The QPR Verdict: Why Rangers’ approach has been flawed from the outset
Hoops paying the price for complacency as Bolton defeat plunges them into bottom three
Half an hour after the final whistle sounded at an uproarious Reebok Stadium on Saturday, a stony-faced Mark Hughes removed the chewing gum from his mouth and hurled it across the changing-room floor.
It was a telling moment from a manager who until this weekend was coolness personified. Until the moment he witnessed his side fall to what bore all the hall-marks of a season-defining defeat.
Rangers reached a new low in Lancashire. Floored by Ivan Klasnic’s winner for Bolton three minutes from time, heads fell lower than they have all season – staring downwards, towards the bottom three, and with just 10 games left.
Hughes was a man on the war-path, incensed by Clint Hill’s ‘ghost goal’, and by the farcical timing of the Football Association’s call for the introduction of video technology, which he branded ‘laughable’.
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But however unlucky QPR might have been to see Hill’s legitimate goal missed by the officials, this defeat was equally due to the same old failings; poor defending for both goals and a continued inability to convert chances in front of goal.
However, it is also interesting to consider the pre-match comments of both Hughes and his Bolton counterpart Owen Coyle. On Friday, Hughes’s verdict of this game was: “I don’t think we’re at the point of saying it’s a must-win game or a six-pointer. If we acquire the points we’ll keep above the teams below us.”
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Coyle, whose Bolton team began the afternoon in the relegation zone, said: “It’s a proverbial six-pointer. We have to look to start the game well because we know that if we win the game on Saturday we will move out of the bottom three. That will be our motivation and drive.”
It is a striking comparison. To Hughes, this game was seemingly no more or less important than any other he has taken charge of since January. But for Coyle, three points were everything; an entirely different approach from two managers whose teams were separated only by two points.
Yet if ever there was the definition of a six-pointer for QPR this was it, a final chance to put some daylight between themselves and the bottom three, before they commenced the final 10 games of the season which will throw in their direction Liverpool, Arsenal, Manchester United and Chelsea.
It was only one comment by Hughes – almost a throw-away remark – yet it is symptomatic of the general lack of urgency which has emanated from the club as they have slid slowly but surely towards trouble since Christmas, taking six points from a possible 33.
More than one player has dismissed the notion of relegation, while on the pitch Rangers have rarely played at the tempo of a side desperately attempting to fight their way clear of danger. Loftus Road has become more a sandcastle than a fortress, where the hosts have crumbled to seven league defeats.
Perhaps this is due to the position QPR have occupied for most of the season; close enough to mid-table to be able to smell safety, but never quite clear enough to be able to throw the shackles off. Lost in a lower mid-table no-man’s land. That has led to ongoing hesitancy.
When Hughes took over in January, he inherited a side sitting 17th, two points above the bottom three. Results were poor, but QPR were not cut adrift in the drop-zone, they were merely flirting with danger.
Thus Hughes’s situation did not carry the urgency of a team sitting 18th, 19th or 20th in the table, where the imminent prospect of dropping into the Championship would have infinitely sharpened the focus on survival.
All season there has been the feeling that a 17th-place finish would do. The board said as much: stick with the status quo; where we are now is absolutely fine, so let’s stay there and no more.
The result has been a blurring of targets. On Saturday, a QPR side knowing that a win was not absolutely vital – as long as they maintained their ‘safe’ position of 17th - met a Bolton team hell-bent on victory. It was a predictable outcome.
On the face of it, Hughes went for the three points, beginning with two up front and making attacking substitutions, yet the worrying feeling remains he would have happily settled for the draw, a suggestion backed up by his pre-match comments.
Ever since the fixtures were announced back in June, nervous glances were cast at the final 10 games of QPR’s season, the nightmare run-in which many correctly prophesised would shape their season.
Rangers needed to be clear of the relegation zone – certainly not in it – by the time they faced Liverpool in the first of those games. Instead, they have fallen into the bottom three at the very worst moment.
They will almost certainly approach these games with renewed urgency in the knowledge that relegation is all of a sudden staring them in the face. It is hard to escape the conclusion that the damage has already been done.
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