Bobby Zamora sent 10-man Queens Park Rangers back to the Premier League with a 90th-minute winner to cruelly dash the dreams of a Derby County side who dominated the Championship playoff final.
Derby’s superiority at Wembley turned into dominance after Gary O’Neil was sent off for a cynical foul to deny Johnny Russell a clear goal-scoring opportunity on the hour mark. But a lack of quality in the final third and some fine saves from Robert Green kept QPR alive. And in the final minute they delivered the ultimate smash-and-grab sucker punch when, in the culmination of a series of defensive errors, Richard Keogh’s poor clearance found Zamora, who finished with admirable coolness in the most pressurized circumstances.
In a perilous financial situation following their lavish spending and subsequent relegation from the Premier League last season, promotion at the first attempt could be crucial to QPR’s future viability. It could also save the job of manager Harry Redknapp whose squad of experienced Premier League campaigners was expected to go up automatically but have ultimately achieved their goal, albeit the hard way. Wembley continues to be a happy venue for Redknapp, who won the FA Cup with Portsmouth back in 2008. For his counterpart Steve McClaren, on his first visit back to the stadium since ignominious failure to lead England to Euro 2008, his Wembley nightmares live on.
The drama at the end came in sharp contrast to what transpired for much of the first half. Derby’s young team, who finished a place above their opponents in the Championship, were more fluid in possession, helped by a superb performance in the middle from George Thorne. Both sides, though, were desperately poor with their final ball. Junior Hoilett was lively on the break for QPR but lacked an end product, while Derby produced a series of woeful crosses from both flanks.
Their one good delivery came from Jamie Ward’s in-swinging free-kick, which was missed by the head of Keogh and Green had to make a fine late save to turn the ball wide. The biggest talking point from the first 45 minutes came when the talented Will Hughes turned back inside Richard Dunne in the area, and the QPR defender clumsily hung out a leg leading to Hughes going down appealing for a penalty. There was minimal contact, although Dunne could still count himself lucky to have escaped sanction.
The veteran Republic of Ireland international’s cumbersomeness was punished, though, 15 minutes into the second half. Dunne allowed Russell to get past him 25 yards from goal, before O’Neil lunged in from behind just outside the box to blatantly deny the Derby man a clean strike at goal. After consultation with his assistant, referee Lee Mason got his decision right when producing a red card.
With the numerical advantage, Derby now forced QPR back and pushed with increasing intensity in search of a goal to send them back to the Premier League promised land after a six-year absence. Substitute Craig Bryson added some attacking thrust from midfield and was key to Derby’s endeavors. His near-post strike forced Green into a smart stop before the QPR stopper’s reactions were tested again moments later when Bryson’s pull-back was met by a fierce low drive from Martin. Bryson also set up fellow-substitute Simon Dawkins, but again Green denied the Midlands side.
Spending much of the last half-hour with every man behind the ball, it appeared QPR’s only hope was to hang on for extra-time and then penalties. Instead, they struck in the dying embers of the 90 minutes. Two Derby defenders failed to clear the ball down the left, allowing Hoilett to take over. His delivery was again poor, but this time it was met by a terrible attempted clearance from Derby captain Keogh that presented it straight to the feet of Zamora and the former England international showed a clinical finishing touch to place a shot past Lee Grant in the Derby goal.
The tears that streamed uncontrollably from Keogh as QPR’s players jubilantly collected the play-off trophy spoke volumes for the high stakes in soccer’s most lucrative match.