If there was any comfort to be had for Mark Hughes, the QPR manager, from yesterday’s damaging home defeat by their closest rivals in the relegation battle, it was that the club’s supporters clearly did not hold him solely responsible for an abject performance.
Chants of “Hughes out” after Southampton’s third goal were followed by “You’re only here for the money,” directed at the expensively-assembled squad who have done very little to justify their wages.
It was hard to disagree with their assessment. An anaemic, bloodless display from QPR allowed a much more purposeful Southampton side to take their first away points of the season and ease any pressure that had been building on their manager, Nigel Adkins.
While Southampton players such as Jack Cork and Adam Lallana, without a Premier League appearance to their names before this season, tried their hearts out, the big names brought in by Hughes seemed to be queuing up to let him down. Only Ryan Nelsen, the captain, and substitutes Sean Derry and Jamie Mackie – already at the club when Hughes arrived – could leave the field with their heads held high.
“We weren’t aggressive enough,” Hughes said. “We talked all week about the significance of this game. Maybe the anxiety filtered through to them. All the fundamentals you need were sadly lacking and when that happens, you’re going to concede goals. We talked about dictating the game but that didn’t happen. We didn’t put them under anything like the pressure you need to. We’ll be scratching our heads again.”
Now the question is what the QPR hierarchy will do. They say that a manager is truly in danger when the fans stop calling for his head and start calling for the chairman’s, and Tony Fernandes, the QPR owner, escaped vilification. But although he emphasised this week “for the millionth time” that he values stability and would not be sacking Hughes, that resolve will surely be tested.
As a prompt, a banner reading “Harry come and save us,” referring to the former Tottenham manager Harry Redknapp, who once performed a similar miracle for Portsmouth, was held up.
A miracle, in fact, may be required. QPR remain without a win in 12 attempts, equalling their worst start to a top-flight season, and since they have now failed to beat two other teams in the bottom three in successive home games – although Reading have now escaped the basement – you wonder where a Hoops victory is supposed to come from.
Next Saturday’s trip to Old Trafford does not offer much promise, so the subsequent visit to Sunderland and a home match with Aston Villa, Reading’s replacements, become must-win games – if it makes sense to talk about such a thing for a team that last took three points in April.
They never looked like doing so yesterday as Southampton were straight on to the front foot. Lallana went close with a dipping volley, then Jason Puncheon’s cross from the right eluded Lallana’s diving lunge by a matter of inches, the ball hitting the outside of the post with Julio Cesar grasping at air.
Rangers took 14 minutes to threaten the visitors’ goal, when Adel Taarabt jinked past Nathaniel Clyne and José Fonte only to shoot straight at Paulo Gazzaniga. The young goalkeeper then fumbled Junior Hoilett’s shot but got away with it.
Southampton, though, were soon back on top, and in the 22nd minute QPR failed to clear a corner from the left, Puncheon’s close-range shot was blocked on the goalline by Cesar’s shins and as the ball looped up in the air, Rickie Lambert dived bravely ahead of Samba Diakite to head in.
And it got better for Southampton seconds before the interval. Puncheon found himself in yards of space as he took Clyne’s pass on the corner of the penalty area, turned inside past an excuse of a challenge from Alejandro Faurlin, and hit a low left-foot shot across Cesar and into the far corner.
Rangers had to improve, and halved the deficit four minutes into the restart as Hoilett headed home Taarabt’s cross from the left. But Southampton continued to pass their way forward, and although you half-expected them to produce the sort of defensive blunder that has bedevilled their season, Rangers simply failed to put the ball into threatening areas. Djibril Cissé shot wide after looking in vain for support after 72 minutes, as QPR continued to show very little of the urgency you would expect of a team in their position.
Probably correct in thinking that attack was their best form of defence, Southampton went on taking the game to the home side. Cesar had to be at his best to turn aside Maya Yoshida’s scissors-kick, but he was helpless seven minutes from time as Ferdinand stuck out a leg to divert a low cross from the unmarked Morgan Schneiderlin into his own net.
“It was a good performance again and it culminated in the three points we were after,” Adkins said. “It could have turned around after they scored but there’s a growing confidence and maturity about this young group of players.”
Pre-match Philip Beard, QPR's CEO, wrote in the programme "we must not get carried away whatever the result". "One Nigel Adkins" sung by Saints fans.
22 mins Adkins is frustrated as a chance is wasted.
38 mins First boos for QPR as aimless pass goes through to the Southampton goalkeeper.
45 mins Thoughtful expression on Hughes's face as Jason Puncheon doubles visitors' lead. "Hughes out" from The Loft.
48 mins QPR score. Now Adkins looks pensive.
83 mins Saints score a third: a double fist pump from Adkins. "Hughes out" again and "You're only here for the money".
Full-time Handshakes all round. Crosby hugs Adkins as Hughes goes down the tunnel.
Queens Park Rangers (4-2-3-1): Julio Cesar; Bosingwa (Fabio, 74), Nelsen, Ferdinand, Traore; Diakite (Derry, 71), Faurlin (Mackie, h-t); Granero, Taarabt, Hoilett; Cisse.
Southampton (4-2-3-1): Gazzaniga; Clyne, Fonte, Yoshida, Shaw (Fox, 74); Cork, Schneiderlin; Puncheon, Ramirez (S Davis, 62), Lallana; Lambert (Rodriguez, 90).
Referee: Mike Dean
Man of the match: Cork (Southampton)
Match rating: 7/10