When Hughes stepped into the void left by Neil Warnock at Loftus Road in January, the 48-year-old’s first and most pressing task was ensuring QPR cemented their top-flight status.
By May, the mission was accomplished, and Hughes’ success at Blackburn Rovers during an impressive four seasons at Ewood Park suggests relegation battles will soon be a distant memory and European adventures may lie in wait.
The former Manchester United striker enjoyed mixed success in his first managerial appointment. Hughes led Wales into the Euro 2004 play-offs before suffering a disappointing 1-0 aggregate defeat by Russia as Vadim Evseev’s header crushed the hopes of a Millennium Stadium desperate to see their country reach a major tournament for the first time since 1958.
In September 2004, Graeme Souness left Blackburn with the Lancashire outfit languishing in the relegation zone – and so Hughes was handed his debut in club management at the one-time Premier League champions.
It was a happy marriage. Hughes immediately set about implementing his ideas, and Blackburn ended the 2004-05 campaign in 15th place and a comfortable nine points clear of the bottom three – with the added bonus of a FA Cup semi-final appearance.
Ryan Nelsen, who Hughes has snapped up this summer after the New Zealand international left Tottenham Hotspur, joined on a free transfer in January 2005 along with the combative Robbie Savage – both were important signings.
Blackburn finished in the top six and qualified for the Uefa Cup in the following season and during the summer months, Hughes continued to show his eye for a bargain. Benni McCarthy joined from Porto for £2.5m and the South African striker produced an impressive tally of 24 goals in 50 appearances in his first season at Ewood Park.
In 2007, Hughes delved into the Bundesliga and signed Chris Samba for £400,000 from Hertha Berlin, while Roque Santa Cruz joined in a £3m deal from Bayern Munich – the Paraguayan’s arrival and subsequent success was testament to Hughes’ growing reputation as a manager and his ability to kick-start a stagnating career.
Already six months into his stint at QPR, there are signs that Hughes is putting his Blackburn blueprint into practice, snapping up Djibril Cissé for a cut-price £4m in January. The former Liverpool striker – disciplinary issues aside – has been an unqualified success, bringing a dash of brilliance to Hughes’ side and scoring six goals.
This summer, he has opted to bring in players with a wealth of Premier League experience. England goalkeeper Robert Green and Andy Johnson are well-drilled when it comes to the demands of top-flight football, while Nelsen will provide cover and expertise in defence.
Park Ji-Sung has been lured from 19-time English champions Manchester United, and although not the most exhilarating of marquee signings, the South Korean earned the trust of Sir Alex Ferguson during seven decorated seasons at Old Trafford – which is no small feat – and the midfielder will add further steel to a QPR side that conceded 66 goals last season.
But Hughes is more than a mere bargain hunter. At Blackburn, he polished Arsenal youth graduate David Bentley into a right midfielder who eventually commanded a £15m transfer fee and earned an England call-up – Adel Taarabt is a playmaker who promises much but has struggled to find consistency over the past 12 months.
The QPR boss will relish the challenge of extracting the very best from the talented Morocco international – and the former Manchester City head coach is also well equipped to handle big personalities at the club of which Taarabt is one.
His man management skills kept Blackburn’s squad harmonious despite the presence of combustible characters such as Bellamy and Lucas Neill. At QPR, and by Hughes’ own admission, Joey Barton and Cissé are among the most colourful players he has encountered in management.
As the old adage goes, there’s no substitute for experience, and while QPR’s long-term future will not ultimately hinge on veterans – the Hoops have signed six players aged over 30 since Hughes arrived and they are likely to help keep the Londoners in the top flight next season.
Looking to the future, Samba Diakité and Junior Hoilett – who is expected to complete a switch from Blackburn – will be key players.
And who is to argue against Hughes’ policy?
His objective this season will be to consolidate QPR’s position in the Premier League – and his past achievements at Blackburn act as proof of his ability to transform a struggling club into one harbouring ambitions of European football. The Hoops could soon be hitting the continent.
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