Derby deserving of final joy
Nick Miller looks ahead to the Sky Bet Championship play-off final, when Derby will be favourites to beat QPR at Wembley.
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At the start of the season, QPR were 7/4 for promotion, and as short as 6/1 to win the Championship - in a division this unpredictable, that's about as short as odds get. It wasn't quite so much predicted that they would go up as assumed, so it's fair to say that most of the pressure will be on Harry Redknapp's side in Saturday's playoff final.
However, now the tables have turned, and while opponents Derby were 7/1 to go up back in August, they will go into the big game at Wembley as clear favourites to prevail and take a place in the Premier League.
Derby's campaign has been a remarkable one – or, perhaps more accurately, it's been remarkable since October. Nigel Clough was sacked after a defeat to Nottingham Forest, and while at the time many viewed that decision as harsh, Derby had not progressed under his leadership.
Clough did a fine job in maintaining Derby's position while cutting their wage bill and mopping up the mess left by previous managers, but they needed someone to do more than that, to build on the groundwork Clough had carried out.
Steve McClaren was something of a gamble, given that his previous three jobs at Wolfsburg, Forest and an initially triumphant return to FC Twente were, to varying degrees, failures.
However, his impact at Derby was instantaneous, delivering a half-time teamtalk in Derby's game against Ipswich before he had even officially taken over, inspiring them to come back from 4-1 down to draw 4-4.
From that point Derby averaged two points per game, not missing out on automatic promotion by much, and what is perhaps most remarkable is that the turnaround was enacted without any significant alteration to the squad.
Loan signings like George Thorne, Patrick Bamford and Andre Wisdom have of course helped, but it has been the likes of Richard Keogh, Craig Bryson and Chris Martin, players already at the club, that have been most influential in Derby's progression and final league position.
Martin in particular has been a revelation, a striker who has scored over 20 goals only once in his career before (in League One) and who found the net just three times last term, has 25 strikes to his name.
It is perhaps unusual this season in the Championship that the best three teams in the division have been relatively clear since around January. Leicester and Burnley were very obviously the top two, and Derby's form since McClaren's arrival (a slightly iffy run in March aside), has marked them out as the third-best, which of course suggests they deserve to go up on Saturday - not that their manager sees it like that.
"Just because we finished third and quite a few points in front of the other teams it doesn't mean we will go up,” McClaren said this week. “Football isn't like that.
"In football you don't always get what you deserve. We're just pleased for the club - for the likes of (chief executive) Sam Rush, the supporters and the city as a whole. We've developed very quickly and got into the play-offs and finished third with a record points total and as top goalscorers.”
That is perhaps the key. Usually when a new manager comes in the instinct is to tighten the defence, to play safe and not lose too many games, but McClaren's first thought seems to be the opposite.
Derby scored more than champions Leicester and a whopping 24 more than Saturday's opponents, a total helped along by ruthless thrashings of Forest and Blackpool but more the result of consistent scoring throughout the season, apart from that spell in March, which accounted for four of the six games they failed to find the net under McClaren.
Derby's strength in depth is also a significant factor in their success. Towards the tail-end of the season, thanks to the form of Thorne and Jeff Hendrick, McClaren could afford to leave out the darling of Premier League scouts everywhere Will Hughes, and he has admitted he had 'no clue' which of his four central midfielders would fill the three spots in his team at Wembley.
Equally up front - Martin is a fixture but McClaren has the luxury of selecting any two of Connor Sammon, Jamie Ward, Simon Dawkins and Bamford, all players that would enhance most squads in the second tier.
“The strength of this team is the squad,” McClaren told the BBC this week. “Everybody who's come in has done their job, and this squad has done fantastically well. I have the headache of picking a team, of leaving people on the bench and leaving people in the stands, which is the worst part of the job.”
In some respects Derby will be the more relaxed team going into the game on Saturday. Given the expectations at the start of the season, it will be very far from the end of the world if they don't win promotion, and they will have a solid base for a top two challenge next term.
QPR on the other hand are under huge pressure to go up, given the money invested in their team not only creates huge expectation, but also obviously massive debt, which can only be paid off with a place in the Premier League.
On Saturday, two teams will walk out at Wembley, one of whom needs to win and the other deserves to. As ever with the Championship, it will be fascinating to see who comes out on top.