Manager Neil Warnock carved his name into Queens Park Rangers history with a thrilling Championship campaign last year, but his tenure is over after a difficult run in the Premier League left the club dangerously close to relegation.
New owner Tony Fernandes will now put his own choice in charge, bringing in former Blackburn, Manchester City and Fulham boss Mark Hughes. QPR's survival in the league is very questionable at this stage, but this change signifies the owner's willingness to make the hard choices necessary to succeed.
No matter what happens with the remainder of the season, Warnock earned a fond place in the memories of the club's faithful, as the man who took them from the threat of relegation to League One back up to the Premier League for the first time in fifteen years. He deserved more resources and more time, but managing is a cruel mistress. Now his replacement faces a huge challenge in continuing the team's success and maintaining their place in the top flight.
Despite the success he achieved in a short period of time at QPR, Neil Warnock was undone this season by a combination of long and short-term problems. He inherited an under performing team in the Championship, but his skills as a man-manager and motivator allowed him to wring the utmost out of them. Combined with a superlative season by Adel Taarabt and tenacious team play, the R's soared higher than anyone imagined they could, winning the league and returning QPR to a glory that had been lost over years of ownership and management turbulence. But success is hard to sustain in this business without new talent, and Warnock received few favours under the old regime. He was publicly rebuked over his requests for funds to upgrade his squad upon promotion and forced to cobble together replacements and improvements from the Bosman heap and take whatever he could get. Gambling on Kieron Dyer and Jay Bothroyd because of his limited means, he knew that he faced an uphill battle to compete against the top money clubs at this level. When rumour began to build towards the end of the summer that a takeover was eminent, it seemed like some deus ex machina might truly swoop in and give him tools to work with.
Tony Fernandes didn't hesitate when he arrived and delivered funds late in the summer transfer window, but with most of the quality players available signed elsewhere and the new team still sorting itself out, the relatively small moves set the team up to struggle. Luke Young and Armand Traore have been quality since coming to QPR, but Anton Ferdinand and Danny Gabbidon have had their share of miscues and injuries in the central defence. Joey Barton has had some strong games but has disappeared or made costly errors in others, and the lack of a creative striker alongside Helguson has hampered the ability to score goals. To a degree Warnock would be right to feel hard done by with getting sacked at this moment - the team needed more improving than he was able to do, and more time to get it together. But this is a business that gives no quarter and the results speak for themselves.
Since the jubilant victory over Chelsea at Loftus Road on October 30th, the R's have taken a meagre five points in eleven league matches. Players have looked unprepared at times and their damnable ability to play to the level of their competition and make bad decisions on the ball have cost them games and points this season. The slow reaction on Warnock's part to Norwich City manager Paul Lambert's changes in the recent defeat was a telling example that he struggled at times to adapt to the opposition's tactics. Warnock was a likeable character; fiery, funny and passionate in his support of his team. That enthusiasm was endearing and a part of the winning mentality that brought the club up. But positive attitude is not enough against vastly superior talent, and the combined lack of resources and stiff competition have found QPR flailing as they fell from mid-table to just above the drop in a manner of weeks. The R's were on the verge of another self-destructing act in the FA Cup last week, turning in a dreadful performance against a League One side that looked more suited to the task. If not for Heidar Helguson's last minute strike, they'd be out of the competition altogether and deservedly so. Even with the late draw, the wasteful performance and continuing decline was enough to force a change at the top.
The speed with which Hughes was arranged and introduced suggests this was in the works for some time. While supporters were sad to see the well regarded manager go and there was plenty of chatter about this being a ruthless move, the fact that the Board did have a plan should put a bit of ease back into fans minds. This was not another case of Flavio stamping his feet and throwing yet another manager out with the trash, but a calculated move to save the club from a quick drop back into the Championship. Having an owner willing to make the hard choice is actually a good sign, even if the shakeup hurts some feelings in the short term. He handled it diplomatically, taking to Twitter to interact with fans and explain himself over the decision. Held up against the history of flippant edicts given by Tango and Cash, this is a fairly bold and refreshing step and he gets credit for taking the heat publicly and honestly. In the end his money is on the block and the need to reboot the club was his decision. Hopefully the ends will justify the means with a brighter future for QPR.
For now, fans say goodbye to Warnock and thank him for all the great things he delivered while he was with the club. We'll see how they respond, but I wouldn't be surprised to hear a song or two at the next home game.
Meet the new boss
Mark Hughes was introduced Tuesday and immediately jumps into a club with serious needs. Ale Faurlin has been ruled out for the rest of the season - a major blow to the squad that needs immediate attention. Some combination of Shaun Derry, Tommy Smith and Akos Buszaky will have to hold that role for now but expect Hughes to search far and wide for a strong midfielder to replace them. Some of the other targets QPR have been linked to in recent weeks are still out there for the taking - Chris Samba, Nedum Onouha and Andy Johnson have all played for Hughes in the past and with the reported war chest he's about to be handed, hopefully the club can start attracting some Premier Level talent quickly. They visit seventh place Newcastle without Barton or Faurlin on Sunday, and then after the MK Dons replay will enter their most vital part of the season. The next seven matches will come against bottom-half teams and the R's need to snatch maximum points from that stretch of the calendar. After Bolton on March 10th, eight of their ten remaining matches are against top-half clubs, including one each against the top five. Failure to secure the points they'll need for survival before that run will put them in a precarious position as the likes of Arsenal, Manchester United, Chelsea, Tottenham and Manchester City battle it out for the title and Champions League spaces at QPR's table-clinging expense.
The benefit of a whole new management team coming in is a complete lack of loyalty to the existing players, which in a cutthroat view is good for the club. Hughes will have license to eliminate and sell off dead weight and players that will not add anything to the squad going forward. It may be too late for a mass exodus (that will take place in June if they stay up), but expect to see some departures and releases in the coming weeks. What role DJ Campbell plays is another open question, now that Federico Macheda is in the fold. He deserves a shot at some regular playing time - something injury and Warnock's constantly fluctuating team sheet prevented until now. Jay Bothroyd will have his work cut out for him to force his way into the starting lineup. He's struggled to score in his time at QPR and if another striker comes in, it's hard to see him earning much of a role. The new manager will be reunited with Shaun Wright-Philips, who has been something of a disappointment since coming to QPR. A lot of that has to be chalked up to the experiment with him in a "free" role which doesn't suit him. Perhaps under the new boss he will move back to the right wing where he can use his pace appropriately. The other player to watch is Taarabt, and whether the club will decide to sell him off while he's away. The new manager will not have a chance to interact with him for most of the month, so it’s hard to know whether they'll just cut the troublemaker loose or try to salvage the relationship when he returns. Something tells me a new manager will want to avoid the distraction as he reshapes the squad.
There is reason for optimism - Hughes has had a good deal of success at this level, taking Manchester City up the table and later getting Fulham into the Europa League with a bit of Fair Play help. He's come to the club at a crucial moment - the next few weeks will determine what kind of squad he's got to work with. The next few months will determine the kind of legacy he leaves behind.
For now, its onward and upward in W12. Come on U R'ssss.