There was heartbreak for Rams’ fans at Wembley Stadium, as Derby County were beaten 1-0 by Queens Park Rangers in an incredibly hard-fought Sky Bet Championship Play-Off Final, with substitute Bobby Zamora’s stoppage time winner, the difference between the sides.
It was a close fought contest that always looked like one goal would decide it and despite Derby dominating for long periods of the second half – particularly after QPR were reduced to ten men – it was Rangers who emerged victorious and earned a place in English football’s top flight.
There was not a lot to pick between the two sides in a competitive first-half in which both sides frequently carved out good opportunities to score, but ultimately failed to find the breakthrough in front of goal.
Derby’s best chances came through Craig Forsyth, who headed just over from close range, and Jamie Ward, whose delivery from a free-kick missed everyone in the box and almost caught out former England ‘keeper Rob Green at his far post.
QPR threatened through their top scorer, Charlie Austin, who was eager to shoot whenever he found himself in space, and midfielder, Junior Hoilett, whose pace and trickery was testing Derby’s back four to the full.
The second half saw both teams start brightly, looking to notch that all important first goal, but the momentum swung firmly in the Rams’ favour when QPR were reduced to ten men, with central midfielder Gary O’Neil sent for an early bath.
Johnny Russell burst through the back four and was winding up to shoot, when O’Neill came through the back of him to send him tumbling just outside the box, giving Lee Mason little choice but to show him a red card.
Derby dominated things from thereon in and spent much of the remaining 30 minutes camped out in their opponents' half, but despite creating numerous chances, they were unable to make their numbers advantage count, and net that all important first goal.
And against the run of play, QPR broke as the clock ticked over into stoppage time and when the ball came to substitute Zamora in the centre of the box, he lashed it past Lee Grant to send the blue and white half of Wembley into raptures, and his side into the Premier League.
Derby County had an early opportunity to open the scoring after they won a free kick around 20 yards from goal, but Russell’s left foot shot didn't make it past QPR’s wall.
Rangers’ top scorer, Austin, then attempted to give his side the lead with a powerful effort from 35 yards, but his shot was always rising and cleared the crossbar.
In the fifteenth minute, QPR won a free-kick 25-yards from goal as Richard Keogh fouled Austin, but Joey Barton’s attempt on goal was a carbon copy of Russell’s and also failed to clear the wall.
Barton tried his luck from range again moments later, but his shot was way off and Grant watched it sail high and wide of his goal.
Derby then came close to breaking the deadlock when Ward whipped in a right-footed cross, finding Forsyth at the back post, but the left back’s close-range header was just over.
The Rams came forward again in the 31st minute and when the ball wound up at the feet of Forsyth he laid it off for Hughes, but the midfielder’s first time shot was too high.
It was then Russell’s turn to try and draw first blood as he charged towards the QPR penalty area and took aim, but his dipping shot was straight at Rob Green who gratefully gathered it into his chest.
The Rams then came close to scoring, when Ward crossed from a free-kick, the ball bypassed everyone and almost went straight in, with Green forced into making a smart low save to keep it out.
At the other end, Armand Traore, who had come on for the injured Niko Kranjcar, bore down on the Derby back four and shot, but he dragged his effort well wide.
Derby started the second half brightly, winning four corners in the opening ten minutes, but almost found themselves a goal down following a quick QPR break.
The ball made its way out to the Traore on the left wing, who pulled a low cross back across the box to Austin who struck a low shot narrowly wide of Grant’s right post.
The game’s biggest moment so far came bang on the hour as Russell looked to go clear through on goal, but was sent tumbling on the edge of the area by O’Neil, who was shown a straight red.
Derby begun to pile on the pressure, looking to take advantage of their extra man, and when player of the season, Craig Bryson came on to replace Hughes in the 67th minute, he made an instant impact.
A neat through ball from Hendrick sent the Scottish international through on goal and he forced Green into a good save as he tried to beat him at his near post.
Seconds later, Bryson was at the heart of things again as his low cross into the box found Martin at the near post and the centre forward again tried to squeeze the ball in the near post, but Green saved well again.
Almost immediately, some tricky play from Ward on the right wing gave him the space to cross and find Keogh, but the skipper’s header whistled just over the bar.
Derby were camped in Rangers’ half and came close to breaking the deadlock again when Dawkins' curling, close range shot was saved well by Green. The ball was cleared only as far as Ward who chested it down before volleying goalwards, but his strike struck Martin before bouncing out for a goal kick.
But in the dying minutes, it was Queens Park Rangers who broke and against the run of play, scored the game’s decisive goal through substitute Zamora, who smashed the ball home from inside the box.
Derby earned a corner in the final minute and sent everyone into the box, including their ‘keeper, but they were unable to convert and ultimately, it was QPR who picked up the win and earned a place in the Premier League.
Derby County: Grant (GK), Wisdom, Keogh, Buxton, Forsyth, Thorne, Hughes (Bryson 67'), Hendrick, Russell (Dawkins 67'), Ward (Bamford 90'), Martin.
Subs not used: Legzdins (GK), Whitbread, Eustace, Sammon.
Queens Park Rangers: Green (GK), Simpson, Dunne, Hill (Henry 67'), Austin, Doyle (Zamora 57'), Onouha, Barton, Kranjcar (Traore 33'), Hoilett, O’Neil.
Subs not used: Murphy (GK), Morrison, Suk-Young, Hughes.