Queen’s Park Rangers have a superior home record to Liverpool this season. Five wins on the trot and from relegation certainties in February to conquerors of Arsenal, Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur, it has been a remarkable turnaround. It is hard not to attribute this entirely to the arrival of Mark Hughes. To say supporters were sceptical when the 48-year-old arrived is somewhat of an understatement.
The former Chelsea striker would, managing any other club, have been greeted with a barrage of bile and hate, both for his association with the Blues and combative style as a player. The naysayers pointed out that the Welshman is a notoriously slow starter, and therefore unsuited to a job such as QPR, which required a quick effective transition from losing to winning. Combine this with talk of a ¬£1m bonus should the gaffer preserve the Hoops’ Premier League status, and it looked as though the Board had got it wrong once again by hiring a big name, and an empty designer suit.
It has by no means been plain sailing: being thrashed 6-1 by Chelsea at Stamford Bridge last month will probably take a long time to recover from. Meanwhile, the away record has been as atrocious as ever, the R’s still without a win on the road since a narrow 3-2 victory over Stoke City in November.
At home, however, belying the endless showers and downpours at the past month, the sun has been shining on Hughes and his players. Since Rangers’ frustrating draw against Everton at the beginning of March, QPR simply haven’t looked like losing. Even 2-0 down against Liverpool on that fateful night, when relegation appeared unavoidable, the players refused to give up. Everyone has stood up tall, the spirit within the camp best exemplified by two individuals in recent games.
The first, Jamie Mackie, despite his unintelligent use of the ball and tendency to run into trouble, quite clearly lives and dies by the shirt he wears on his back. Whatever division we are in next year, it is players such as Mackie whom the team needs to be built around.
The other man in question is Joey Barton. Following the unashamedly cruel booing of the skipper by the entire stadium prior to the R’s “miracle run”, Barton has been exceptional. Not a single challenge was shirked, no loose balls were lost, and no header went unchallenged on Sunday. He has, in the most uninspiring of circumstances, blossomed into a real captain that the players can be proud of. And this weekend it showed; even Adel Taarabt is beginning to forge a reputation for himself as an all-round great footballer, not the preening show-pony he was at the beginning of the season.
Manchester City will be the sternest possible test of the mettle of this squad, this team for whom relegation will almost certainly prompt its dismantling. The Stoke game did not have a deserved winner. It was drab, gritty and bereft of real chances for either side, Cameron Jerome’s horror miss aside. Until Djibril Cisse stepped onto the pitch shortly after the break, and kept his remarkable run of scoring in every game in which he has avoided a red card.
Every pundit has written off the chances of these West London upstarts, for whom the selfishness of its recent owners and its audacity to canter to the Championship title last year has inspired a barrage of hate from other clubs and some analysts. Still, I bet nobody had West Bromwich Albion down to draw 2-2 when Billy Jones deflected Liam Ridgewell’s clearance past Ben Foster to put Bolton Wanderers two up, and on the road to safety, with just 18 minutes to go.