John Hughes out to make history with Caley Thistle

John Hughes prepares his charges for their European debut. Picture: Paul Devlin/SNS

John Hughes prepares his charges for their European debut. Picture: Paul Devlin/SNS

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HE BRANDED them cloggers who liked to fire high balls forward with all the subtlety of dead dictator Nicolae Ceaucescu’s ridiculously over-sized People’s Palace.

Like the bizarre 1,100-room construct in the heart of Bucharest – second in scale only to the Pentagon – FC Astra Giurgiu head coach Marius Sumudica, pictured below, suggested Caley Thistle held size and brawn but little in the way of artistic elegance.

John Hughes begs to differ. The Inverness Caley Thistle manager refused to be drawn into a war of words with outspoken former internationalist Sumudica ahead of a historic Europa League baptism.

But there was a quiet rebuke to his Romanian counterpart ahead of the second round qualifying tie in Inverness.

Hughes starred in Europe as a Celtic player in the mid-1990s and managed Hibernian in the Europa League six years ago.

He is no novice on the continent, even if his team still is.

And, drawing on those experiences, the 50-year-old Scottish Cup winner believes his team’s well-documented emphasis on passing and possession may be ideally suited for the looming adventure.

“I feel our style might well be suited to European football. We’ll soon find out,” Hughes said. “It would be great for Scottish football if we could go and do a number on them and progress, but it is going to be a real hard task.

“They have players with a pedigree of most years playing in European competition. This is our first time in Europe and we have to handle that, play the game not the occasion. Don’t be over-awed.

“Our style of football is probably different from most teams in Scotland.

“I’d say right now I don’t think we’re going to win the Europa League. It’s an adventure. On our day, I think we can give this team a right good game and cause a wee upset but we’re going to be big underdogs.

“I think we can give this team a right fright with what we have at this moment in time.”

Asked specifically about Sumudica’s jibe, Hughes sought to sidestep controversy.

“Their manager is probably talking about [Scottish] football in general,” he said.

“Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, so there’s no point in getting involved in any of that.”

One of Hughes’ closest allies in and out of football is John Collins, the Celtic assistant manager.

With the Scottish champions having faced Astra only a year ago, it was natural Hughes would call upon his friend for help on intelligence on last season’s fourth-placed Romanian top-flight side.

He will no doubt have learned of unusual happenings at a club who relocated from their natural birthplace, Ploiesti, to run-down Giurgiu in September 2012. The flit means they now suffer poor home crowds of only several thousand.

Adding to the intrigue, billionaire owner Ioan Niculae – Romania’s richest man – has a shady track record in business and certainly won’t be at the game.

Niculae was jailed in April for two and a half years for illegally financing the social democratic party’s electoral campaign, having previously side-stepped tax evasion charges.

None of this will be foremost in Hughes’ mind and even a good proportion of Collins’ football intelligence is proving of minimal value.

“We’ve had stacks of DVDs and information from Celtic,” Hughes revealed, “but even in the year since they played them there have been a lot of changes.

“There are 14 new players and a new manager, so they are in a transition. There are only four players left from the group that faced Celtic.”

The Caley Thistle side that triumphed at Hampden is mostly intact with important exceptions. Gone is the explosively-paced Marley Watkins, the powerful Eddie Ofere and the tenacious, creative team captain Graeme Shinnie.

As things stand, Hughes is refusing to be rushed by European deadlines – the first already past – into signing replacements.

Defensive midfielder Nat Wedderburn has been secured from Cowdenbeath, while Jordan Roberts comes with a lower English league pedigree. A clutch of trialists are vying for contracts, including former Atletico Madrid youth striker Dani Lopez, another whose main first team experience is drawn from England’s lower reaches.

“We’re working hard to recruit one or two players but the European deadline is not going to twist my arm and make me risk making a mistake,” he said.

“If we’re short anywhere it’s for a striker. If the right one comes along and it’s right for the club, we’ll go and do it. But it is important we aren’t rushed into a mistake.”

Hughes is clearly excited by the prospect of seeing players he has invested a lot of time in developing perform on the European stage.

“We’re at home first and I’m quite sure, here, they will come, sit in and try to counter-attack – and we’re quite an expansive team,” he warned.

“I remember playing for Celtic against Paris St Germain and we only lost the away leg 1-0. We fancied our chances in Glasgow but with the way the Parkhead crowd was we left ourselves exposed and got turned over 3-0.

“We will still try to play our football but maybe adjust the system a little bit for a little bit of protection.

“We’re no different to anybody else in Europe, if we can score a goal and keep a clean sheet we’re in a strong position in the tie.

“I’m looking forward to it. It’s historic. We need a full house with every supporter and even non-supporters turning out for the club, the city, the community.

“We might never see it again and it is one of them where people can say ‘I was there, the first day Inverness played in Europe.’

“My message is come along and help us out.”

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