Bobby Zamora’s dramatic last minute winner ensured a memorable finale to Saturday’s Championship Play-Off Final at Wembley Stadium, as 10-man Queens Park Rangers drew on all their experience and character to overcome Derby County.
Whilst Derby enjoyed much of the ball and possession, it was QPR who earned promotion to the Barclays Premier League with a gutsy display, which cast aside their common portrayal as “ageing football mercenaries.” Having seen Gary O’Neil depart to a “clever” red-card on the hour, Rangers needed to withstand long periods of Derby dominance. Zamora’s clinical last minute finish sparked pandemonium in the stands and was a personal reward for a man who has conquered injury and dips in form over previous seasons. It was a goal that left little time for Derby County to muster a response, and left manager Steve McClaren and his team planning for another season of Championship football.
For both sides, reputations, pride and honour were at stake, in a winner takes all contest. Often billed as the “richest game in sport,” both sets of players and supporters will have considered finances a secondary motivation. Wembley hosted generations of families amongst the 87,348 supporters, who made up a record attendance for the fixture. Only half of the crowd could go home happy and the result will have been a setback for Derby County, who finished 5 points ahead of their opponents and as the division’s top-scorers, up until drawing a blank on Saturday.
Managers, Steve McClaren and Harry Redknapp, had personal motivations in aiming for promotion. McClaren started the season amongst QPR’s coaching set-up before joining Derby and will have wanted to exorcise the Wembley ghosts of his spell as England manager. Redknapp, 67, had himself been overlooked by the FA when the England job went to Roy Hodgson in 2012; and having survived a high profile court case, was looking to restore his own reputation.
QPR’s first Wembley win since 1967, came 12 months after relegation prompted Harry Redknapp to re-build his squad, and chairman Tony Fernandes to re-think his strategy. Several players on high-wages, unable to translate reputation into results, left the club. Those who remained were joined by experienced players trusted to have the desire to compete in England’s 2nd tier. Of Saturday’s side, 6 of the 11 who started were in their 30s. Redknapp will have known that experience often prevails in high-pressure environments and deserves credit for the work he has done at Rangers.
Captain Clint Hill, and midfielder, philosopher and Question Time participant Joey Barton, have been leaders on the pitch for QPR this season, in a team with several candidates for the armband. Players with International experience such as Richard Dunne, goalkeeper Rob Green, Niko Kranjcar and scorer Bobby Zamora have all overcome knocks in recent years and will be relieved to see their careers back on track.
Former England coach Steve McClaren is re-building his reputation in the game and is widely respected by players and fellow coaches, as someone who gets the best out of his team. Having sought the challenge of continental football to further his experience, he has brought lessons learned back to a club he also served as a player. The Derby boss showed genuine sportsmanship and goodwill towards his victors, leading his team (many of whom in tears), in applause for QPR at the final whistle. He said: “Humility is a key thing in football and this will make us stronger”. McClaren will now focus on preparing his young side for another promotional push and will look to the example of Leicester City, who had similar experiences last year before bouncing back to win the league this term.
QPR will reflect on previous Premier League experiences, as they approach their return to “the promised land.” The owners have learned valuable lessons from Redknapp in what it takes to build a winning team and mentality, and should look to add to the squad with characters capable of joining a united dressing room.
How can Steve McClaren and Derby County build on the experience gained from the Championship Play-Off Final?