Championship | Wembley Stadium | Sat 24 May | 3pm
Gluttons for punishment.
Everyone wants a piece of the delicious, cash-stuffed pie that is the Premier League, and little wonder. The play-off final, aka the Most Lucrative Game In World Football™, is a passport to away days at Old Trafford, Anfield, the Etihad, the Emirates and the rest – and, according to whose research you believe, worth somewhere between £110-£145 million.
- Derby 4-1 Brighton (Play-offs)
- Brighton 1-2 Derby (Play-offs)
- Leeds 1-1 Derby (Ch'ship)
- Derby 4-2 Watford (Ch'ship)
- Derby 2-1 Barnsley (Ch'ship)
- QPR e2-1 Wigan (Play-offs)
- Wigan 0-0 QPR (Play-offs)
- Barnsley 2-3 QPR (Ch'ship)
- QPR 1-1 Millwall (Ch'ship)
- QPR 2-1 Watford (Ch'ship)
But for followers of Derby County and QPR, the prospect of being led back to the top flight – while desirable, on paper – is somewhat akin to a twitching, LSD-raddled veteran being forced to revisit the killing fields of ‘Nam.
Neither have had happy times in the Premier League. For Rams enthusiasts, there are still bad acid flashbacks from their last time there: relegated with the lowest-ever points total, and just one win, in 2007/08 under Paul Jewell.
QPR vets, meanwhile, are only just recovering from the Post Traumatic Stress Disorder of 2012/13, when they were relegated amid some utterly shambolic infighting.
Being careful what you wish for will all be forgotten at Wembley, however, as both sets of fans hope and pray that it is they who will soon be appointed as next year’s relegation favourites (the last three play-off final winners, Crystal Palace, West Ham and Swansea, it should be noted, have stayed up).
The contenders are hard to separate by virtually any yardstick. County have won 25 games this term, drawing 10 and losing 11, on their way to 85 points; QPR clocked a W23 D11 L12 record to finish just one place and five points behind.
The Rams were the league’s most free-scoring side, with 84 goals (QPR bagged 60), but the Hoops had one of its meaner rearguards, conceding just 44 (to Derby’s 52).
Their fixtures this year were tight, too, with both sides prevailing at home (1-0 at the iPro Stadium; 2-1 at Loftus Road – both close clashes), and this parity is perhaps unsurprising considering Steve McClaren was a coach at QPR for three months before seizing the Derby throne.
They’re even historically similar: at their strongest in the 70s (Derby won the league in 1972 and 1975 during the golden Brian Clough era; QPR really should have scooped it in 1976 but blew their lines, losing by a single point to Liverpool), both sides have had a truly topsy-turvy last two decades bouncing between tiers. They even share harrowing memories of John Gregory.
Perhaps current form is the one area that truly separates them – and points towards an East Midlands win: Derby have drawn one and won eight of their last 10; QPR’s record is more of a mixed bag with four wins, three draws and three losses.
With Chris Martin, Craig Bryson, Johnny Russell, Jamie Ward and Patrick Bamford making goals rain for the Rams, Derby look narrow favourites, but neither would anyone be shocked if Harry Redknapp’s legendary big-match motivational powers spurred on the London collective that he’s done some excellent surgery on.
Bryson, who missed the second leg of the semi, is expected to return for Derby, while QPR look set to have a relatively unchanged squad from their semi-final win over Wigan.
Key battle: Clint Hill vs Chris Martin
On paper, this is a contest between QPR’s defence and Derby’s forwards: Rangers will hope they can keep the net-hungry Midlanders at bay before grabbing a goal or two through Charlie Austin; the Rams will be looking to score enough to compensate for their slightly shaky back line.
Hill and Martin embody the battle. The Scouse QPR captain is the heart-on-sleeve, lead-by-example, 110%-giver of a cliché, always excellent at organising and motivating his defence. Martin, meanwhile, is the first Derby player in 18 years to bag more than 20 goals (he’s got 25), and has looked an absolute menace this term. After years of roaming round on loan, he finally deserves a settled, season-long shot at the top flight.
LAST FIVE MEETINGS
- Derby 1-0 QPR (Ch'ship, Feb 14)
- QPR 2-1 Derby (Ch'ship, Nov 13)
- QPR 0-0 Derby (Ch'ship, Apr 11)
- Derby 2-2 QPR (Ch'ship, Aug 10)
- QPR 1-1 Derby (Ch'ship, Mar 10)
Two English bruisers looking for redemption. McClaren, who managed the Three Lions before Fabio Capello, has pieced back together his reputation as a club boss since being freed of the poison chalice in 2007, working in Holland, Germany and Nottingham before replacing Nigel Clough and transforming Derby into attractive football-playing promotion contenders. Redknapp – the man expected to succeed Capello while overseeing a fine spell at Spurs – must occasionally wonder how he wound up in the second tier, but his root and branch overhaul of the Hoops has reminded everyone what he is best at.
The two men are mutual admirers who share a philosophy and were on the same team at the start of the season, with McClaren working as a coach for the west Londoners. “Steve is an excellent coach and Derby are a sharp, bright team,” says Harry. “I know from working with QPR’s players that they're the best team in the league,” responds Steve.
The Rams’ rampant front line to prove too much. 2-1 Derby.