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Aug 2, 2012

Hughes treads familiar path

Only one letter separates busyness and business and there is a close correlation in the transfer market. None in the Premier League have been busier than Queens Park Rangers this summer, whose business has incorporated the signings of seven players. Only Reading have recruited as many and they, as newcomers to the division, had a more pressing need.

Yet frantic change is a constant at Loftus Road; 21 players have come to the club in 13 months and, including caretakers, Rangers have had 14 managers since 2006. The fourteenth provides a rare promise of permanence - Mark Hughes has owner Tony Fernandes' backing, as his spending suggests - and there is a feeling of familiarity about his choices.

Study his seven signings - Rob Green, Ryan Nelsen, Fabio da Silva, Samba Diakite, Park Ji-sung, Junior Hoilett and Andy Johnson - and two, Nelsen and Hoilett, were Hughes' charges, even if only the defender made the senior side, when he was at Blackburn. A third, Johnson, played for him at Fulham; a fourth, Diakite, was on loan at QPR last season. In addition, the on-loan Fabio and Park have come from another of Hughes' former clubs, Manchester United. That leaves Green, who has made the short journey from West Ham, as the closest thing to an outsider.

The flattering interpretation is that Hughes is signing known quantities; these are risk-free recruits with considerable Premier League pedigree and a manager who has taken each of his previous employers into the top half of the division will do so again. The alternative view is to wonder what happened to a coach whose initial forays into the transfer market were notable for an inventive excellence clearly borne of terrific scouting and thorough research.

Because when Hughes' deals are mentioned, two spells of trading come to mind: the period of extravagant expenditure at Manchester City, of which more later, and his brilliant bargain-hunting at Blackburn. Consider Hughes' six finest signings at Ewood Park and, besides remaining remarkable their combined cost was under £10 million, they fall into three categories: promising players who could not cement a place in the first teams of bigger clubs (Stephen Warnock and David Bentley); cut-price strikers with unfulfilled potential and who reached 20 goals in their debut campaign (Roque Santa Cruz and Benni McCarthy); and unheralded players found abroad (the self-same Nelsen and Christopher Samba). One was in Major League Soccer, the other failing to break into the Hertha Berlin side.

They went on to establish themselves as perhaps the finest central-defensive partnership outside the top six. But they also pose a question: where are the new Nelsen and Samba? The ageing New Zealander is now at Loftus Road, even if the evidence of last season, when he creaked ominously in his few appearances for Tottenham, is that he is in terminal decline. The Congolese, tiring of the madness of Ewood Park, plies his trade for Anzhi Makhachkala.

But where are such inspired experiments in Hughes' recent transfer dealings? Because, since he has been granted money, a preference for the tried and trusted has become entrenched, sometimes at a cost to his reputation. Arguably his best signings at City were also among the cheapest: Vincent Kompany and Pablo Zabaleta, acquired before Sheikh Mansour's takeover. After it, he raided his former clubs more regularly and, in two of the most costly and predictable failures, brought in an old team-mate - Wayne Bridge - and signed Santa Cruz for the second time. Both are expensive embarrassments that City are unable to shift.

Indeed, in the past four years, the closest to a leftfield move Hughes has made, taking Mousa Dembele to Fulham, may be the closest thing to a coup. Of the new Rangers, Hoilett stands out: young, quick, versatile and capable of scoring, he has the ability to player for elite clubs (and it is something of a surprise that neither Liverpool nor Tottenham expressed more of an interest).

But Johnson is a striker who is over-reliant on pace, who has entered his thirties and whose return in front of goal is diminishing. Park, if last season is an accurate guide, is a midfielder who depended on a formidable engine but now struggles to get out of second gear, while Nelsen is increasingly immobile. Apart from Green, along the spine of the side Hughes has signed players whose best days are behind them.

Again, there is the contrast with his dealings at Blackburn: then the additions were men on the way up. Rangers must hope his dealings do not provide a parallel with the manager's own career. But after his early adventurousness, a reluctance to go outside the familiar has become apparent.

City urged him to add to the coaching team that have followed him everywhere, but Hughes ignored their suggestions. Of course, loyalty can reap rewards but it is also the case that conservatism can set in with age and some managers, when granted money to spend, become lazier. Hughes once seemed an exception, a man with a wide knowledge and excellent contacts who could find him players that others had missed. Not anymore.

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