Manchester United to Mansfield: Mark Hughes relishing Bradford bow | Mark Hughes

There have perhaps never been greater differences surrounding the circumstances surrounding one manager’s last game in his old job, and the first game in his new one. Three years ago, Mark Hughes’s tenure as Southampton manager came to an end with a 2-2 draw against a Manchester United side managed by José Mourinho which featured Paul Pogba, Romelu Lukaku and Marcus Rashford.

This Saturday, it is Mansfield Town and players such as Lucas Akins and Jordan Bowery who stand in Hughes’s way for his match as manager of League Two side Bradford City. The challenges are different too. Back then, Hughes was fighting to keep Southampton in the Premier League and retain his record of having never managed outside the top flight. That record officially disappears when he takes charge of Bradford, who are 15th and 10 points adrift of the play-offs.

It is one of the more remarkable appointments in recent memory. But while so much is different about the circumstances Hughes will walk into at Valley Parade on Saturday, he insists one thing remains the same.

“I’ll still have that same excitement about this match as I did with the last one,” he says. “It will absolutely be no different to managing in the Premier League in that regard. The build to a game is great, being on the grass and training, but by far the best thing is the matchday itself. It’s turning up there, seeing the crowd build and it’s the thing I’ve missed the most, without a shadow of a doubt.”

With around 15,000 spectators expected on Saturday, including a large travelling contingent from Mansfield, the 58-year-old is being given a soft opening, of sorts, to life in the lower leagues. Having spent three years out of coaching, there will be keen interest in Hughes to see how he adjusts to not only his return, but his first experience of a new level with a group of players that are complete unknowns to him. For Hughes though, this is a chance to make a significant impact at a club which has sacked seven managers in the last four seasons alone.

“It’s happened very quickly, but all the information is out there and anything I need to know about Bradford and I can find out very quickly,” he says. “It’s a club I would like to put my mark on in terms of driving them forward from the low ebb they are at right now.”

The big question though is: why Bradford? “There were opportunities to return elsewhere but some of them coincided with Covid restrictions and I found it very difficult to get enthused about football behind closed doors,” Hughes says. “That maybe shaped my view on a couple of opportunities but this is good timing.

“It’s a good opportunity and I get a chance to look at the players I’ve got and the structure of the club and look at maybe what’s desperately needed to push it forward.” There is so much mystery and intrigue surrounding this move, nobody is quite sure what to expect, least of all Hughes, who will be exposed to away trips at places like Forest Green and Sutton United before the end of the season.

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But the one thing you can guarantee is this will be a story well worth following. With Bradford so far adrift of the League Two play-offs, it is not unthinkable he will still be managing in the fourth tier next season.

“That doesn’t faze me at all,” Hughes says. “There will be a period of adjustment but it’s up to me to make that as short and sharp as possible. I’m excited for the challenge.” You wonder if Hughes will feel the same come 5pm on Saturday evening.

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