May 8 (Reuters) - Mark Hughes enjoyed a measure of personal redemption on Tuesday after guiding Southampton to near certain safety in the Premier League with a vital win at Swansea City after being sacked by Stoke City earlier in the campaign.
Hughes had been handed the task of rescuing the south-coast club from the threat of relegation when he was appointed in March and was a strange choice in many people’s eyes, having left his former team in a similar predicament.
Yet, his mission was accomplished at the Liberty Stadium when a second-half goal from Manolo Gabbiadini secured a 1-0 victory over relegation rivals Swansea that moved the Saints three points clear of the drop zone.
With goal difference handing Southampton a comfortable cushion heading into their final match of the season at home to champions Manchester City, it would take a remarkable turnaround for them to fall out of the top flight.
After beginning his spell in charge with three straight league defeats, Hughes’ reputation was hanging by a thread. With Premier League managers enjoying short and often precarious shelf lives, his career was arguably in the balance.
Yet Tuesday’s victory was Southampton’s second in three games and left them unbeaten in their last four league games, with the manager able to take credit for guiding his side away from trouble just in time.
“I said when I took it on it was never about me or my position or my reputation or standing in the game,” Hughes, a former Southampton player, said.
“It was only ever about trying to come in to help a club that obviously I played for and have empathy with and I just wanted to try and help them and keep them in the Premier League.”
Southampton have been frequently heralded as a model of how to flourish on a limited budget, having not finished lower than eighth in the last four seasons.
Yet having sought to develop a squad that would allow them to push on into the top half of the table, they looked ill-equipped to deal with the trench warfare of a relegation battle.
They had struggled for goals all season - Charlie Austin was their top scorer with seven, while their chance conversion rate was the third lowest in the division.
That meant Hughes had little choice but to get his players to roll up their sleeves and scrap.
Tuesday’s victory was dogged at best with Southampton creating few chances before grabbing a crucial goal just when the game seemed to be heading for a goalless draw.
“It was a huge effort by everybody,” Hughes said. “It was not just this evening. Ever since we took on the challenge in fairness...
“Some games we have had things go against us and we have had to pick ourselves up but I thought they were immense today, just weren’t going be denied, so I am really delighted for them.” (Reporting by Toby Davis; Editing by Ken Ferris)