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Hughes adopts a distance-learning approach to work out new charges

HE might have been befuddled by the assorted demands on his time in the immediate aftermath of his first match in charge, but John Hughes' opening words were curious all the same.

John Hughes watches his Inverness Caledonian Thistle side earn an away draw
John Hughes watches his Inverness Caledonian Thistle side earn an away draw

"I don't know how Terry does it," exclaimed the new Inverness Caledonian Thistle manager of his predecessor, Terry Butcher. "I don't know how he did so well and I don't know where he gets these players."

It was a staggeringly candid admission. Even factoring in Hughes' default daftness, it did not seem the sort of thing a manager should be saying just four days into his tenure and minutes after a run of five consecutive victories had been interrupted by a goalless draw in the opening game of his stewardship.

But perhaps his bewilderment was understandable; after all, how do you improve on the remarkable job Butcher did in the Highlands before leaving for Hibernian? Indeed, there is an argument that there has never been a worse time to take charge of Inverness. Sure, inheriting a side second in the SPFL Premiership, in the semi-finals of one cup and the last 16 of the other, might seem appealing - particularly for a manager with a reputation to rehabilitate - but with such status come complications absent when taking charge of a struggling club.

Granted, reversing last season's semi-final exit against Hearts in the League Cup when the sides meet on February 2 would afford Inverness a place in their first major final, and avoiding the sort of stumble that afflicted Butcher's side in the aftermath of that shootout defeat at Easter Road may even bring European football for the first time, but it is possible things may never get any better than they are right now. Hughes would be managing decline.

He hinted as much when he spoke about being "reluctant to change things" lest any alterations had a negative effect, but sometimes adaptations are required. Take Saturday as an example. Inverness were well short of their best against an impressive St Mirren but, despite Butcher regularly referencing the greater depth in the squad this term, the XI who started the game also finished it. Whether that was Hughes' doing or not remains unclear. The manager watched the game from the stand and empowered erstwhile caretaker Duncan Shearer and coach Scott Kellacher to lead the discussions before the game and at the interval, and that devolution of responsibility may have extended to substitutions too.

When asked if such deference would continue, Hughes was strangely noncommittal - "when you go into a dressing room you've got to go with the flow" - and cited the regard in which the squad hold Shearer. Goalkeeper Dean Brill echoed that sentiment and confirmed that the manager's involvement was peripheral. "At half-time, he said a few words and it was nothing that anyone wouldn't say anyway. He just told us to carry on what we were doing and he'll try and help us wherever he sees fit. He spoke well and gave us the confidence to keep doing what we've been doing."

Maybe that is all Hughes needs to do. Maybe a fresh voice can give the players that bit of extra motivation and spur them on to even greater heights in the short term, at least. Why alter the tactics or personnel when it is working? "They are such a well-oiled machine that I don't know how having a new manager would have affected them," said Steven Thompson, who made his 100th appearance for St Mirren and was denied by Brill on three occasions. "The players know their roles inside out but whether that changes over time we'll see."

One thing that has changed in recent weeks are the fortunes of St Mirren. The relegation fears of September are a distant memory, cast aside amid a nine-match run in which they have lost just once. Danny Lennon's lot were the better team on Saturday and, on another day, would have taken a couple of the numerous chances that came their way, but that misfortune was not the cause of too much dismay post-match.

Of more concern would be if a similar scenario is played out in Paisley tomorrow when Queen of the South visit in a William Hill Scottish Cup fourth-round replay. With their defence of the League Cup over, failure to earn a place in a knockout competition into the new year would cast something of a pall over the club and make for a grim slog to the end of the term. "It's a big week for us," Thompson acknowledged.

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