In an interview first published in Everton's matchday programme for last month's FA Cup meeting with Tottenham Hotspur, Mark Hughes talks about joining the Club four years after a planned transfer from Manchester United fell through, his gratitude at eventually making it to Goodison Park, two Cup final battles with the Blues, and playing against Howard Kendall’s ‘first-class’ mid-1980s team.
The repercussions of Eric Cantona’s “little episode at Crystal Palace”, as Mark Hughes euphemistically describes the Frenchman’s explosion in south London, rippled through English football.
Manchester United forward Cantona, for the uninitiated, responded to baiting following a red card by planting a kung-fu kick into the midriff of a home supporter.
He was banned for nine months following the incident in January 1995, leaving United a goalscorer short.
A proposed move to Everton for Hughes was kiboshed.
The Welshman was 36 by the time he got to Goodison Park in March 2000 – “at the fag end of my career,” as he has it.
If the riled Cantona had counted to 10, however, one of the most ferocious and technically adept centre-forwards of a generation would have joined Everton with plenty of miles left on the clock.
Hughes was taken off on a stretcher at Newcastle United’s St James’ Park 10 days before the Cantona incident.
But even that injury, sustained colliding with Pavel Srnicek as Hughes scored past the goalkeeper, was unlikely to derail the transfer.
“By all accounts, the deal had been done,” says Hughes.
“No one had told me, by the way. But, apparently, that’s what was going to happen.
“United had signed Andy Cole and the idea was that Eric and Coley were going to carry the baton forwards.
“I was 31, which is no age, really, but there you go.
“Fergie [United manager Alex Ferguson] wanted a bit of value back from any player he sold, so that was the thinking behind it.
“The Newcastle keeper came out and sliced my knee, so I was out for a number of weeks.
“In that time Eric had his little episode at Crystal Palace where he jumped in the crowd.
“I think the club didn’t expect Eric to come back – and I didn’t, either.
“They offered me another contract and I signed it.
“That’s where the Everton move fell down.
“I was pleased when I had the opportunity again. I always felt it was a club I’d enjoy being part of and that was the case.”
Hughes was a world-class footballer: a quarrelsome, battering-ram of a striker, with an immaculate first touch and peerless ball-striking ability.
His Manchester United career was divided by spells with Barcelona and Bayern Munich and bookended by FA Cup finals against Everton.
It was Hughes’ arcing outside-of-the boot pass that found Norman Whiteside to bend in the only goal of the 1985 edition.
“It was a great finish but everyone forgets my ball,” laughs Hughes.
“Whenever they show that goal, the ball is already arriving at Norman’s feet.
“I never get a mention.
“It was just a fabulous day and occasion: the brightness and colour and noise.
“I had watched it on telly for so many years – and I was finding myself there.
“It is an abiding memory, that.”
Everton’s defeat came three days after winning the European Cup Winners’ Cup final against Rapid Vienna and denied Howard Kendall’s league champions a unique treble.
The victory for United, meanwhile, doubled as a measure of revenge after Everton reserved one of their finest performances of that – or any – season for a 5-0 Goodison dismantling of Ron Atkinson’s team.
That FA Cup was the first of 12 major trophies Hughes won in a 19-year senior career.
“Everton were a first-class side,” starts Hughes, “with strength right through the centre of the park.
“It was no quarter asked or given, they were physical but could play as well.
“I didn’t particularly enjoy playing against them because they were so hard to overcome.
“More often than not I’d be up against Rats [centre-back Kevin Ratcliffe], and he was as quick as me, if not quicker, and a powerful guy.
“There weren’t too many occasions when I got the better of him, if I am honest.
“And even if you did get away from Kevin, you had to try to score past Nev [Southall].
“We, maybe, got Everton at a good time in that final.
“It [Cup Winners’ Cup final] certainly had an impact on the game and weekend and why wouldn’t it?
“It was a great performance and great win for them.
“Cup final day was invariably sunny and warm – that used to pick people off towards the end of games.
“We were down to 10 men (United defender Kevin Moran was sent off after 78 minutes) and expected Everton to come on really strong in extra-time.
“But it never really happened.
“We held our own and were able to break and score the winning goal, thankfully.
“People mention Everton missing the treble as a consequence of that final.
“But they were an outstanding team and it was never going to affect their legacy or standing in the minds of Evertonians.”
Hughes left for Barcelona 12 months later and after one year in Spain spent the following 1987/88 season on loan with Bayern.
He’s at a loss as to how he ended up playing a game at Goodison for the German club.
“I don’t know why we were there,” starts Hughes.
“Can you enlighten me?”
He remembers burying a header past Southall, right enough: a consolation in a 3-1 Everton win that formed part of the Football League’s Centenary celebrations.
“That was the first time I’d come back since leaving United, it was nice to play on British soil again and to score,” says Hughes.
Hughes returned permanently in the summer of 1988, rejoining United for a substantial role in the onset of Ferguson’s Old Trafford dynasty.
Watch Hughes’ second goal against Barcelona in United’s 1991 European Cup Winners’ Cup final victory to see an example of astonishing execution under pressure.
He was nigh-on unplayable as United grew into this country’s foremost team, although the club’s first championship-winning season for 26 years didn’t get off to the most auspicious of starts.
Everton were the visitors for United’s first home match of the inaugural Premier League campaign in August 1992 and cantered to a 3-0 win.
“It was a new era in English football, with a lot of marketing around the game we’d never seen,” says Hughes.
“We didn’t have the best start but that focused our minds and we had to get our act together.
“Everton weren’t as successful as in the Eighties but playing against them was still a big test… they were always competitive games.
“Certainly at Goodison. It always felt very tight and that played into your mindset: ‘This is going to be difficult, people are going to be on you and tackles will be flying around’.
