So vociferously were the feathers being spat between the dugouts in last season's tempestuous Manchester derbies, it is reasonable to assume the relationship between Mark Hughes and Sir Alex Ferguson is not the warmest.

For two men with such notable combative streaks, who spent the last couple of years in a locale that obliges them to agree to disagree as club rivals, taunts came with the territory.

Now hundreds of miles south and settled comfortably in his Fulham tracksuit, a glint comes to Hughes's eye as he reflects upon his rapport with the godfather of the Premier League. The competitive edge between them is something to be cherished, but it is not negative. Although the Welshman has always been too much of his own man to join what Roberto Martínez described as a cartel of "loyalists" whose admiration for Ferguson is undisguised, to interpret that as friction between the two men is, Hughes says, wide of the mark. Any sparring has been professional rather than personal.

"He likes to make sure we know our place," he explains. "And rightly so. He is always competitive and to come up against guys he has worked with and brought through, he has a lot of affection for them and he is always supportive. But he always likes to beat them, that's for sure. Invariably he picks his strongest team against me. Maybe that's a sign of respect because he knows I set up my teams to give them a hard time."

Hughes believes that his rapport with his old Manchester United manager has improved with age. "Probably my relationship now with Sir Alex is better than when I was a player. I was grateful he allowed me to play in his team. That was the top and bottom of it when I was a player," he says. "As a manager it has become closer. But that doesn't stop me wanting to overcome him. At times we are both a bit vocal on the touchline but I don't think there have been any episodes where there has been a massive falling out as I have had with other top managers."

He was clearly touched that one of the first phone calls he received after he felt the force of the Abu Dhabi axe at Manchester City was from Old Trafford. Ferguson's words of consolation helped.

"The fact he was very quickly on the phone is something I am very conscious of and was very grateful for at the time," says Hughes. "I have never been one of his ex-players-come-managers who have sought a lot of advice from him. I have had key conversations with him and that was one of them. I know there is a pool of advice I can tap into if I ever need to. I haven't done in recent times, but that's not through lack of respect for what he has to offer. More I haven't felt the need to do that."

Hughes is confidently throwing himself into the job at hand at Craven Cottage, and is more focused on the fact this weekend is a home debut than any emotions about a reunion with old neighbours. He hopes the fans will like what he intends to bring to the team. "There are areas of our attacking play I think we can improve on, to be more positive at the right times," he says.

They can do little better than last season's handsome 3-0 beating of Manchester United. "We'll have to match that performance again," Hughes adds. "Possibly the team United had that day was a little under strength but I am sure they won't be now so we will have to play to our maximum."