenware to illustrate tactical ploys, it is no surprise when Hughes adds: “But I was missing it.”
He had already experienced a perhaps more painful period of exile after leaving Hibernian “by mutual consent” in October 2010. This led to a 14-month spell in purdah before being hired by Livingston as manager under Collins, his director of football.
Hughes knew he was on a hiding to nothing when he left the West Lothian club to scratch the itch that is managing in English football. While he enjoyed his spell at Hartlepool, stability was far from guaranteed at a club where there have been ten managers in the last ten years. Unable to prevent relegation into League Two, Hughes lasted only six months in the post.
“People say you got sacked because you got relegated, fine I’ll roll with the punches,” he says. “But we gave it a good go. So much so, I leave it on my CV. I went in and we had nine points – and I picked up 32. We took it to the wire and took a few good scalps like Sheffield United. But I loved it – the people, the environment. We trained at a great facility at Durham University. It’s a great hotbed of football, I’ve not got a bad word to say about it.”
It was also a handy two-hour drive from his home in East Lothian. It is not quite so convenient a commute to his latest posting in the Highlands. Hughes has already stressed that he is looking forward to basing his family in or around Inverness as he seeks to put down roots in the area. He has signed a two-and-a-half year contract but would like to become almost as permanent as the scenery that reduced him to awe last week, when he was presented as the unanimous choice of the Inverness board to succeed Terry Butcher as manager.
“This is a really precarious occupation,” notes Hughes. “Everyone wants success overnight but it doesn’t always work out. Sometimes you are in the wrong movie but I have a real feeling that this is a right good fit for John Hughes at Inverness. I am right up for the challenge.”