He is enchanted by what he sees. The presents around his Christmas tree include a team who are going places and a club where they like to look after their managers. He has also found a place where managers tend to prosper.
Another gift is the surroundings. Hughes looked out from the Inverness boardroom yesterday afternoon and saw the Moray Firth stretched out before him in all its tranquil splendour. To the north lay the frozen banks of the Black Isle, where seals often frolic, and to the east, a bejewelled coastline near which stands Castle Stuart, the recent venue for the Scottish Open. “Not bad, eh?” he smiled as he took in the vista.
He has been spending his time out of football since being sacked by Hartlepool playing golf, mostly with John Collins, his old team-mate with Celtic and, more recently, the director of football to whom he reported at Livingston. But you get the feeling that Hughes has more than happily returned his clubs to the golf bag. He is here to work – “to give a good honest day’s shift”, as he put it yesterday – and to embed both himself and his family in the local community. He described it as “an honour and a privilege” to be the new manager of Inverness Caledonian Thistle.
His 11-year-old twin daughters are already giddy in anticipation at viewing the sights that are a pleasing bonus of this particular relocation. Hartlepool offered fewer prospects for spotting a multi-humped monster skimming across the surface of a loch.
“I have a two-and-a-half-year contract and hopefully I am up here for a lot longer than that,” said Hughes, who turns 50 next September.
“I will really immerse myself into the fabric and character of the city and people of Inverness. It is important you get a real feel for it. It is important that the supporters see their manager really has the club at heart, wants to move it forward and give it his best shot. That is vital so the supporters can relate to you.
“I already have a feel for it,” he added.
He likes to take car journeys around an area he does not know well and get to know it by taking wrong turns and exploring the byways.
“I am not going to immerse myself in just the history and the fabric of this football club, but also the community,” he said. “I think that is important. I had the kids on this morning and they are wondering about the Loch Ness monster and when can they come up and see it.
“When the time is right they will come up. That is important and it will suit me being up here and letting me get on with the football and lifestyle. It’s a beautiful part of the world.”
It hasn’t always been known as football country. Now, however, it most certainly deserves to be termed so, even if the crowds remain lower than the efforts of both Inverness and Ross County deserve. As recently as a few years ago, someone with Hughes’ ambitions would not necessarily see a move to the Highlands as a step forward. Now it is provoking raised eyebrows only because Inverness are viewed as more dynamic than to be appointing managers who are already out of work following a less than distinguished spell in League One with Hartlepool.
It wouldn’t do for Hughes to emphasise how lucky he feels to have landed this opportunity. Anyway, he would argue that he deserves to be here, taking in the sights, making plans for this weekend’s trip to St Mirren. He earned his spurs at Falkirk and Hibs, where events of recent years help support his claim that they were too hasty to dispense with his services.
But for the casual observer looking on, perhaps the first reaction to his appointment as Inverness manager is that he has been very fortunate indeed. Managers who have lost their job at Hartlepool don’t tend to find that their next role is at a club lying second in the top division in Scotland, just five points behind Celtic. Indeed, it is not beyond the realms of possibility that come Saturday, when Hughes watches his side for the first time – he hasn’t decided yet whether to sit in the dug-out or let youth coach Duncan Shearer try for a third win under his temporary charge – they could well be aiming to narrow the gap at the top to just two points. Celtic, of course, have a potentially tricky fixture to negotiate at Motherwell tomorrow night.
Hughes has obviously interviewed well. The impression gained yesterday is that Inverness and Hughes are a good fit. He said that while watching Falkirk host Rangers in the Scottish Cup last Saturday he calculated that six of the home side’s first-team were graduates of the club’s academy, which he did so much to help develop during his time in charge.
“In my interview process that is what I said: ‘I like to give local guys a chance and get them through the system.’ There is nothing better for home supporters than seeing their own.”
Hughes also has a good record in scouting talent in England, where he retains good contacts. The new manager has been quick to ensure influential skipper Richie Foran is on side. “He will be my go-to man in that dressing room and I know he runs that dressing-room and to a standard and level that is required by Inverness,” said Hughes.
