Mark Hughes is battling to save his job as manager of Queen’s Park Rangers, hoping that the promise of a return to the fighting spirit that avoided relegation last season will earn him a last stand at Loftus Road.
His words were as tough, uncompromising and combative as his players were not in the 3-1 defeat by Southampton that leaves his job hanging by a thread, and he will have to hope that they persuade Tony Fernandes, the owner, to give him the time he needs to alter the mindset of a team that does not seem to have noticed its perilous situation.
One bookmaker made Hughes odds-on to be sacked by midnight on Monday even before Fernandes, who was attending yesterday’s US Grand Prix, had said on Twitter that the fans had been let down and omitted to repeat his oft-tweeted support for Hughes. When he gets back to London, the message from Hughes will be that he wants to fight on.
Hughes, who took over from Neil Warnock in January, had promised in the summer that there would be no repeat of last season’s struggle against the drop, but now he must restructure his team for exactly such a scrap, which suggests that old reliables such as Shaun Derry will be back on the team sheet rather than the bench.
“We’re not talking about a successful mid-table finish now,” he said. “Given the manner of the performance today we have to accept that we’re in danger of going down.
“The sooner we recognise that, we will get the right mentality to move us forward, and maybe the right players. I have to look at the make-up of the team because today can’t be allowed to pass without changes being made in personnel.
“We have to look at who we’ve got and get the balance right.”
Southampton celebrated their first away points of the season but would be wise not to read too much into the result given Rangers’ feeble display. Hughes defended his players – up to a point – against accusations from supporters that some of them were only at Loftus Road to pick up some pretty impressive wage packets, but also admitted that he had read the Riot Act afterwards.
“I can understand totally the frustration of the fans but I can assure them that everyone is working really hard to turn this around. When you have a performance like that, the fans are absolutely right to criticise, given where we are. In fairness, I was of the same view. We’re at a point where we’re so disappointed with what we produced that something needed to be said. We need to understand that we have to compete and give what’s required.”
But whatever upheaval he decides on for the first team, he still believes that continuity in the dugout is essential. But then he would, wouldn’t he? “Stability is absolutely what this club needs long-term,” he said. “Making wholesale changes again would be the wrong decision. You would expect me to say that but I honestly believe it.”
And of course he praised Fernandes and the club’s shareholders for holding the same view up to now. But that resolve, if it holds, will be tested again by next weekend’s match against Manchester United at Old Trafford, followed by a visit to Sunderland, before Aston Villa come to Loftus Road for another of those must-win games that, so far, QPR have not managed to win. “The Premier League is tricky,” Hughes said. “There are no gimmes. You have to work with the same intensity and do the fundamentals well. If you don’t, you get beaten.”
Harry Redknapp, the subject of a banner held up towards the end of the match that read: “Harry come and save us,” said on Match of the Day that it would not be fair for him to discuss the job while Hughes is still in it and that his wife had made the banner. “She just wants me out of the house,” he joked, but then added, perhaps significantly: “We’ll just wait and see.”
Tony Fernandes, over to you.