By Liam Twomey at Wembley
As Bobby Zamora wheeled away, punching the air in wide-eyed, disbelieving delight and racing over to a sea of ecstatic QPR supporters, the most miraculous thing about the clinical 91st-minute strike which broke Derby County hearts at Wembley on Saturday was that it felt like a miracle at all.
For so long it would have been impossible for the uninformed observer to guess that this final was being contested between one club with a wage bill of £78 million - by now famously higher than Atletico Madrid and Borussia Dortmund - and the other just £10m. If anything, even before Gary O’Neil was rightly sent off for cynically bringing down Johnny Russell on the hour mark, it was Derby who gave the impression of being blessed with far superior resources.
This has been a horrible, thankless season for QPR. Relegated from the Premier League in farcical circumstances last term with a bloated, overpaid squad and an increasingly divisive manager, they were instantly cast as the team most likely to succeed and most desired to fail in the Championship.
Harry Redknapp has found it impossible to garner sympathy for himself or his side. His apologists point to the departures of 18 first-team players last summer, injuries to key men this term and the manager’s personal health problems, but as other numbers are revealed the excuses wear thin.
QPR’s first-team squad boasts 4,264 Premier League appearances to Derby’s 170 and 651 international caps to their opponents’ 19. At times watching Redknapp’s men has felt like someone has switched on an episode of Sky's ‘Premier League Years’, and such experience and expenditure naturally breeds expectation.
In the end it is mission accomplished, even if QPR have never felt or looked anywhere near the sum of their lavishly assembled parts this season. Not that this should come as a surprise for a club which has made a habit of achieving in spite of itself in recent years, from Neil Warnock’s promotion charge amid a backdrop of boardroom chaos in 2010-11 to Mark Hughes delivering Premier League survival 12 months later despite a notorious Joey Barton meltdown and legendary late collapse against Manchester City on the final day.
Redknapp has at least bestowed on QPR a level of defiance and defensive organisation that was once sorely lacking. O’Neil’s dismissal changed the game but not in Derby’s favour, enabling as it did the Championship’s fourth meanest defence, marshalled by grizzled veteran Richard Dunne, to unashamedly drop even deeper and revel in having all the play in front of them. Steve McClaren's team huffed and puffed but failed to panic Robert Green.
QPR used their vastly greater experience – their starting XI had an average age of 29.7 to Derby’s 24.7 – to stay in the match and in position to exploit the comedy of errors committed by their opponents in the dying minutes, when Zamora picked the perfect moment to remember his Premier League quality with his team's only shot on target.
The exact worth of the 33-year-old's winning goal – £80m, £120m, £134m – is unclear, though does not seem unreasonable or hyperbolic to suggest that QPR’s future was on the line at Wembley. With debts of £177m, a wage bill which last year represented 128 per cent of the club’s turnover and a new stadium in Old Oak in the works, sustained Premier League football is an absolute must for owner Tony Fernandes.
Now, by hook or by crook, they are there. The gamble of preserving a top-flight squad in the Championship has paid off, and any Football League fine for breaching financial regulations will be covered by the promotion windfall. But QPR's challenges next season stretch beyond appeasing English football's authorities.
They cannot count on the kind of youthful and vibrant core which should give Derby fans cause for optimism once their devastation subsides. QPR possess an ageing squad in need of significant overhaul.
Some 15 players - including Zamora - are not yet committed to the club beyond the summer, while several loanees must either be shipped on or re-integrated into the fold. A decision must also be made on Redknapp - whether he is capable of continuing and, given a decidedly underwhelming season and the vast transfer outlay his attitude to squad building invariably necessitates, whether he should be allowed to.
In spite of themselves, QPR are back where finances dictate they belong. Now the search can resume for consolidation, stability, sensible management and long-term planning. Realising that would be the real miracle.
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