The Short Answer

As Sir Alex Ferguson approached his recent 25th year anniversary in charge at Manchester United, profiles revealed he had team selection for six games in advance in his mind, like a chess player going in for the kill. It was news that wasn’t really a surprise to anyone who has noted his use of squad rotation, particularly in the last fifteen years, where United have often had two games a week in the final third of the season. Every Manager, like a supporter, has an eye on the fixture list, and that is even more true when a Manager is about to accept a job midway through the season.

When Mark Hughes looked at QPR’s fixtures in January, he would have seen a number of winnable games at the start, which he would have no doubt thought would get his new club up the table. He would have also seen that his final game of the season is away to his former club Manchester City, where his treatment at the end, after months of speculation – a sacking ahead of a final game he won while his replacement sat in the stands – was a reminder that for all a club’s wealth, money can’t buy class. With that in mind, it would be totally understandable if Hughes had even the briefest of visions of stopping City win the League. Two months later though, it seems more likely then ever that QPR could be relegated that on that last day, in front of not just a packed stadium, but a worldwide television audience, as matters at both ends of the table come to a climax.

City’s defeat at the hands of Swansea, and their tougher run-in than Manchester United, may mean that Hughes’ ignominy is not total, but it will take an excellent recovery now to save QPR, with half of their last ten games against the top five, who all have something to play for. The appointment of Hughes by Tony Fernandes made sense; at Blackburn in particular, he produced a good footballing team that played above potential, and at times dictated games against more fancied opposition.

Under Hughes, Blackburn qualified for Europe through their League position and they should have reached the FA Cup Final in 2007, but Morten-Gamst Pederson’s near post miss after a fine move was eventually punished in extra-time of a semi-final by Chelsea. Hughes also made some astute signings, bringing in Christopher Samba, Benni McCarthy, Roque Santa Cruz and Ryan Nelson for relative value. And Hughes’ business when joining Rangers during the January transfer window also looked good on paper – with Bobby Zamora, a goalscorer whose all-round play improved at Fulham, and Taye Taiwo, a player who looked like he could dictate games from left back in the Champions League for Marseille before joining the legion of wasted full-backs Milan tend to collect, both stand out signings.

But it hasn’t happened for Hughes or QPR. Not so long ago he was considered a potential replacement for Ferguson, and has been linked with Chelsea and Tottenham for a while. His departure from Fulham last summer suggested he was being lined up for something else, but as his agent is Kia Joorabchian, it is entirely possible he may have just made the wrong move.

Last night on Match of the Day 2, Steve Bruce, who himself has had a managerial career that has shown he has never let fear of change get in the way of his ambition, pointed out that the unforgiving nature of football coverage at the highest level means a sacking, as well as a man losing his job and main source of income, is also a public spectacle where his work is branded a failure. It is fair to say the financial rewards at the highest level, beyond the dreams of 99% of society at a time of prolonged high unemployment, should more than compensate for any personal disappointment, but Bruce’s wider point is that a Manager’s reputation, and therefore ability to be given another chance, also suffer.

What Clubs and Managers need are strong Boards who will back their Managers if they believe they are part of a longer term solution. Where Managers have a record of walking out on jobs in the past, their appointment is likely to be for the primary reason of short-term impact. Bruce did prove otherwise though, when he stayed as part of a longer-term project at Birmingham and achieved relative success. The words from both parties when he was appointed indicated that was also the plan for Hughes and QPR, with targets of not just survival this season, but European football in seasons to come. Meanwhile Managers that are currently employed in the Premier League and have had a record of loyalty, including Alan Pardew and Roberto Martinez, suggest they are there because of Chairmen that have a plan.

Whether QPR get relegated or not, Hughes still has a lot of good attributes as a Manager. But at the moment he seems out of the running for any of the top jobs his agent said he wanted when he left Fulham, and may well come up in the summer. Had he sat the year out, like a player who is sometimes lucky to miss a bad performance through injury, his stock may have been higher. But QPR is his project now, and he needs to see it through, and prove he is not just the short-term answer.

MG