QPR v Derby County – Championship Play-Off Final – Wembley Stadium

Team: Green, Simpson, Onuoha, Dunne, Hill (Henry), Kranjcar (Traore), Barton, O’Neil, Hoilett, Doyle (Zamora), Austin.

Subs Not Used: Murphy, Suk-Young, Hughes, Morrison.

Attendance: 87,348 (including around 40,000 R’s fans)

Many QPR supporters walked to Wembley for this Championship play-off, and they must have set off home feeling like they could walk on water after this miracle. Totally against the run of play, and down to 10 men, QPR prevailed, scoring with their only shot on target through Bobby Zamora in the final minute.

Along with the fans, Harry Redknapp’s team have had a mantra of “Find A Way” to sustain them in their quest to return to the Premier League. They somehow found a way here against a Derby County side full of youthful enterprise.

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One of the great defensive performances helped QPR back up. After Gary O’Neil was sent off on the hour, Richard Dunne, Robert Green and Nedum Onuoha defied Derby County time and again. One of the great play-off strikes from Zamora exploited one of the worst play-off final mistakes, an aberration by Richard Keogh that presented the ball to the QPR substitute.

Derby had no time to react. Lee Mason soon blew his whistle, and Wembley was halved in joy and sorrow, just as it was in sunshine and shade. Their voices recovered from the guttural roar at Zamora’s goal. QPR fans lauded their team.

Having just posted losses of ¬£65.4 million, QPR needed this victory desperately. They needed to re-board the Premier League gravy train. They still have some awkward ‘Financial Fair Play’ punishment to negotiate but the fans will not care. QPR are up.

The only debts were of gratitude. They will remain forever in the debt of Green, for some vital saves, the keeper reminding everyone of his class four years on from his World Cup mistake against the United States.

They will forever remain beholden to Dunne, who organised the defence so well and dominated the airwaves. They will always remember fondly the display of Onuoha, who made some telling interceptions. They will forever cherish the name of Zamora, who seems to enjoy this occasion, having also scored the play-off goal that sent West Ham up in 2005.

As Clint Hill led the players up those famous steps, he was hugged by the club’s co-owner, Tony Fernandes. This was huge. The sight of 40,000 QPR fans, described as “our 12th man” by Joey Barton, technically their 11th man for 30 minutes, revelling in the moment will reinforce Fernandes’ belief that the club can fill a new, bigger stadium.

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The passion for the team is there. Some walked to the stadium. Others came from further afield, flying in from Poland and Denmark, and points beyond. This meant everything to them. QPR have been called all manner of things this season, had their unity questioned, their financial model questioned and their wage bill questioned.

Many of the questions are legitimate, and need answering this summer of squad re-shaping, but they also answered any questions about their character, individually and collectively.

As the Wembley speakers blasted out ‘London Calling’, as the players danced on the pitch with the play-off trophy, the QPR fans also applauded Redknapp, who has looked tired on occasion this season but made the changes that helped keep QPR strong after O’Neil’s departure. Redknapp was also quick to console Steve McClaren at the end.

It proved a brutal return to Wembley for McClaren. The fates had a special weather welcome for the former England manager, the heavens opening as the teams emerged. McClaren was back in a Wembley dugout for the first time since Nov 21, 2007 and that wretched, rain-soaked defeat to Croatia that destroyed England’s hopes of qualifying for Euro 2008 and damaged the image of umbrellas everywhere.

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Memories of that evening hung in the air full of drizzle and also with the presence in the QPR midfield of Niko Kranjcar, the Croatian whose shot had so deceived Scott Carson seven years ago.

In the build-up to this play-off, McClaren handled well all the invitations to take a trip down painful memory lane, making jokes about umbrellas, remarking that he hoped “it is not raining” (unlucky), and also paying tribute to the work of Nigel Clough; only two of Derby’s starting X1 were McClaren recruits, the loanees Andre Wisdom and the outstanding George Thorne.

Derby’s team cost only ¬£2.2 million, including three frees, those two loans and two Academy graduates, but the quality of Zamora’s finish confirmed that money can buy class. It was tough on Derby, who played so well, particularly Thorne, but they lacked a cutting edge and also lacked concentration when it counted most.

Dignified in defeat, McClaren kept his players on the pitch at the end, hiding their heartache, applauding QPR as they climbed up the steps to collect the play-off trophy and ascended to the Premier League.

Some like Keogh and Will Hughes were in tears. They could have disappeared down the tunnel, retreating to lick their wound but they showed their class as people, as they had as players. They clapped the victors and their fans. McClaren wanted them to show they are ambassadors for the sport, as well as the club, and also so they could take this “hurt” into next season.

The problem for McClaren could be keeping the team together. The best player on the pitch was Thorne, the dynamic young midfielder on loan from West Bromwich Albion. Thorne ending up amid the losers showed how fickle football can be.

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He sat deep in midfield, making tackles, including one pickpocketing of Kevin Doyle. He started moves with accurate passes, sometimes played quickly into friendly feet while deceiving QPR by looking the other way.

Whatever the iniquitous nature of the denouement, McClaren must take pride from the season; he started out helping Redknapp at QPR, leapt at the opportunity to succeed the dismissed Clough at such a famous club as Derby, and lifted them from 14th to third and then to Wembley. With a team costing only £2.2 million, he produced relentlessly entertaining football.

Contrasts abounded between the sides. QPR’s squad had 4,264 Premier League appearances against the 170 of McClaren’s. Experience that told in the end. For a while, all the qualities of McClaren’s team were seen: the strength and passing of Thorne, the intelligent line-leading of Chris Martin and the quick feet of Hughes.

Derby appealed loudly for a penalty just before the half-hour mark when Hughes turned suddenly catching out Dunne but contact seemed minimal. Mason waved play on.

Mason’s biggest decision came after 57 minutes. Johnny Russell was about to shoot when O’Neil fouled him. The offence was just outside the area, there was some covering presence but it was such a cynical challenge.

Derby went for it and Green needed to be at his athletic best to defy Craig Bryson and then Martin. QPR’s defending was superb. Dunne headed danger clear. Onuoha was alert to threats on the floor, denying Simon Dawkins.

With the clock ticking down towards extra-time, QPR found something extra. Keogh gifted the ball to Zamora, who emphatically placed it past Lee Grant.

Redknapp looked towards the Premier League. McClaren just looked crestfallen.

Henry Winter – The Telegraph

One thought on “QPR v Derby County – Championship Play-Off Final – Wembley Stadium

  1. A good balanced report about a great day in Rs history.
    Makes a change for someone to appreciate the quality of defending rather than ‘Derby had all the ball so were cheated reports’ lazy journalists use.

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