Neil Warnock was unexpectedly fired last night as manager of Queen's Park Rangers. Owner Tony Fernandes, who only bought the club in August, sacked Warnock a day after watching Rangers snatch a late draw at the League One side MK Dons in the FA Cup third round.
Mark Hughes is favourite to take over as Fernandes wants a "big name". The Welshman's adviser, Kia Joorabchian, flew back from Brazil last night with a view to speaking to Fernandes, though it would not seem an obvious step up from Fulham, whom Hughes left last summer. A somewhat improbable managerial partnership of Gianfranco Zola and Ray Wilkins, who managed QPR between 1994-96, is also being discussed.
In a statement Rangers said the decision was due to "the commitment to retaining our Premier League status", adding that "our recent run of poor form has seen us slip alarmingly down the table and the board felt it was the right time to make a change".
A return of one point from the last 18 possible has dropped QPR to 17th in the table, one place and one point above the relegation zone. However, those six matches included one-goal defeats at Arsenal and Liverpool, and a 2-0 loss to Manchester United. At no stage this season have QPR been in the relegation zone and there have been no calls for Warnock's head from Rangers fans, despite just one win this season at Loftus Road.
"I'm disappointed because I think we've been playing well, but a lot of things haven't gone our way in recent games," said Warnock last night. "I'd like to have had the chance to strengthen the team in the transfer window and show what I can do with a few new players."
Warnock has had to operate for the opening half of the campaign with last season's Championship winners plus a few recruits added in great haste after the takeover in the final days of the August transfer window.
Warnock said that he left QPR with "a great sense of pride". He arrived at Loftus Road 22 months ago with the club embroiled in a fight to avoid relegation to League One. Having evaded the drop, he reshaped the side in the summer of 2010 and won the title, returning QPR to the top flight for the first time since 1996.
Wilkins was manager that season. The prospect of him and Zola, who is equally identified with Chelsea (and was in charge at West Ham the season they went down), is unlikely to cheer Rangers fans who, by and large, greeted Warnock's exit with a mixture of bemusement and anger. Fernandes tweeted that it was his "toughest decision in 47 years of life" and said "we had to think about the future of the club".
Warnock was told of the decision to sack him by chief executive Phil Beard not Fernandes, who did not speak to him at Milton Keynes. After the dismissal Fernades texted Warnock. The assistant manager, Mick Jones, and first-team coach, Keith Curle, both long-time associates, have also left the club.
QPR was the 63-year-old Warnock's 12th job in management, having begun at Gainsborough Trinity in 1980. It may be also be his last. While his record of seven promotions means he will not be short of offers from ambitious Championship clubs, he has two children of school age and a home in Cornwall and may now focus on media work including his column in The Independent.
Meanwhile, whoever takes over at QPR will be deprived of the services for the rest of the season of Argentine midfielder Alejandro Faurlin, who ruptured an anterior cruciate ligament on Saturday.