Mark Hughes’ lofty ambitions for QPR ultimately prove his downfall
Mark Hughes deserves credit for his ambition but his summer signings have failed to deliver for QPR, writes Kieran Beckles
Mark Hughes was finally issued with his much-anticipated marching orders by Queens Park Rangers on Friday, and when the Welshman reflects on his 10-month reign at Loftus Road, it will be tinged with regret.
The 49-year-old was favourite for the chop after the Hoops extended their winless run to 12 games on Saturday, with fellow relegation battlers Southampton easing to a 3-1 victory in west London.
Although the result was a surprise, the most shocking element of the defeat was the performance of Hughes’ players, who were lethargic and did not resemble a side fighting for survival – or their manager’s future.
The reversal in mood at QPR’s Harlington training ground over recent months has been noticeable, with talk of a top-half finish shaken by a slow start before descending into talk of avoiding the drop – again.
But even after a disastrous 5-0 loss to Swansea City on the opening day of the campaign, Hughes was happy to keep the expectations of the owners, players and supporters inflated in spite of an alarming defensive display.
“I’ve always been of the view that you’ve got to keep peoples’ expectations high,” he said. “They don’t want to be told that it’s going to be a struggle again. Some managers do, knowing full well that the team has the ability to be much higher than that. I never underplay the opportunity that we have this year. I fully expect us to have a good season.”
In hindsight, it was an ill-judged move which led to increased pressure and ridicule but Hughes had reason to be confident after landing a number of big-name players of the likes of Esteban Granero, Park Ji-Sung, Júlio Cesar and Jose Bosingwa.
There were a further eight summer arrivals but that illustrious quartet alone boasted 17 top-flight titles across six European leagues, 12 domestic cups and four Champions League titles.
Hughes was convinced that QPR’s new recruits could gel quickly and claim a high finish.
“There’s always questions over how well new signings will gel when you bring a number of players in. But it’s negated somewhat when they’re quality players.
“I think maybe players who aren’t of the right level sometimes struggle to adjust to their new surroundings and new places. I’m confident because they’re good players, they’ll be able to adjust very quickly.”
However, if Granero and company were envisaging a cosy induction to life in the Premier League, they were brought back down to earth with a bump.
The Hoops were soon struggling following losses to Manchester City and Tottenham, coupled with stalemates against Chelsea and Norwich City.
Worse, QPR weren’t gelling despite Hughes’ protestations. Djibril Cisse, Bobby Zamora, Adel Taarabt, Granero and Junior Hoilett resembled a collection of individuals and not a cohesive attacking unit.
Meanwhile, at the other end of the pitch, QPR were ravaged by injuries and suspensions (including Stephane Mbvia’s reckless red card), so much so, Hughes did not field the same back four in successive Premier League games until 4 November.
Even with his side under-performing, Hughes backed his big-name stars to come good and brushed off claims Bosingwa, Cesar, Granero and Park lacked the stomach for a relegation fight.
After all, they were lured to QPR on the premise of a top-half finish.
“When you speak to them they’re really enjoying the emotions of it and the challenge which they have. When they decided to come here, they knew QPR is a club which wouldn’t be winning week after week but they wanted a different challenge and a different stimulus – and they’re certainly getting that!
“They’ve got a different mentality – a winner’s mentality. That has to come to the fore – and it has done. We will turn this round because of the players that I have in my group.”
Ultimately, Hughes’ faith in his new signings was never repaid and a lacklustre performance against the Saints saw him pay the ultimate price.
However, he does deserve credit for keeping the Hoops in the top flight after replacing Neil Warnock in January – albeit aided by Stoke City’s draw with Bolton Wanderers on the final day of the season.
He was right to make changes and seek progression, and his work off the field in terms of infrastructure and the youth system has received praise from majority shareholder Tony Fernandes, but it was all too fast.
The BBC documentary QPR: The Four Year Plan broadcast in March highlighted the need for stability at the club, which is perhaps why Hughes was granted extra time to turn around the Hoops’ fortunes.
But attempting to foster an identity and team spirit in a squad which saw 13 leave and 12 newcomers over the course of the summer was always going to be a difficult task with little time to adjust.
Hughes, like this week’s other managerial casualty Roberto Di Matteo, inherited the John Terry-Anton Ferdinand case, which was an unfortunate subplot to on-field matters.
But perhaps his biggest regret will be those words he uttered after their Premier League status was confirmed at Manchester City on 13 May.
“There is no way we will be in this situation again in my time here.”
Indeed, Hughes will not face another relegation battle at QPR, with the former Wales manager gone with over a two-thirds of the season to play.
Harry Redknapp is touted as favourite for the job, and the 65-year-old’s most pressing task will be to mould QPR into a team as he attempts to emulate his ‘Great Escape’ with Portsmouth in 2006.