Ten-man Queens Park Rangers clinched promotion to the English Premier League in dramatic fashion as Bobby Zamora’s stoppage-time strike secured a 1-0 win over Derby County in the Championship playoff final at Wembley in London on Saturday.
Harry Redknapp’s side were reduced to 10 men for the final 30 minutes after Gary O’Neil’s red card, but Zamora punished a mistake by Richard Keogh to steal victory against the run of play, ensuring the west Londoners made a quick and lucrative return to the top flight after last season’s relegation.
It was a real smash-and-grab raid by QPR, who struggled to find any rhythm even before O’Neil’s dismissal and had only one shot on target in the entire match, but although Derby dominated they only had themselves to blame for failing to make the most of their chances.
QPR’s triumph made them the first team to win promotion after finishing fourth in the second tier for 16 years, but the historical significance of the victory paled in comparison to the relief felt by Malaysian owner Tony Fernandes, who has funded a ￡70 million (US$118 million) wage bill, reportedly higher than Spanish champions Atletico Madrid, while also coping with annual losses of about ￡65 million.
In that context, promotion to the promised land of the Premier League, where QPR will now land a minimum windfall of ￡80 million, was essential and Redknapp’s men have delivered thanks to Zamora.
“We were trying to take the game to penalties and were hanging on for our lives,” Redknapp said. “I would be a liar if I said I thought we would score, but we worked hard and it was a fantastic goal. I couldn’t be more pleased for the people at this club.”
For Derby manager Steve McClaren, Wembley once again proved the most painful of venues.
“I’ve lost some games in my career, but that is the cruelest,” McClaren said. “We didn’t deserve that. You could only see one winner.”
It was McClaren’s first time in the Wembley dugout since November 2007 when his underwhelming spell as England manager came to a farcical end, with the coach lampooned as the “Wally with the brolly” after he huddled under an umbrella during a 3-2 defeat against Croatia that shattered his country’s hopes of qualifying for Euro 2008.
If McClaren was a superstitious type he might have suspected the fates were aligning against him as torrential rain lashed down just before kickoff and he had a familiar sinking feeling by fulltime.
In a scrappy first half, McClaren’s men appealed in vain for a penalty when Will Hughes raced onto Jamie Ward’s pass, cleverly turned back in the other direction and took a tumble after Richard Dunne’s awkward challenge.
Robert Green came to QPR’s rescue in the 40th minute when he plunged low to his left to turn away an inswinging free-kick from Ward that almost crept in at the far post.
The momentum swung toward Derby when O’Neil was sent off in the 60th minute.
Hughes seized on a loose pass and picked out Johnny Russell, who flicked the ball through Dunne’s legs and appeared poised to bear down on goal until O’Neil’s desperate lunge sent him crashing to the turf and brought a red card from referee Lee Mason.
McClaren’s side tried to press home their numerical advantage and substitute Craig Bryson drew a smart save from Green, before Chris Martin’s near-post strike was repelled by the former England goalkeeper.