Is Mark Hughes’ QPR Spending Spree Courageous, Ambitious, Foolish or Mad?

Queens Park Rangers’ transfer dealings, successful or otherwise, have raised a number of eyebrows. The seemingly short-term policy of bringing in ‘experience’ and bloating their squad looks odd to say the least.

QPR can consider themselves fortunate to still be in the Premier League given the events at Stoke versus Bolton on the final day of last season. Had referee Chris Foy deemed Jon Walters’ Lofthouse-esque barge on Bolton keeper Adam Bogdan a foul, Rangers would be plying their trade in the Championship right now.

This season is crucial for QPR as Tony Fernandes hopes that his side can establish themselves as a Premiership outfit. But for a certain Leslie Mark Hughes, the fate of Queens Park Rangers could potentially make or break his managerial career.

Hughes’ managerial star shone brightly when he nearly took Wales to their first major tournament since 1958, narrowly failing to qualify for Euro 2004.  Hughes’ win percentage for Wales was 29.27%, emerging victorious in 12 of the 41 games he was in charge.  Crucially though Hughes made Wales tough to beat, securing 14 draws during his tenure.

He further burnished his reputation with a relatively successful spell at Blackburn Rovers.  Hughes took over in 2004, steered Rovers away from the relegation zone and guided them to their first FA Cup Semi Final in 40 years.  The season after he took Blackburn to a top six finish securing UEFA Cup qualification.  In 147 league games, Hughes’ win percentage was 39.46% winning 58 matches and drawing 38 of them.  That said, Blackburn finished bottom of the disciplinary table in each of Hughes’ seasons in charge of the club.  The issue of discipline is interesting to note given QPR’s problems with it last season, most spectacularly demonstrated with Joey Barton’s red card against Man City.

Hughes’ big break arrived on the 4th of June 2008 when he was appointed as the head coach of Manchester City.  Rumours of interest from Chelsea swirled after the sacking of Avram Grant but it was blue half of Manchester who came in for him.  However the situation changed for Hughes on the 1st of September after the Abu Dhabi Investment Group bought the club from former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.  With the spotlight firmly on Hughes, he took City to 10th in his first full season and at the beginning of the 2009-2010 campaign, Sparky’s team started brightly obtaining a number of good results including a notable 4-2 win over Arsenal.  However in October, City began a run of seven successive draws (a joint Premiership record), which effectively ended their title push and led to Hughes’ dismissal on the 19th of December 2009.  Hughes’ win percentage in the league at City came to 40%, in 55 games he won 22 of them and drew 13.  Whether or not Hughes was dealt with harshly he did make a lasting contribution to the club by acquiring City’s most important signing, Vincent Kompany, as well as securing deals for Robinho (thus demonstrating that City can compete for the top players) and Carlos Tevez (effectively getting one over neighbours Manchester United).

Hughes returned to management at Craven Cottage in 2010 succeeding Roy Hodgson as Fulham manager.   The Cottagers finished a creditable 8th and managed to make Europa League qualifying, oddly enough, via the Fair Play League.  Hughes was in charge for 38 league games and his win percentage 28.95% winning 11 games and drawing 16.

It can be argued that Hughes’ star began to wane after his sacking at City but perhaps what really made his career stall was his decision to leave Fulham after just one season.  Upon his resignation Hughes stated, “As a young, ambitious manager I wish to move on and further my experiences”.  Rumours circulated that he was after the Villa job, made vacant by Gerard Houllier’s departure, but that opportunity didn’t come to pass.  It was speculated that the manner of Sparky’s departure from Fulham didn’t endear him to the powers that be at Aston Villa.

Given Hughes’ reasons for leaving Fulham his decision to return to QPR, on the surface, is surprising.   However if we look deeper it does make sense as no manager will want to stay out of the game too long for fear of being placed in the footballing wilderness.  Take the example of Rafa Benitez who, at the time of writing, hasn’t been in a managerial position since his ill-fated stint at Inter.  The longer one is out of the game the harder it is to get back in.

It may not have been his first choice and it certainly is a risk but Hughes has decided to begin his managerial rehabilitation at QPR.  No doubt he’s keen to ensure that QPR finish as high up the table as possible but signing a two and a half year contract hardly suggests that he’s looking to build a legacy.  The length of the deal protects QPR too from dishing a substantial payout should things go awry but going by the current approach and strategy there seems to be an air of short-termism pervading the Hoops’ dreams.