He been heartened by the texts he has received in the short time since it was first reported that he looked set to be appointed. They have come from former players like Scott Arfield and Tam Scobbie, who he managed at Falkirk. Anthony Stokes even posted a tweet yesterday praising the appointment by Inverness. “Loved working with him,” the Celtic striker wrote, with reference to their time together at both Falkirk and Hibs. “I’m sure he’ll do very well there.”
Hughes also received a message from Owen Coyle on Tuesday night despite his old friend’s disappointment at being sacked by Wigan just over 24 hours earlier. Meanwhile, Rangers manager Ally McCoist called. “We need guys like you back in the game,” he told Hughes. No message yet from Rod Petrie, the Hibs chairman who it has long been said shares a rocky relationship with Hughes, and who once felt the need to publish a niggardly statement on the club website that seemed solely designed to place the former manager in a bad light.
“We have stripped away the unworkable legacy saddled upon the club by the previous incumbent,” Petrie wrote, with reference to Hughes, while desperately seeking to fend off bids from Nottingham Forest and Birmingham City for then Hibs manager Colin Calderwood. Petrie and Hughes have since made up.
In any case, these are the concerns of another time, another place. Hughes doesn’t hold grudges. He hasn’t returned to the game with a need to prove anything to anyone. Unlike in the case of many, bitterness doesn’t seem to fester within Hughes. And why should it?
As you leave him to worry about keeping pace with Celtic at the top of the league, it turns out things have worked out pretty well for him.
• Scottish bookmakers McBookie.com are offering just 5-4 that John Hughes will deliver a trophy for Inverness. His chances are helped by the fact they have an upcoming semi-final in the League Cup. Paul Petrie, McBookie.com spokesman said: “Normally, when a new manager is appointed, the club is in turmoil. However, that is not the case for Hughes and he has a fantastic opportunity to make himself an instant legend.”
Life and times
1964: Born 9 September in Edinburgh.
1988: Begins professional career as a striker at Berwick Rangers following move from junior side Newtongrange Star.
1989: Signs for Swansea.
1990: Joins Falkirk, where he converts to a centre-half and plays 134 league games, winning two First Division titles.
1995: Joins Celtic for £38,000.
1996: Joins Hibernian, where he makes 72 league appearances.
1999: Helps Hibs to the First Division title.
2000: Moves to Ayr United.
2002: Returns to Falkirk in a player-coach role.
2003: Appointed joint manager alongside Owen Coyle.
Takes sole charge in May after Coyle joins Dundee United as a player-coach.
2005: Plays as Falkirk beat Ross County to seal promotion to the Scottish Premier League.
Makes last of 77 league appearances in second spell at Falkirk in October.
2006: Falkirk finish 10th in SPL.
2007: Falkirk lose League Cup semi-final 3-0 to Kilmarnock.
2008: Falkirk seal second consecutive seventh-placed finish in the SPL.
2009: With Falkirk four points adrift of safety, the Bairns Trust write to the club’s board demanding Hughes’ resignation. Hughes dismisses the letter as a “nonsense” and brands those who wrote it “faceless wonders”.
Falkirk win 1-0 at Inverness to avoid relegation and send their opponents down. They lose Scottish Cup final 1-0 to Rangers but qualify for Europe for the first time in their history.
On 8 June, Hughes is confirmed as Hibernian manager.
2010: Hughes guides Hibs to a fourth-place finish and Europa League spot. But they crash out of Europe following a 6-2 aggregate defeat to Maribor.
After just one win in ten competitive games, Hughes is sacked in October.
2012: Appointed manager of First Division Livingston in partnership with director of football John Collins.
Leaves Livi after nine months to take over League One bottom club Hartlepool.
2013: Earns manager-of-the-month award following a seven-match unbeaten run but his team then go on an eight-match run without scoring.
Hartlepool are relegated in April and Hughes is sacked on 9 May.
Appointed by Inverness on 4 December.