Only time will tell whether Hughes is indeed “much better than the last one”, which, due to the Welshman having been appointed just moments before August, is a luxury that cannot be afforded. Considering the season begins for real in just over a week, and the fact that Hughes is more than likely still finding his way around the training ground, it may be unlikely the new manager will be able to be judged fairly until at least the new year – when he will have had time to identify (and begin to rectify) any weaknesses in his squad. Until that time the key will be to keep as many of the top players together and not to rush into any decisions, or risk upsetting Hodgson’s finely tuned balance.
A not-unusually confident Al-Fayed also claimed his manager would lead his side to “the championship”, which, presumably, meant the Premier League title, rather than an immediate exit to the second tier of English football. Although Hughes himself admitted to prefer ambition over playing down Fulham’s chances, even he would have taken his Chairman’s words with a pinch of salt. So, too, will the club’s supporters who have seen their side’s preparations diminished to just a couple of weeks’ work – not that any would be demanding a league title even if Hughes had been appointed the day after Hodgson’s departure. No, instead the Craven Cottage faithful will be delighted if Hughes can comfortably avoid relegation, and indeed a top-ten finish would be seen as a resounding success.
Although the former Manchester City boss has inherited a squad which has achieved a seventh- and 12-placed league finish consecutively, along with a runners-up medal in the Europa League, the players are among the oldest on average in the league and Hughes will have to invest in, or bring through some youth players to ease the pressure on aging legs. That can come in time, of course, the first task is to fend off interest in Mark Schwarzer, Brede Hangeland and Bobby Zamora and plug holes in the squad with some – preferably loan – signings. Despite the inevitable links to half the players he has previously worked with, Fulham would be wise to keep any transfer cards close to their chest, if they are to avoid similar embarrassment to the Martin Jol scenario. Although no players have signed for other clubs, the team has lost a member of staff to make way for Hughes’ backroom team -Mike Kelly, a vital member of Hodgson’s staff, has left the club and three of the Welshman’s regular team have come in.
Hopefully for the fans, for now at least, the same speed of turnaround will not be evident in the playing staff. More than anything, consistency is required in these first few months, which is never the kind of timescale to judge the performance of a new manager. Things usually go one of two ways – far better than expected, or far worse. In truth, Hughes needs to find that middle ground so that hints of his ability are shown but room is still left for improvement. A limited budget (or none, in the case of Wales) is where Hughes has managed his best work in his managerial career, and he is back in such a situation at Fulham. In Al-Fayed, he has a Chairman who has had his pockets burned in the past through over-elaborate purchases, and who has also seen the dangers of under spending. With Hodgson, the balance was just right – Al-Fayed made money available when needed, but did not splash out on unnecessary signings. Hughes can expect more of the same when he makes clear to his Chairman and Chief Executive, Alistair Macintosh, of the players he feels he needs to do his job.
Hodgson’s shoes will be very difficult ones to fill, but at the same time the Whites have a manager who, with the right support from the fans and Chairman alike, can reshape an aging squad into a consistent top-half team. For now, however, there is a lot of work to be done and not much time in which to do it.