Hughes’ approaches for 30-something players like Ricardo Carvalho and Júlio César demonstrates Sparky’s desire to get proven quality to stiffen up the QPR squad.  It also underlines to the current owner and other possible suitors that he still has the stardust and the ability to bring in famous names.  Tony Fernandes should be given his dues though for backing his manager.  Hughes’ recruitment policy, signing the likes of Park Ji-Sung, José Bosingwa, Robert Green, Ryan Nelson and Andy Johnson smacks of a desire to get things right quickly.  In terms of resale value there’s practically none with that group of players and the wage bill will be substantial but then again Premiership survival is the one and only goal.  The vision is unashamedly short-termist.

Hughes has assembled a group of experienced players who can play in different formations, offer tactical flexibility, and can trust them to execute his plans.   Coupled with the players that he recruited last January, Hughes is looking for his remodeled side to spark quickly.    He noted concerns about whether the team can gel or not stating “there’s always that (getting the new signings to settle in quickly) when you bring a number of players in.  But it’s negated somewhat when they’re quality players.”

Getting QPR to start quickly is vital for Hughes as in the past it’s taken his previous sides time to adapt to his preferred systems and tactics and time is a commodity Rangers feel they don’t have.  Whilst it may seem a safe bet to bring in experience, the strategy being pursued by Hughes is arguably the riskiest of his career.  By bringing in a great number of experienced Premiership players, a tactic he employed at City, he needs QPR to fire and move up the table rapidly to give them breathing space so that by the time January transfer window arrives QPR can recruit and sell personnel in a place of stability.

For Hughes the risks and rewards are quite clear.  Should he become embroiled in a relegation battle, fail to keep his squad happy and ultimately take them down or is shown the door; the damage to Hughes’ reputation will be huge.  There was sympathy for the way he was treated at City but his departure from Fulham did leave somewhat of a sour taste.  If Sparky cannot ensure safety for QPR, comfortable safety, then he may find himself in the wilderness for a prolonged period of time.  He simply cannot afford for QPR to experience a re-run of the form that nearly got them relegated last season.

However if Hughes can push QPR up the table and ensure a strong finish, a good cup run wouldn’t hurt either, then Sparky would have successfully put himself back in the centre of the managerial map.  Hughes could argue, quite convincingly, to QPR or any other club that he and his backroom staff have the ability to take any side to the next level and build strong foundations.

To be fair to Hughes he has shown that he is a capable manager.   His achievements at Wales, Blackburn and to a lesser extent Man City and Fulham shouldn’t be scoffed at.  He’s made astute signings most notably: Vincent Kompany, Christopher Samba, Ryan Nelsen (for Blackburn), Roque Santa Cruz (for Blackburn), Mousa Dembélé and Pablo Zabaleta.  At QPR Hughes has had to deal with a number of big issues, none bigger than the Anton Ferdinand-John Terry racism saga and the Joey Barton farce which he has managed as well as anyone could have expected given the circumstances.

On the flip side there are some issues that still need to be addressed.  His relationship with Robinho wasn’t ideal bringing into question whether he can handle big name stars.  Hughes’ ability to handle big budgets also has to be queried.  His expenditure at City was wasteful over-paying for the likes of Nigel De Jong and Joleon Lescott whilst the signings of Wayne Bridge, Emmanuel Adebayor and Roque Santa Cruz have proved to be poor.  As mentioned earlier, discipline is an area Sparky must tackle and his dealings with other managers can leave a bit to be desired with handshakes being an area he can work on!

Call Hughes’ QPR gamble courageous, ambitious, foolish or just plain mad but he’s rolled the dice and is hoping that his bet comes good.  He certainly gives off the air of a man who has something to prove.  Perhaps he sees this opportunity to put any lingering questions to rest and a springboard to bigger and better things.  We shouldn’t begrudge Hughes the desire to manage a bigger club and if things go well both QPR and Hughes will have gained from the relationship. Hughes though is gambling with his reputation in the hope of achieving big results.  As a footballer Mark Hughes garnered a reputation for scoring spectacular goals, if he can execute his plan at QPR as well as he can strike a volley then he may be on the way to resurrecting his managerial career.

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