By George Ankers
"I can promise that QPR will never be in this position again," said Mark Hughes on May 13. The Rs had just lost a thrilling encounter with Manchester City but stayed up by the skin of their teeth.
Just over six months later, the Welshman prepares his side to meet Southampton at Loftus Road in what is the first bona fide relegation six-pointer of the campaign. He has a lot of work to do in order to fulfil that promise.
While QPR fans grow restless, Hughes' counterpart enjoys overwhelming support from the Saints faithful.
Nigel Adkins has been welcomed to recent home games with rapturous applause and persistent chanting of his name, the St Mary's Stadium crowd making their point to the board as bookies chip away at their manager's odds in the sack race. For many, the fear of a rash, stability-severing sacking is more concerning than going straight back down.
|BATTLE AT THE BOTTOM
15. Norwich City
17. Aston Villa
It is not hard to understand why Southampton are 19th. Adkins led them back to the promised land far quicker than had been planned for and they still bear noticeable hallmarks of a lower-league side; specifically, their defence.
With 29 goals already conceded, the back line is a minefield. With the strong-but-slow Jos Hooiveld alongside game-but-limited Jose Fonte paired at centre-back, most fans saw something like this coming.
Adkins himself saw it too; he was on record as wanting to invest in defenders as well as a goalkeeper to replace declining club hero Kelvin Davis. Apart from late budget buy Maya Yoshida (who is seemingly no improvement), he did not get any in the summer.
After the £7 million record swoop for striker Jay Rodriguez to boost an already sufficient front line, the throwing of all available money at Gaston Ramirez stuck out clearly as not being an Adkins purchase.
Southampton's chairman, Nicola Cortese (described as "not a very nice human being" by Matt Le Tissier), is an ambitious man. The pursuit of a superb talent, coveted by the likes of Liverpool and Tottenham, from his native Italy was very much his statement of intent. But it meant no investment at the back and now Adkins is paying for it.
The Saints boss, one of the most optimistic and upbeat men in football, is not one to kick up a fuss after the fact. He talks a lot about getting on with it, which of course is as much as he can do in the circumstances, and there will surely be financial backing for new defenders in January if he makes it that far.
That is, of course, if he makes it that far. Not every part of Southampton's struggle is of Cortese's making.
Adkins' penchant for not starting talismanic striker Rickie Lambert now and then, plus the occasional initiative-surrendering substitution, frustrates. The decision to play a weakened side against Leeds in the Capital One Cup just when a momentum-boosting win would have gone down a treat was a mistake.
But Saints have already played six of the top seven (pushing both of the top two desperately close) and Adkins has led them too far and too well not to be given the chance to unleash his attacking options against the weaker sides to come, as the 4-1 beating of Aston Villa hinted. Cortese and his board must look past the current table, recognise as much and reinforce the defence in January.
Hughes, though, does not have that track record of taking QPR in the right direction. In a different way, transfers are a big part of his predicament, but they appear much more his own failing.
QPR's summer investment was more extensive than Southampton's but more balanced, the recruiting of almost an entire new XI much more a sign of a manager in control of all his dealings. They talked of an outside tilt at European qualification.
|JUMPING THROUGH HOOPS
|11/1||Southampton are 11/1 with Paddy Power to beat QPR 2-1|
Up front, in particular, they are still seriously struggling, with only three goals at home so far despite all that investment – this record simply must improve against the vulnerable Saints.
QPR owner Tony Fernandes seems to be issuing the "dreaded vote of confidence" in Hughes every week now but performances such as their last two are unlikely to be tolerated for much longer at this sack-happy club.
Reading and Stoke City have been largely poor this season but QPR were even poorer against both, too often resorting to aimless long shots and lacking in inspiration.
With the Rs so free-spending, one unfortunate journalist has already accidentally called Hughes "Harry", with it so easy to put two and two together as the "perfect job" for a certain Mr Redknapp.
Whether it be he to whom QPR turn or not, Fernandes has every right to expect more from Hughes and his men. Facing Southampton at home must be seen as an opportunity to kick this side into life – if it is not taken, it will be harder still to argue that Hughes is the right man to do so in time.
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