Sir Alex Ferguson joked that Queens Park Rangers would have a better chance of getting something out of their final game of the season at Manchester City if Mark Hughes was playing for the London club instead of coaching them. That was more a commentary on the current QPR squad than a criticism of the 48-year-old’s managerial abilities.
Hughes faces the almost impossible task of helping the worst away team in the English Premier League achieve a positive result against the best home team. Adding spice to the occasion is that another of his former sides, Manchester United, will almost certainly clinch their 20th title if he succeeds.
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Since taking over in January, the former Wales striker has looked like he has enjoyed his new job about as much as an annual trip to the dentist. He has winced and grimaced on the sidelines as QPR found different ways to self-destruct in games.
The Hoops have shown a habit of getting players sent off, especially when they are ahead in home matches. Their defence can be porous – twice they have conceded six goals this season – and none of their strikers have achieved double figures on the league scoring charts.
Even a hardened Rangers’ fan would find it difficult to talk up the merits of a hotchpotch collection of players: rushed August and January transfer window signings with a handful of survivors from the Neil Warnock era. “One of the better ‘bad’ teams” was about the best compliment that any of the UK football scribes has given them.
But despite their many flaws, QPR have developed a feisty, fighting quality that has echoes from Hughes’ previous coaching stints at Blackburn and Fulham. Seemingly dead and buried in late February, they showed mettle in a 1-1 home draw with Everton on March 3rd and then went on a run of five home victories in a row, including unlikely triumphs over Liverpool, Arsenal and Tottenham.
After fate had seemingly conspired against them in the first half of the season, they have ridden their luck at times to pick up a respectable 15 points out of a possible 27 leading up to the trip to Manchester City.
Curiously, QPR are no less vulnerable to relegation under Hughes in their current position of 17th, than they were when Warnock was sacked in early January. Even so, Hughes has done a commendable job – 20 points from 17 matches is an improved return – considering the hand that he has been dealt.
“The players talk about how the new boss gave them a lift when he came in,” an understandably disappointed Warnock told me in February before taking the Leeds’ job.
“But what else can they say when the reporters ask them about the change of managers?”
|A star-studded line-up awaits Mark Hughes, who will be hoping his insider knowledge of City can work to his advantage [EPA]|
Returning to the Etihad Stadium is bound to open up old wounds for Hughes. He will never forget the morning of December 19 2009 when he woke up to text messages and telephone calls from friends and reporters, informing him that he was about to get the sack as Man City manager.
His frantic calls to the club seeking clarification were not returned. Sure enough, after presiding over City’s 4-3 victory over Sunderland that afternoon, he was finally given the news that Roberto Mancini would be replacing him.
On the day that Hughes was dumped by the Citizens, Queens Park Rangers laboured to a 1-1 home draw with Sheffield United under new manager Paul Hart to sit 10th in the second division. Adel Taarabt is the one survivor from that side just two-and-a-half years ago – and probably the only current squad member who might squeeze his way into the star-studded City reserve team.
Hughes never worked with the likes of Sergio Aguero, Yaya Toure and David Silva, but he did sign Vincent Kompany, Joleon Lescott, Carlos Tevez, Nigel de Jong and Pablo Zabaleta. His insider knowledge was reflected in February 2011 when his former club Fulham achieved an improbable 1-1 draw at Eastlands that effectively ended the Citizens’ title challenge.
Taarabt, along with City rejects Joey Barton, Nedum Onuoha and Shaun Wright Phillips, holds the key to Hughes’ plot to rain on Mancini’s parade. The moody Moroccan remains as slow as a wet week, but has the flair and technical brilliance to surprise City, after re-finding his inspiration under the new mentor.
It is unlikely that Hughes will remain at Loftus Road should QPR be relegated. Remember this is man who walked out on Fulham less than a year ago for a perceived lack of ambition. Even with the millions of Malaysian owner Tony Fernandes, it is difficult to imagine that this English Football Hall of Fame inductee has the stomach for a promotion bun-fight in the Npower championship.
Realistically, the greatest chance of QPR securing their premiership survival does not lurk in Greater Manchester. Instead it lies 70 kilometres south at the Britannia Stadium where Stoke host Bolton. If the visitors fail to get anything but all three points, the Rs will survive, regardless of their own result.
Sparky’s performance in the 2011-2012 season will be judged solely on whether QPR stay up or not.
In this case, the difference between miserable failure and resounding success – not to mention a $1.6 million bonus plus a celebratory glass of red wine for Sir Alex – is miniscule.
Join former CNN, BBC & ESPN host Jason Dasey and guests each week on http://www.footballfeverpodcast.com/ for lively football discussion with an Asia-Pacific perspective. Twitter: JasonDasey