JOHN Williams and his fellow directors were under no illusions when they appointed Mark Hughes as the man to succeed Graeme Souness in September 2004.

They knew the day would come when their impressive new manager would be lured by the bright lights of Manchester.

What they didn't anticipate, however, was it would be the blue half of the city, rather than the red, who would come calling for Hughes, following his hugely successful apprenticeship in the cut-throat world of Premier League management.

From the moment Hughes strode purposefully into the media theatre at Ewood Park to start his first day in his new job, it soon became apparent to those who were present that Rovers' Welsh gladiator was destined to go to the very top of his profession.

Even then, in his very first press conference as Rovers' new manager, and with the ink barely dry on a new two-and-a-half-year rolling contract, Hughes, dressed immaculately in a dark suit, had to tackle questions head on about his long-term ambitions, and whether or not he harboured a desire to succeed Sir Alex Ferguson one day in the Manchester United hot-seat.

At that point, Williams quickly interjected, saying, If Mark does end up at United then it will be because he has been successful here'. And so began a blossoming relationship.

Now four years later, it is fair to say Hughes has far exceeded both Williams' and Rovers' expectations, having performed a series of minor miracles on a limited budget.

On the pitch, he has lead Rovers to three successive top 10 Premier League finishes; two FA Cup semi-finals; one League Cup semi-final; and the club's best ever run in Europe - a record which compares favourably with any of his predecessors.

However, it's off the pitch where Hughes' impact has arguably been even greater.

With the help of his team of trusted Welsh lieutenants, Hughes has successfully transformed Rovers into one of the most professional and best prepared clubs on the continent, in terms of the day-to-day work that takes place at Brockhall.

As Brad Friedel, a former team-mate of Hughes' during his first spell as a player with Rovers, recently observed: "I had a lot of faith in Mark from day one.

"I knew him well, having played with him for two years as a player at Blackburn, and his football knowledge, and the way he wants to do his work on a daily basis, is very professional.

"The staff he also brought in were very professional - you don't get many better staff, from top to bottom, than the ones he has brought to this club.

"When I saw that early on, I was very excited about what the prospects could be.

"He hasn't had a big pile of cash to spend, which enables him to just go out and change 10 players at one time - he's had to do it in bits and pieces.

"But he's done a very, very good job, and I don't think anyone else within the Premier League can boast the kind of transfer fees he has paid for players compared to what they are worth now, and how they perform on the pitch."

Sadly, the downside to appointing a bright, young manager in the Hughes mould is he will always be coveted by clubs higher up the food chain.

In the last nine months, Tottenham Hotspur, Newcastle United, Chelsea, and now City have all looked longingly at Hughes, believing he possesses many of the qualities needed to manage a so-called big club, much to Williams' and the Rovers fans' frustration.

Hughes, too, has made no secret of his desire to test himself on the biggest possible stage.

"It's my ambition to go as far as my ability will allow me to, just as I did as a player," said the ex-Wales boss recently, before details of City's interest emerged.

"I wasn't the best, I had limitations, but my attitude took me to Manchester United, Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Chelsea - some of the top clubs in Europe.

"That approach still holds true as a manager. If my ability allows me to go on and progress and get top jobs then all is well and good.

"I'm not someone who accepts mediocrity."

Having watched him flourish during his four years at Ewood, many Rovers fans wouldn't begrudge Hughes the chance to climb the career ladder, no matter how painful the sight of his departure would feel.

Losing him to Manchester United they could just about stomach. And maybe even Chelsea.

But to see him climb into the arms of City would be a real bolt from the blue, and much, much harder to swallow.

Not even Williams and his fellow directors, whose inspired decision it was to appoint Hughes in the first place, saw that one coming.