As things turned out, Heidar Helguson’s late equalizer in Milton Keynes on Saturday afternoon wasn’t quite enough to keep Neil Warnock in his job. Rangers – without a win of any description in the FA Cup for a decade – may well remain in the competition for now, but Warnock won’t be at Loftus Road for the replay. The man that took the club into the Premier League departed yesterday, barely halfway through their first season back in the top flight in a decade and a half. With the club having slipped to seventeenth place in the league table after an encouraging start, his departure isn’t the biggest surprise possible, but there is still something faintly peculiar about a manager getting replaced having not had a full season in a higher division after having taken them to promotion. There is, however, no room for sentimentality in modern football.
It is, perhaps, the money that the club’s new owner Tony Fernandes threw at it after having taken control of it in August that proved to be the defining catalyst for Warnock’s departure from the club. Under its previous, combustible ownership, Queens Park Rangers looked set to be spending this season fighting battles both on and off the pitch, but the departure of Bernie Eccleston, Flavio Briatore et al as the new season began gave new life to a club which had previously been expected to labour under the combined weight of its off the pitch tribulations. The arrival of Fernandes nought new hope, and this was mirrored on the pitch with a string of decent results – including a home win against Chelsea – that took the club to a comfortable mid-table league position.
By the nineteenth of November, Queens Park Rangers were in ninth place in the Premier League table and were comfortably holding their own. Since then, however, their form has dropped alarmingly, with no wins in their last nine matches seeing them fall to within just a single point of the relegation places. Whether Saturday’s failure to win against League One opposition was in itself a sizeable contributing factor towards Warnock’s departure is very much open to question – it seems doubtful that he would have gone on the strength of this result had QPR still been looking comfortable in the middle of the Premier League table - but the decision has now been taken, and a hint at the extent to which the club is clearing its decks can be seem from the simultaneous departures of first team coach Mick Jones and assistant manager Keith Curle.
The rumour mill has, of course, already been turning and it is being strongly suggested that Warnock’s replacement at Loftus Road will be Mark Hughes. It is possible to draw a line which makes sense of this. The January transfer window has just opened and Fernandes has money. Hughes is linked to Kia “Definitely Not An Agent” Joorabchian, and Joorabchian has links to available players. Whether anybody that chooses to even be connected to him should be allowed within a one hundred mile radius of a football ground is one thing, but the small matter of why Queens Park Rangers may be in such a hurry to jump into bed with Hughes so quickly is one that is worth asking. If all of the seven billion people on this planet, should Queens Park Rangers supporters be sold on the argument that, of all the football managers in the world that might, even theoretically, be interested in the job, Hughes is the only one that is even north speaking to?
If one thing does seem likely, it is that the club’s support will be divided by such a decision. There will those that feel that the club has a debt to Warnock for getting the club into the Premier League for the first time in a decade and a half in the first place and who may feel that he deserved until the end of this season, at least. Others, of course, may choose to take the viewpoint that, having taken a decade and a half to get into the Premier League in the first place, the club cannot afford to fall back through the trapdoor when getting back up has been demonstrated to be very difficult indeed. As ever in these cases, we won’t know who was right until it’s too late.
There is, however, one thing that we can say in favour of Tony Fernandes, and that is that his grasp of how to use social media is very strong. Fernandes was on Twitter last night, explaining – to the extent that he can at present – the rationale behind the decision and answering questions from supporters. It is encouraging to see the owner of a football club using social media in a positive way, but this of itself will not guarantee the clubs success on the pitch. Mark Hughes may or may not be the right man for the Queens Park Rangers, but – and this needs to be qualified by mentioning Warnock’s lack of popularity in a general sense amongst the supporters of other clubs – it still seems a little harsh to be releasing him with the club still, for now at least, above the relegation places and the clubs fate for this season far from concluded.
All of this leaves the Premier League’s managerial sack race looking somewhat lop-sided at the start of the new year. Below Queens Park Rangers in the table, Steve Kean, Roberto Martinez and Owen Coyle continue to hold onto their positions although each of the three clubs that they manage have spent little time so far this season above that all-important dotted line. Time will come to tell whether Queens Park Rangers have jumped the gun or whether they have been astute in attempting to even the keel of a ship which has, over the last few weeks, begun to look as if it is listing a little. If Queens Park Rangers maintain their Premier League status beyond the end of this season, it will probably be adjudged to be a gamble that has paid off.
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