Mark Hughes goes into 'El Sackico' praying for Queen's Park Rangers to click
QPR manager knows defeat to Southampton today would leave them marooned at the bottom
It is the fixture which has been described as El Sackico but Mark Hughes has not spent the week leading into the home game with Nigel Adkins' Southampton looking nervously over his shoulder. The one-hour conference call that he and his senior staff held with Queen's Park Rangers' shareholders on Wednesday afternoon felt intrinsically different to the silence which told him the end was nigh at Manchester City in the depths of winter three years ago.
One current Rangers player who was stalked by relegation at his previous club all last of season says this feels like a very different place, yet there is no doubt that Hughes is facing the biggest challenge of a managerial career which is defined by an ability to see off initial adversity. Defeat today would maroon Rangers at least two points adrift at the bottom of the table, with Old Trafford beckoning next. With Rangers' ratio of wages to turnover already around 90 per cent, losing a place in the Premier League's new £1bn promised land is unthinkable.
Hughes has been here before; wondering if it's all actually going to work out. He conceded several years after delivering success and professionalism to a previously amateurish Wales set-up that he blundered around not knowing what the hell he was doing in the difficult early months. It was the same pattern at Blackburn Rovers: a grim, 10-game struggle for a second victory erasing the early promise created by Matt Jansen's winner over Portsmouth in his opening game, with back-to-back 4-0 defeats in amongst the wreckage in the autumn and winter of 2004. The team were neither fit nor disciplined enough and what Hughes said at Ewood Park back then is applicable now – that it would take his players time to work out what he and his management staff were trying to do.
In his second season, 2005-06, Hughes' Rovers beat Manchester United twice, Chelsea and Arsenal. The picture was just the same at Fulham two years ago: one win in the league by 30 October, though a major uplift when Bobby Zamora returned from injury.
That Rovers side of Hughes' had a poor disciplinary record, with Andy Todd epitomising the quality which made Sir Alex Ferguson and Arsène Wenger equally unhappy. Hughes' Rangers have had their share of cards too – 17 yellows to go with Stéphane Mbia and Samba Diakité's reds – but where his fit, tactically organised Rovers side were penalised for controlled aggression, Rangers seem out of control. The feeling among the manager's staff is that Mbia displayed only naivety about the Premier League in the way he kicked out at Thomas Vermaelen in the 1-0 defeat at Arsenal last month, but there is a pattern.
We are witnessing Hughes' biggest task in football – bigger even than City, where at least there was vast resource to go with expectation. His club is so ill-equipped for Premier League football that they train at Imperial College London's facilities where the pitch the Under-14s used in midweek did not even have adequate lighting at one end. He inherited no scouting system and nothing resembling a human resources department when it came to dealing with £65,000-a-week Joey Barton. The absence of an academy to speak of explains why Raheem Sterling is playing for Liverpool, not Rangers.
Building a first XI is also a challenge on an entirely different scale. Hughes encountered a timebomb when he arrived two weeks before January's transfer window closed and reinforced as best he could to survive.
There was more buying just to keep up this summer. The £13m Rangers have spent on 11 players is less than the £14m Sunderland laid out on Steven Fletcher alone and puts them well behind West Ham United. They needed more strength than they got at centre-back, because Michael Dawson's personal terms were too great. There have been injuries for Fabio da Silva and Park Ji-sung as well as the cruciate injury which put Andy Johnson out for the season. The acquisition of goalkeeper Rob Green has not worked. The anxiety attacks which beset Diakité, whose loan Hughes made permanent after he played a key role in the club's survival last season, were not predicted. Hughes has only been able to play the same back four consecutively twice.
Amid all this have been some good performances, in defeat at Stoke last weekend, and in the home draw with Chelsea. But the quintessential Hughes grittiness, evident in the side fighting relegation last spring, has gone and they cannot buy a goal. It is not clear what will make things click even though there is a feeling that something will.
Hughes' assertion yesterday that Rangers might yet finish in the top half seemed ambitious but it wasn't managerial propaganda. There is a sense they are better than this. "I went from Manchester United and Barcelona down to Southampton when we had a shocking start to a season [in 1998]," Hughes reflected. "But we turned it round. It was a shock to the system because it wasn't what I was used to. But you use the qualities that took you to the top in the first place."
That ice is still in his veins and with four points in November he will need it. No one told him in that midweek conference call that there would be consequences of defeat. It is doubtful that anyone put the question. He can only hold his breath at 3pm today and wait for things to happen.
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