The Leader Board
feature Thu 26 Jan 2017
We look at the Chelsea career and captaincy of a man with some serious FA Cup pedigree…
‘You’ve got to have respect and lead by example to be a good captain.’
The arrival of Mark Hughes and Ruud Gullit in the summer of 1995 accelerated the revolution at Chelsea that had begun when Glenn Hoddle joined as player-manager a couple of years earlier.
It was actually at Gullit’s unveiling that our managing director Colin Hutchinson broke the surprising news: Manchester United stalwart Hughes was to become Chelsea’s latest signing.
The striker was a serial winner. During two separated spells at Old Trafford he had enjoyed success in the Premier League (twice), the FA Cup (three times), the Cup Winners’ Cup, the Super Cup and the League Cup. He had also been voted the PFA Players’ Player of the Year twice.
Despite Hughes’s considerable profile, some eyebrows were raised. How much petrol did the 33-year-old have left in the tank?
Chelsea supporters needn’t have worried. By the time he left west London three full seasons later, Hughes had proven a crucial cog in the first Chelsea team to win major silverware for 26 years. Along the way, he supplied some truly indelible memories, perhaps none more evocative than the thrilling swizzle-and-volley that thrust us into the final of the Cup Winners’ Cup in 1998.
Hughes was a target man extraordinaire: strong enough to win the ball ahead of defenders, skilful enough to keep it, and aware enough to use it.
During his first year at Chelsea, 1995/96, he was mostly deployed as a lone striker with two inside-forwards playing off him. Four of his 12 goals came in the FA Cup, a nod to his exceptional record in that competition, but our hopes of silverware were ended at the semi-final stage by his former club on a frustrating day at Villa Park.
The man who had spent time abroad with Barcelona and Bayern Munich found his best form at Chelsea when partnered with a foreign player new to the rough and tumble of the English Premiership.
Gianfranco Zola signed in November 1996 and almost immediately forged an understanding with the adaptable old head of Hughes. It consigned Gianluca Vialli to the substitutes’ bench for much of the rest of the campaign but Gullit, by now player-manager, had little choice, such was the form of his little-and-large frontmen. A home victory before Christmas over West Ham, when Hughes got two and Zola one, stands out.
Even brighter in the memory is the scintillating come-from-behind victory over Liverpool in the FA Cup fourth round. Unexpectedly dropped to the bench, Gullit brought Hughes on at the interval with his side trailing by two. The Welshman, fire raging in his belly against a club he loved playing against, instantly stamped his authority on proceedings, chesting, turning and shooting low into the net from 18 yards out. He then created Zola’s equaliser with a trademark tackle, and a brace from Vialli completed an astonishing turnaround.
As one reporter put it: ‘Hughes was a constantly exploding bomb from the second he came on. His 45 minutes was the performance of the season.’
A couple of weeks before that contest, 'Sparky' captained Chelsea for the first time in a defeat against Nottingham Forest at the City Ground.
‘I was very proud,’ Hughes later reflected.
‘I haven’t been captain many times during my career. The lads know their jobs and I’m not going to start ranting and raving because that’s not how I am. There’s a lot of captains who rant and shout during and before a game, but not many change the game doing it. You’ve got to have respect and lead by example to be a good captain.’
Hughes skippered the side on a handful of other occasions, including against his former club Man U when they ended our defence of the FA Cup at the first hurdle in January 1998.
We had won the coveted trophy in no small part due to Hughes’s influence. As well as the goal that kick-started the Liverpool comeback, he netted in consecutive rounds against Leicester, Portsmouth and then a brace in the emphatic semi-final win over Wimbledon. In the final, his early run that had the worried Middlesbrough backline following him is widely credited with creating the space for Roberto Di Matteo to thump home that stunning 43-second opener.
Hughes became the first player in the 20th Century to win the competition on four separate occasions. He had scored against Chelsea in the 1994 final.
‘We have to grab this now, we must not let the opportunity go,’ he said after the final.
‘Chelsea are set up to be a major club. We’ve broken through a barrier. Now we have won one trophy, I’m sure more will follow.’
He was right – we lifted the League Cup and the Cup Winners’ Cup the following season. Hughes moved on at its end with 123 Chelsea appearances, 39 goals and three more winners’ medals to his name.
He has regularly returned to his former stomping ground as an opposition manager, most recently on New Year’s Eve as Stoke boss, the final 4-2 scoreline evoking memories of his finest hour – well, 45 minutes – in a Blue shirt.