It took QPR fans a long time to turn against Mark Hughes, but now he could be cast in the role of captain of the Titanic
You want a metaphor for Queens Park Rangers this season? Here are two, both from the dying moments of Saturday's abject capitulation to Southampton at Loftus Road. To the left of my seat in the front row of the West Paddock, Rob Green – brought in on a rumoured £50,000-a-week to replace Paddy Kenny in goal in the summer, only to be replaced almost immediately by the doubtless even more expensive Júlio César – sat in the dugout, his head resting against the Perspex wall, his eyes closed. To the right, Esteban Granero – played out of position on the right of midfield – was steadfastly and repeatedly ignoring the instructions of Mark Hughes and his coaches to go tight at short corners, loitering instead on his own at the edge of QPR's penalty area.
In truth, it was hard to blame either. Why would Green bother taking any interest in a club that has treated him so poorly? Why would Granero – an elegant central midfielder bought from Real Madrid – take any notice of a manager who had put him on the wing, when the XI on the pitch already had two wide players in Junior Hoilett and Adel Taarabt? This season the jokes about QPR's name – Quite Possibly Relegated, Quarter Pound of Rubbish – ring all too true.
The coaching team, by their own admission, have had no idea what to do. On the Open All R's podcast the other week, Hughes's assistant Mark Bowen admitted the team's failure to win was a mystery to them all. We keep hearing how meticulously prepared the team has been, how the opposition have been studied intently, how the club was in a much stronger position than it had been when Hughes took over from Neil Warnock in January.
Until Saturday we kept hearing – despite the evidence on the pitch – that Rangers had been dominating games and should have won. Had Hughes been captain of the Titanic, one suspects he would have told the press: "We need to take the positives from the voyage and concentrate on the icebergs we didn't hit, because for most of the journey we were in no danger of sinking. What this ship needs is stability at the helm, and I'm still confident I can get all the passengers to New York alive."
Not that he's alone in that mindset. After fans gathered outside the ground on Saturday night to express their anger about the performance, one supporter claimed that Shaun Wright-Phillips had told him the crowd was to blame for failing to back the team. Djibril Cissé, meanwhile, took to Twitter in a series of since-deleted tweets to offer his critics outside. Look at it this way: when Taarabt is the most motivated and committed player in the starting lineup, the problems run deep.
One theory about Rangers' travails holds that the culture of the club is set by the owner, Tony Fernandes, and his executive team, none of whom have football backgrounds. The argument is that they demanded a starry team, with big statements of ambition rather than incremental growth, and Hughes is simply delivering what they requested. QPR, by this line of thought, is a club with no heart, and the players reflect the culture of Loftus Road.
It is often cited that Hughes has signed 16 players in his 10 months in W12, but the more telling statistic is that QPR are now on their fourth team in two years – Warnock's promotion team, Warnock's overhauled Premier League team, Hughes's first Premier League team, and now his second Premier League team.
Still, Hughes has much to answer for. The transfer policy has seen the club overloaded with midfielders, with a shortfall of strikers and decent defenders – Bowen admitted that QPR actually need 12 slots to accommodate the first-choice midfielders. The result is a side that can play lovely football in the middle third of the pitch, but is hopeless at either end. And if Hughes's preparation is so good, how come the team is so terrible in the penalty areas – leaving players unmarked at one end and failing to get bodies in the box at the other?
And how come twice – against West Ham and West Brom, in games five days apart – Hughes fielded two central midfielders against teams who overran Rangers with three strong, combative players in the middle? As Clive Whittingham of the admirable Loft for Words website has put it: if that's meticulous preparation, I'd hate to see shoddy preparation.
The oddest thing of all is that it took the fans so long to turn against Hughes. Rangers have had too much turmoil in recent years, something Hughes has played on with his assertions that stability is what the club needs. No one wants to see another manager sacked, but the issue is no longer whether a better replacement is available, but the fact that no one could possibly do worse with the resources at the Hoops' disposal.
When I visited the QPR website on Monday morning, the first thing I saw was an advert for personalised shirts, with a photo of Bobby Zamora, Park Ji-sung and Cissé. "Wear their name with pride," Rangers fans were instructed. Just one word need be corrected: strike out "pride", and replace with "embarrassment".