In December 2017, then-Stoke City manager Mark Hughes was under pressure. The Potters, at the time, were hovering just a few places above the drop zone and had won only three of their last fifteen Premier League games.
In a press conference, the Stoke boss was quizzed about his future at the club amid unrest amongst the fans who were showing signs of dismay with his leadership. As reported by the Daily Mail, the Welshman responded in characteristically defiant fashion:
“I don’t do relegation…I’ve never been relegated because I’m too busy trying to get in top 10s. I’ve never been near it so I’m not going to start now, am I?”
On paper, Hughes’ statement was hard to argue with, and nearly two years later that remains the case. To this day, the 55-year-old has never been relegated as a manager. Stoke City have, though.
Hughes was ousted from the Bet365 Stadium before the end of last season with the club even more perilously poised, with Hughes having failed to revive his team’s ailing fortunes on the pitch. Paul Lambert was brought in but it was too little too late by then.
In the meantime, Hughes took up the hot seat at St Mary’s Stadium, and was able to keep the Saints clear of relegation.
Prior to his appointment at Stoke, Hughes was in charge at Loftus Road. Having taken over Queens Park Rangers, following Neil Warnock’s sacking, in January 2012, Hughes guided the west London club to top flight safety only by virtue of Bolton Wanderers’ failure to win on the final day of the campaign.
After a hectic 2012 summer of panic-buying, QPR’s first start to a season under Hughes did not go well. An opening day 5-0 home defeat at the hands of Swansea fuelled Hughes to brand his players’ performance as “embarrassing”, as reported by the BBC.
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After a run of twelve games without victory, Hughes was given his marching orders. QPR could not be saved a second time around. Despite the efforts of Harry Redknapp, the seeds for failure had been sown in a summer that saw ten new arrivals all come to the club in increasingly desperate attempts to stop the rot.
QPR and Stoke – two clubs relegated from the Premier League in the immediate aftermath of Hughes’ stewardship. The former striker may not ‘do relegation’ as a manager, but that was a statement borne out of a fortunate record of having been sacked in time to avoid such a fate.
Stoke sacked Hughes too late to save their season and Premier League status. Even if, in ousting the former Wales boss, they preserved his sparkling survival record, it is at his feet that the blame for the club’s drop must lie. To a lesser extent – due to mismanagement at board level that Hughes cannot be criticised for – the same can be said of the QPR situation. He may not have been around when the bell tolled, but Hughes bears responsibility for each demise.
Now, on the south coast, history looks set to repeat itself. Southampton are precariously positioned, above the relegation zone by virtue of goal difference only. Nor do things look set to improve. The Saints have failed to win in their last eight league outings – a run that takes into account meetings with Brighton, Wolves, Bournemouth, Newcastle and Watford.
With newly-promoted Fulham next on the agenda, with their abysmal defensive record that has left them rock-bottom of the table, Hughes may be able to inspire victory. If that does indeed come to pass, those three points ought not to disguise the fact that the Welshman is a manager in decline.
Last season, Southampton almost paid the ultimate price for hanging onto a manager for too long as they refused to sack Mauricio Pellegrino until March, despite the Argentine having only picked up eight wins all season. In that instance, Saints had left just about enough in the tank to get over the line, largely due to Swansea’s late loss of form that saw them finish 18th.
Southampton must not take the same risk this time around. Rather than allowing Hughes to drag their season further into the quicksand, they have to make certain of his proud, relegation-free managerial record by cutting ties with him now. In preserving his survival streak the Saints may also be saving themselves.