QPR snatch last-minute victory in game they could not afford to lose
Team 'hanging on for grim death' go up against the odds, says Dion Fanning
When the final whistle went at Wembley yesterday afternoon, Harry Redknapp walked towards Steve McClaren and shrugged his shoulders.
Derby County had played most of the game on the attack. They had spent the second half 40 yards from QPR's goal and they had done a lot to take advantage of Gary O'Neil's sending off for a professional foul. QPR, in Redknapp's words, were "hanging on for grim death".
Yet, just before the game entered injury-time, a mistake by Ireland's Richard Keogh presented Bobby Zamora with a chance in the Derby County box. QPR had looked like they were playing for extra-time and penalties but Zamora. with some assurance, curled the ball into the Derby County net.
QPR were in the position to win thanks to the immense if familiar defensive performance from Richard Dunne – "He was magnificent," Redknapp said later – and the failure of Derby County to take advantage of their superiority.
"Football's a cruel game, one lapse and you lose a game like that," McClaren said afterwards, as he spoke of the pride he felt in his young side. "We don't want this kind of hurt again."
This was a match QPR couldn't afford to lose and it may become clear over time just how much they needed it. Reports yesterday suggested they could face up to a £50 million fine for breaking Football League financial fair play regulations so their return after one season outside the Premier League was a curious kind of fairytale.
At the end, as at the beginning, the two managers had been drawn together. It was not quite the best manager England never had against not quite the worst manager England ever had.
Steve McClaren's story is not so much a story of redemption as an example of persistence. Perhaps anyone who wants to be England manager should have to prepare for it by being England manager first. When he took the England job, he seemed eager to please, something which may have persisted when he spoke with a Dutch accent during his time at Twente, but the perseverance seems to have brought a calm at this stage of his career.
Redknapp, on the other hand, has been diminished in the two years since he was odds-on favourite for the England job and yesterday's result may lead to a resurgence or maybe he could decide it is time to walk away. "I haven't thought about what next year could bring," he said last night.
They were brought together again – McClaren had a spell coaching at QPR at the beginning of the season – in this game that represents the brashness of the Premier League even if it is, as the programme said, "a Football League event".
The play-off final is when two clubs gather outside the city walls to be told of all the riches waiting for the team that can succeed in breaching the defences.
The trophy for yesterday's winners rested incongruously in the press room beforehand, a prize for coming third or fourth (or fifth or sixth) but one which mattered more than many others.
QPR's goalkeeper Rob Green said last week that these games were about keeping the ball as far away from your own goal as possible and QPR implemented that idea to begin with.
Both teams gave good representations of themselves: Derby's young side looked like a team that had grown up together and understood each other while QPR were Premier League heavyweights thrown into this mess but with enough cunning to get them to where they believed they should be.
Kevin Doyle started for QPR, a sign that Redknapp wanted players he could rely on ahead of more unpredictable types like Ravel Morrison, before he was replaced by Zamora. Dunne was involved in a penalty incident in the first half and was the defender who failed to stop Johnny Russell just before O'Neil's sending off but these were minor moments compared with his ability to be under every dropping ball.
Keogh's day was not so enjoyable while Jeff Hendrick ran endlessly as part of McClaren's youthful midfield.
The game had belonged to them even if the day didn't. Charlie Austin had shanked a shot wide in the second half but that was QPR's only advance until the final minutes.
McClaren's side didn't stop testing Green while QPR retreated and assumed the position of plucky underdogs, even if they were underdogs with a larger wage bill than a Champions League finalist. At that stage extra-time, Redknapp conceded, "was the only hope for us".
Improbably in the 90th minute, Zamora scored and, when the final whistle went, QPR people ran past their manager on to the field.
Redknapp, instead, turned to face McClaren with a gesture which acknowledged that a game they both knew could be punishing doesn't stop being cruel simply because it has inflicted pain before.
Sunday Indo Sport