“I’d watch games at Goodison later on when I was Wales manager and the support – the way the Everton crowd got behind their team – was unbelievable.
“Even if they won a throw-in, in the opposition half, they’d be right behind them.
“I didn’t see that in too many stadiums around the country, I was always impressed by it.
“You always got the sense that if the crowd could see you were giving everything and playing for the shirt, they would get behind you.
“That struck me very strongly.”
Hughes made the last of his 467 Manchester United appearances – he scored 163 goals – in the 1995 FA Cup final.
Everton won 1-0, six days after United drew at West Ham United to finish one point behind Premier League champions Blackburn Rovers.
Hughes’ heavyweight battle with David Unsworth – the Welshman thinks football today is “more interception than confrontation” and isn’t convinced that’s a good thing – was one of the chief sub-plots in a match settled by Paul Rideout’s goal.
After Everton’s leggy performance a decade earlier, United were the team struggling to get going on this occasion.
“I think we were still licking our wounds from losing the title, if I am honest,” says Hughes.
“The FA Cup final was one game too many in a long, hard season.
“Which sounds terrible, because it’s a Cup final, for goodness sake.
“But I just sensed on the day that we were a little bit flat.
“It was a huge game for Everton and they deserved to win it.
“It was my last game for Manchester United, so it does resonate a bit and it’s not one to remember for any good reasons.
“Unsie always used to kick me – and I used to kick him.
“It was never personal, in those days you had to set down a marker.
“You had to physically win the battle, that’s how it was.”
When United did muster a surge in that 1995 final they were repelled by an impregnable Southall.
Hughes won the lion’s share of his 72 Wales caps in teams featuring Everton’s goalkeeper.
“We’d have shooting practice and it took me about two years to score a goal against him,” says Hughes.
“In the end, he was saving my shots with his chest rather than his arms, it was so easy for him.
“He was different class.
“If Wales had qualified for a major tournament Neville's profile would have been higher.
“In football everyone recognised he was one of the best, if not the best, in the world, when he was at his peak.
“But the wider public didn’t really appreciate how good he was.”
Hughes enjoyed an Indian summer after swapping United for three years at Chelsea, a talismanic figure for an upwardly mobile side acquiring the trophy-winning habit.
Twin forces eventually combined to bring Hughes to Everton.
Injuries to Kevin Campbell and Francis Jeffers left manager Walter Smith desperately short of strikers.
Hughes was in his second season at Southampton, meanwhile, where new boss Glenn Hoddle – who had taken the player to Chelsea – was overseeing change.
“Walter needed to get somebody in quick,” says Hughes.
“I’d started to drop back into midfield for Southampton but knew I could still do a job for anybody up front, short-term.
“I was available, my family home was – and still is – in the north west and I was at a point when I needed to get home.
“I’d been commuting nearly five years and felt that was affecting my ability to prepare properly for games.
“I was pleased I finally got to play at Goodison Park in a blue shirt but I didn’t have too much of an impact.
“I helped get Everton over a sticky period, which was something, I suppose.
“I didn’t score as many as I wanted but was pleased I did at least get one.”
Hughes made his debut in a 1-0 defeat at Coventry City 24 hours after arriving.
He started nine of Everton’s closing 10 games of 1999/00 and scored his only goal in a 4-2 home win over Watford.
The matches Hughes played included a scoreless Goodison Merseyside derby, adding to experiences of the Manchester rivalry and games between Barcelona and Real Madrid and Blackburn Rovers and Burnley, which, he laughs, “was the most frightening of all”.
There were seven starts and three substitute appearances from the start of the following season.
With Duncan Ferguson returning from Newcastle, one month after the acquisition of Paul Gascoigne, and Campbell back up to speed, Hughes was allowed to leave in October 2000 for Blackburn, where – in 2004 – he would accept his first job in club management following five years as Wales boss.
Indeed, Hughes juggled the Wales post with playing for Everton.
“As soon as I got the Welsh job, I decided I wasn’t going to play international football,” says Hughes.
“I could play my football at my clubs, then on international duty I became the manager and separated myself from the playing side.”
Hughes was developing his ability to read dressing rooms, nonetheless.
He cites Scottish pair John Collins and Richard Gough as exemplary professionals and saw enough potential for better returns from a talented collection of players.
“There was a good feeling around the group and with the quality the team had, maybe they could and should have done better,” says Hughes.
“It wasn’t for lack of trying because there was a huge commitment to doing well for Everton.
“But it didn’t quite happen.
“Clearly, they had injuries to key players.
“Big Dunc was really important, a great presence and always a threat, but I never got the opportunity to play with him.
“You could see Gazza wasn’t quite at the level of his pomp, which was understandable.
“You’d see him go past people and think, ‘What a player he is, or was’.
“He was no different in the public eye from how he was in the dressing room… an interesting guy.”
Hughes continued into his 39th year with Blackburn, winning a League Cup and promotion to the Premier League.
He attributes his longevity to “playing at good clubs… it’s important when you get older to surround yourself with good players”.
Hughes achieved too much in a stellar career to regret any of it.
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HIGHLIGHTS: ASTON VILLA 0-0 EVERTON
He nevertheless discloses a feeling of curiosity over “how well I might have been able to do for Everton” had external factors not intervened in the planned 1995 transfer.
“Clearly, I was at the fag-end of my career when I signed,” continues Hughes.
“I was pleased to get there in the end.
“But seven months – and a lot of that was pre-season – wasn’t enough to really ingrain myself in the Club.
“There is part of me that thinks if I’d gone a bit sooner, maybe late 20s or early 30s, I could have had a better level of success and more time.”
Eric Cantona’s Selhurst Park leap altered the course of history and Everton and Mark Hughes can only wonder what might have been.