With skepticism about his future becoming topical in the days leading up to the crucial opener against Madagascar in the 2026 FIFA World Cup qualifiers, and having met with the Ghana Football Association Executive Council to discuss possible ways of improving the Black Stars, Hughton knew a lot was at stake on Friday.
The usually impassive gaffer was in a pensive mood right from the outset.
During the warm-up, Ernest Nuamah and Fatawu Issahaku were passing the ball to each other, incorporating a mixture of ball juggling – a fun way of doing things that contrasted with Hughton’s inner thoughts.
The 64-year-old observed the warm-up quietly and was the first to trot to the dressing room – a walk that almost suggested his life depended on it.
Fast forward to the match, and center referee Guezzaz Samir took one step and a second into Ghana’s half, blowing the whistle to begin the game. Hughton would not sit on the bench with the technical team but stood quietly and observed. From close range, you could sense the tremendous pressure bursting through his veins, and should anything go wrong, it could be the last time he stands on the touchline for Ghana.
Madagascar needed just one minute and 31 seconds to register their first attempt at the fortress-like Baba Yara Stadium, where Ghana has not lost since 2000. The visitors were undaunted, displaying an intent Hughton would have hoped his side had, but they did not for the majority of the half.
At the center circle, Baba Iddrisu received a pass with his left foot and dragged it with the right before releasing it to Gideon Mensah, who was on the move on the left flank. Unfortunately, his poor control saw the ball bounce over the line for a throw-in, and quickly, Hughton turned to his deputies, muttering.
The Ghanaian players simply lacked the spark and urgency that Hughton would have liked them to exhibit, showing indecision and a lack of incisive passes, resorting to mostly sideways ones.
The gaffer initially jotted down the wrongs in his notebook, but as the performance continued to deteriorate, he abandoned the writing and straightened his right arm, a signal to his boys to move high up the pitch and attack.
After 22 minutes of play, the under-fire Hughton had four players on the bench warming up – Fatawu Issahaku, Edmund Addo, Osman Bukari, and Jonathan Sowah. Four minutes later, another quartet were on the sideline jogging, including captain Andre Ayew. Hughton was desperate for a change, trying all available options to ensure that.
With 12 minutes left in the first half, he stood on the touchline with his two hands on his waist, watching in disbelief and contemplating what to do next. It was as if he was praying for the half to end. When the Moroccan match official put the whistle in his mouth and blew air into it with his index and middle fingers pointing straight, signaling the end of the half, Hughton was the first to storm into the dressing room.
Second half resumed and Hughton had already sent a strong message to the rest of the players on the pitch after substituting two – Alidu Seidu and Baba Iddrisu, and brought on Denis Odoi and Majeed Ashimeru. The Black Stars were then beyond recognition and were everything that they were not in the first half.
Hughton was on the touchline, quietly observing the game, and for the first time, it felt like the players listened to him and executed his instructions. Ashimeru provided the spark the team lacked, Mohammed Kudus drove forward whenever he had the ball, and Inaki Williams, along with his strike partner Antoine Semenyo, moved into decent spaces. Many opportunities were created, attempts were registered, and shots on target were attained
As the supporters charged up the atmosphere, Hughton clapped and screamed to encourage his players to continue piling on the pressure, and suddenly, the question of whether Ghana could score turned into when Ghana would score.
As the sunlight disappeared and ushered in the floodlights, the game was on the verge of ending, and every Ghanaian inside the stadium was on tenterhooks. Ashimeru guided the ball well and found the onrushing Gideon, who curled it into the box. Unmarked between two Madagascar defenders, Inaki had a clean header to beat goalkeeper Melvin Adrien, securing a much-needed victory for Ghana. As the ball went into the net, Hughton screamed and ran in delirium but quickly returned to his old self, issuing instructions to Gideon with the aim of protecting the lead.
Eventually, Ghana emerged victorious. Hughton shook and hugged his players, expressing love and utmost gratitude. He transformed from his usual motionless, observing-with-little-talk approach to someone animated and ever-present on the touchline.
He understands the pressure that comes with the job, and he knows the Black Stars must start well against Comoros on Tuesday, November 21. He might stick to his ‘new approach’ for a positive result against the seemingly difficult opposition in Moroni.
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