With what could well be his final kick in a Rangers’ shirt, Zamora pounced on a mis-kick by Derby defender Richard Keogh, to fire into the left-hand corner of the net and send Harry Redknapp’s team into the top flight just 12 months after they were relegated.“I was delighted to get the goal which sends the team up,” said Zamora. “Obviously I would like to stay at QPR and play in the Premiership but the boss and Tony Fernandez have a lot to sort out so I’m just going to enjoy my holiday with the wife and kids and see what happens.”
The 90th minute winner was heartbreaking for The Rams who had played superbly in front of a packed house but failed to test a Rangers’ defence which fought valiantly after Gary O’Neil’s 59th minute red card for bringing down Derby’s flying winger Johnny Russell.
In the final half an hour, Steve McClaren’s men attacked relentlessly in search of a glory goal which would send them up to the Premiership for the first time since 2007 but failed to test the Hoops’ defence with ‘keeper Rob Green and man-of-the-match Richard Dunne in outstanding form.The victory was even more sweet for the big Irish defender who only returned to football at the start of this season after over a year out with injury. During the dark days Dunne said he never felt like quitting.
“I always had belief and never felt like packing in. This was my 49th game this season so playing 38 games in the Premiership next season will be a doddle,” he joked.
With an estimated £120 million riding on the Championship play-off it was no wonder that the first half was a cagey affair with very few chances. Charlie Austin for Rangers and Will Hughes for The Rams both firing over from good opportunities.Derby players and fans screamed loudly for a penalty when Hughes was brought down by Dunne but replays showed referee Lee Mason’s decision to wave the calls away, was a correct one.
Both teams upped the pace at the start of the second half but Derby seemed to be creating more in midfield through the impressive West Bromwich Albion loanee Ben Thorne. On 56 minutes, Rangers’ boss Harry Redknapp brought on Zamora in place of Kevin Doyle to increase his side’s attacking impetus but three minutes later the veteran striker was forced into immediate defensive work when Johnny Russell was played through on the right hand side of the penalty area only to be brought down by O’Neil. Referee Mason took his time to decide which card to pull out and after consulting his linesman he reached for red and the 31 year old defender walked off.The Derby fans sensed the match had turned in their favour and felt it was only a matter of time before they scored. But despite their 67% possession on the ball the Rams created very few chances with every shot or cross blocked by a solid wall led by Dunne and Green.
Football is a cruel game and with extra-time looming, the Rangers players managed a rare attack into the Derby half which ended in what seemed like a harmless throw-in close to the right hand corner flag. Junior Hoillett slipped as he picked up the ball but still managed to regain his feet to deliver an innocuous cross straight to the feet of Derby captain Keogh. However, as the defender stretched to clear, he played the ball straight to Zamora who tucked the ball home from 15 yards out.
Derby attacked again from the restart but couldn’t find a way through the stubborn Rangers’ defence and as referee Mason blew his whistle, Rams fans and players could not hide their heartbreak. Keogh was understandably inconsolable and had to be helped by his manager and team-mates.
At the other end the QPR fans and players were delirious with Harry Redknapp showing his relief at an unlikely victory.
After the game, the QPR boss admitted he was praying his team could hold out for extra-time and penalties. “I’d be lying if I said I saw us scoring. We were hanging on at the end,” he said. “I am delighted for everyone at the club. They are all fantastic.”
Disappointed Derby manager Steve McClaren paid tribute to his young side and vowed that they would be back even stronger next season.
“We didn’t deserve to lose. It was such a cruel way to end a game. I could only see one winner,” he said. “I am so proud of all the lads. They will grow from this experience.”