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'Larger than life character' Hughes is right man for the club, says Cameron

THOSE who talk of the romance and the fairytale of Inverness Caledonian Thistle's Highland "adventure" are patronising the club even when they believe they are well-meaning.

John Hughes makes his way to the waiting press photographers as he is unveiled as Terry Butcher's successor yesterday.
John Hughes makes his way to the waiting press photographers as he is unveiled as Terry Butcher's successor yesterday.

Next year will be the 20th anniversary of the club's introduction to senior league football and they've been in the top flight for nine of the last 10.

It used to be the case that when they were looking for managers the Highlands was a hard sell and there was a degree of gratitude when experienced names deigned to consider coming. Not any more. They have had their highs and lows, promotion and relegation, wise decisions and daft ones. But Caley Thistle are now part of the football furniture and managers fall over themselves to land their job. In the new marriage between the club and John Hughes, confirmed yesterday, it is Hughes who has the most to prove.

He has done well to get in at Inverness and no wonder he looked like the cat that got the cream during media interviews yesterday in which he made a lot of sense by stressing how little he intended to change things. Hughes talked about character, pride and spirit - he is big on those and the Inverness boys will hear plenty about it - but there was an unmistakable "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" theme.

He was fulsome in his praise of Terry Butcher and Maurice Malpas. Caley Thistle are a club who have done most things very well for the last few years and much of that was down to the departed management. There is no need for Hughes to tear things up.

In one sense this is a difficult time to take the Inverness job because there is far more room for decline than improvement. Last season's fourth-placed finish was the club's highest ever. Right now they're second in the league, as high as they can ever realistically expect.

Considering their average home attendance is the second lowest in the SPFL Premiership, that amounts to a spectacular act of management by Butcher and a devilishly difficult challenge for Hughes. He has inherited a fine dressing room, stocked with very good professionals who have the right attitude and principles. Key figures are on new contracts. There is a feeling of stability and common sense about Caley Thistle. Hughes' job will be to get players responding to him as enthusiastically and willingly as they did to Butcher and Malpas. Maybe they will, or maybe the chemistry won't be right and they won't.

Hughes' most impressive work was at Falkirk, the club closest in size to Caley Thistle of the four he has managed. He took them into the Scottish Premier League, kept them there for four seasons and qualified for Europe via the Scottish Cup before being headhunted by Hibs. At Easter Road he had an excellent first few months which was enough to eventually finish third, qualifying for Europe, but their end-of-season form crashed and one win in the first 10 games of his second campaign led to dismissal in October.

Then, in nine months at Livingston, he impressed many with his behind-the-scenes work, particularly on youth development, before choosing to leave for Hartlepool United. He was there for 177 days. When he joined they were hopeless, adrift at the bottom of League One, and he improved them but not by enough to avoid relegation or his own end-of-season dismissal in May of this year. Since then he's been out of work. At the age of 49 he was at a career crossroads but fate has been kind to him. Or, more accurately, his force of personality won over the Caley Thistle board.

Chairman Kenny Cameron said Hughes had been very impressive when he was interviewed, effectively talking himself into the job. Cameron also said something revealing about why they went for Hughes and where the club currently sees itself. "He's a larger than life character. I think that's what we need at this stage in the evolution of the football club. Five years ago it might have been a different person. At this moment in time, for where we are, it's the right man for the club."

One of the qualities Butcher gave the club was a voice. He was a big personality, with a big profile, popular and quotable for the media, and he kept Caley Thistle in the news. It is a club which needs a figurehead because neither Cameron nor his board have, nor seek, any prominence. Their last two home league crowds were 2948 and 3255 and for a team sitting second in the league that's confirmation of how much of a struggle it is to get people to come along to that cold, wind tunnel of a ground beside the Moray Firth. Forget all that stuff about the views and the dolphins, the Caledonian Stadium never has been an inviting ground and it is so open and exposed it barely gives the team home advantage at all.

Cameron and his board seem to hope Hughes's combination of commitment and charisma will maintain Caley Thistle's position and profile. Another journalists' favourite, League Cup winner Kenny Shiels, might be asking himself what Hughes has that he hasn't, but the choice has been made.

After six months out of work, Hughes has landed on his feet. In only a few weeks he'll lead out his new team in the League Cup semi-final, a competition which is wide open, and he will never have a better chance to deliver the first big final and glory in Caley Thistle's history.

It is a gamble by the club to place that opportunity in the hands of a manager who might have feared his reputation was starting to wane. Butcher made them a top-six club and Hughes's long-term challenge is simple: keep them there. More than character and charisma, he must deliver continuity.

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