Claudio Ranieri and Mark Hughes both knew exactly what was riding on Fulham’s meeting with Southampton – and the contrasts could not have been clearer as they trudged across Craven Cottage at the conclusion of a roller-coaster encounter.
Ranieri, the 67-year-old Italian who won legendary status after topping the Premier League at Leicester City, had a spring in his step – accompanied by the sound of elated Fulham fans – following his side’s 3-2 win.
Hughes, meanwhile, looked like a man walking closer to the precipice.
So what does the future hold for one manager at the start of his reign and another shrouded in speculation that he may be nearing the end of his time on the managerial throne?
Ranieri realises the size of his task
Claudio Ranieri has spent the early days of his Fulham supremacy – albeit a start interrupted by an international break – repeatedly working on enforcing his philosophy with a squad that had lost its way under his predecessor, Slavisa Jokanovic.
One of his main early messages has been unity of purpose, building the team not just on the field but off it too – a point illustrated by the fact he went around all the departments at Fulham with his staff on his first day to make his formal introductions.
Fulham’s players have been given a video run-through of recent games and the message is clear: Fulham must be more organised and harder to beat.
And Ranieri will be repeating his mantra until it is fully understood by every squad member at their Motspur Park training headquarters. Repetition will become a buzz-word.
Ranieri, it is understood, believes there is genuine quality in Fulham’s squad but he must apply the sort of structure and organisation that has been a trademark throughout his career, with winning ugly being perfectly acceptable if it achieves the short term goal of safety.
And while this win could hardly be described as ‘ugly’, it wasn’t too pretty either, leaving Ranieri to cut a not wholly satisfied figure when he addressed the media at his post-match briefing.
“This is not an easy job,” he said. “We played well but conceded too many chances to the opposition. We have to improve a lot. We have to improve tactically.”
He had a point.
For 25 minutes Fulham were over-run by Southampton, but the man who insists his players “will fight and never give up” was provided with some evidence that this part of his message is already hitting home.
Fulham answered the setback of going behind, then losing a lead to scrap in a manner rarely seen this season. And while Southampton may feel the result treats them harshly, Ranieri was not complaining.
The boss spoke of “little steps”, and this was the first one on a long road to recovery for Fulham.
Fulham remain in the relegation zone, but there was a much healthier and happier feeling around Craven Cottage after only their second league win of the season.
Should Southampton stick or twist?
“We are in the business of winning football matches,” said Southampton Mark Hughes as he reflected on a setback that will heat up the debate about his future.
Hughes, however, is not in the business of winning football matches and has the scorecard to prove it.
He has a dismal record of three wins from 21 league games since he succeeded Mauricio Pellegrino, and Southampton are now on a sequence of no wins in nine league matches this season.
Hughes was on the mark when he claimed Southampton could have got something from this game, as for periods they matched Fulham and more. But the devil was in the detail as he lamented his lot post-match.
“Unfortunately this has been the story of our season,” he said. “There have been five or six games when we have been the better team, more dominant, had more shots but end up without the points.”
In the worst sort of way, a pattern is emerging.
The problem, as Slavisa Jokanovic discovered at Fulham, is that hard luck stories lose their lustre when a board senses the threat of relegation.
Southampton have just eight points from 13 games, the same as Cardiff City and Fulham just below them in the relegation places.
And the jeopardy for Hughes is Southampton show no sign of getting the points they need. Even if they are playing as well as he suggests, the Saints board were accused of leaving it too late – almost fatally so – before making a managerial change last season.
They may not be quite so patient this season.
Hughes has played the game and knows the rules, saying: “There are always questions – noise as I call it – when people question your position and your work. We have to accept them if results aren’t what you want them to be.
“At times it is a bit unfair because sometimes it builds and people smell blood, go after it and paint it in a different light than it is. It is the world we live in and the world I operate in, but it doesn’t faze me.”
Hughes was in a defiant mood but reality dictates that this result places him under serious pressure and at the mercy of the patience of Southampton’s hierarchy.
The desire for change is already in evidence at Southampton, with vice-chairman Les Reed leaving the club in early November after eight years as part of “constructive action” to provide a new direction and drive amid a review of the club’s football operation. Technical director Martin Hunter was another departure.
Fulham decided to twist when they dispensed with Jokanovic, who took them in to the Premier League, and brought in Ranieri.
Hughes must hope Southampton take a different route and stick. But with every loss – especially to a relegation rival – and extension of their poor run, he will know the temptation will increase.