Harsh end for Hughes despite steady progress

Mark Hughes became the victim of sky-high expectations at Manchester City when his 18-month spell as manager came to a brutal end on Saturday.

The Welshman, recruited from Blackburn Rovers, was fired by billionaire owner Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan after a thrilling 4-3 win over Sunderland left the world's richest club well-placed in sixth position in the Premier League.

Hughes was jettisoned despite wins over leaders Chelsea and title hopefuls Arsenal this season and despite steering the perennial under-achievers to the semi-finals of the League Cup where they will play Manchester United.

To most observers it seemed Hughes was making a pretty good fist of dragging the club out of rivals United's giant shadow, the one they have lived in for most of the past four decades since their last league title in 1968.

Progress was not quick enough for Sheikh Mansour although compared to most of the fruitless seasons since City last won a trophy in 1976, this year's campaign has been encouraging.

After all, this is the club that were in the third tier of English football in 1999.

"The consensus between the board and coaching staff was appropriate agreed targets should be set for the 2009-10 season," a club statement said on Saturday.

"It was based on the fact the infrastructure of the club had been overhauled completely at great cost in order to create the best possible environment for the team.

"A return of two wins in (the last) 11 Premier League games is clearly not in line with the targets that were agreed and set," the statement read.

Maybe winning the first four games of the campaign ended up working against Hughes who spent around 115 million pounds on players in the close season.

The owner, whose total expenditure on players in less than two years tops 200 million pounds, said before the start of the season that a top-four finish was the target.

Eight draws, including seven in a row, stalled the early-season momentum as City found it virtually impossible to keep the ball out of their net. SHAKY DEFENCE

That inevitably turned the focus on some of Hughes's signings, particularly in defence where City have looked shaky despite spending around 40 million pounds on centre backs Joleon Lescott and Kolo Toure.

There was also a suspicion that Hughes, while adept at making mid-table sides tough to beat with limited resources, was struggling to get the maximum from a dressing room full of big egos.

Hughes, despite being branded a flop by the success-hungry owners, will walk away with a large pay-off and should get another top flight job in time.

While City's progress was far from spectacular he had built a solid foundation that Italian Roberto Mancini, the man brought in to replace him, could yet benefit from.

Unfortunately for Hughes, who won over most City fans since replacing Sven-Goran Eriksson despite having been one of Manchester United's finest strikers, the reality is that when owners spend astronomical sums, spectacular is what they want.

When you have billions in the bank, buying a football club is akin to purchasing an expensive new toy. It is supposed to work straight away, entertain and be better than anything else on the shelves.

Hughes's final match in charge was a barnstorming, United-esque performance, full of attacking flair and style with new boys Roque Santa Cruz and Carlos Tevez scoring in a breathless example of what makes the English game so attractive to foreign businessmen.

His fate had already been sealed, however. Mancini, who watched the game from the stands, will no doubt have also had a chat with the money men to set new targets to be met by May.

After witnessing at close quarters the ruthless treatment of Hughes, who appeared to know he was heading for the exit before his last match, Mancini will be under no illusions about the task in hand.