Defence key for QPR
Nick Miller reflects on the Sky Bet Football League play-off finals and feels QPR's gritty defence could be key to top-flight survival.
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Without wishing to presumptuously take the pulse of the nation, it is unlikely that any of the three play-off final victories will be especially popular outside West London, South Yorkshire and north-west Lancashire.
QPR and Fleetwood are teams who benefit greatly from outside financial assistance, while Rotherham manager Steve Evans has always been, shall we say, quite a divisive figure over the years.
This, of course, is not to denigrate the achievements of any of the three sides, in particular Evans at Rotherham, who by beating Leyton Orient on Sunday led his team to their second successive promotion.
His appointment was a gamble by both the club and the manager, given Evans was lured from Crawley Town last season, at a time when looked like he had a better chance of promotion with them than Rotherham, but it's a gamble that has quite emphatically paid off.
QPR also took a risk in sticking with Harry Redknapp as their manager, if only because keeping the man who oversaw a relegation is always potentially a dangerous move. However, like Rotherham it has worked out pretty well for them, even if they went about gaining promotion in a more roundabout way than they hoped, and indeed how their resources suggested they should.
In many ways QPR's smash and grab victory over Derby on Saturday was quite a neat encapsulation of their season as a whole.
Even the most one-eyed Rangers fan could not argue that the 1-0 victory, earned by a late Bobby Zamora goal, was anything more than a mugging after Steve McClaren's side dominated the majority of the game.
However, as with much of the season, Redknapp's men found a way to stay in the game, and eventually grind out a win. Neither the game nor the previous nine months were pretty, but at the end of the match QPR chairman Tony Fernandes was celebrating by climbing aboard Joey Barton's shoulders and parading across the Wembley turf.
"I could only see extra time and penalties," said Redknapp after the final whistle. "I know people thought we'd go up automatically, but we’ve only really had one striker all year. Bobby wasn't fit, Andy Johnson too, and when Charlie Austin and Matty Phillips got injured we went 'bosh'. No one could score a goal. I never thought we'd walk the division. Not many teams come down and go straight back up. And it’ll be a fight again next year, too."
It most certainly will, and in a strange way the manner in which QPR have won promotion this season could stand them in good stead for their scrap to stay up in the Premier League. In past years, it has rarely been the team who play quick and flowing football in the Championship that do well upon elevation, Cardiff being just the most recent example, after they sauntered to promotion but dropped back at the first attempt.
"For QPR, this will be an enormous relief, a promotion that absolutely had to happen and with consequences that didn't bear thinking about if they had missed out. Now this rather unpleasant season is over, they can start thinking about a brighter future."
There are a number of reasons for this, not least because it is quite obviously easier for a certain level of nice, attacking football to achieve success in the Championship, but much more difficult in the top flight. It is much more straightforward and less risky to train and organise a tough defence than it is to build an incisive flowing attack.
Also, it is a tight defence, rather than necessarily a potent attack, that is the best way to keep a team in the Premier League, something this season backed up perfectly as the three teams with the worst defensive records - Norwich, Fulham and Cardiff - were the ones that went down.
While QPR have struggled in attack this term, their defence has been strong, with only two teams in the division conceding fewer than them, which has allowed them to scrap out victories that looked unconvincing and seen them develop what you might describe as a 'backbone'. That sort of thing will serve them well in the tough world of the Premier League survival scrap next term.
For Derby, this will feel like a huge opportunity missed, particularly because of the manner in which they lost, controlling the game before conceding via a couple of late defensive mistakes.
While I wrote in my playoff preview that McClaren's side didn't need to win promotion this year, they deserved to, and while that is a tricky concept in football (does any team really 'deserve' to win if they don't score the requisite goals to do so?), Derby were enormously impressive from October, and might have won automatic promotion in another season when two teams didn't quite so decisively take control.
They of course now have a solid base from which to launch a promotion challenge next season and will start among the favourites, but this is such an unpredictable division that it is impossible to confidently forecast anything beyond there being 24 teams in it. Derby were so close this time, but will they get a better chance?
For QPR, this will be an enormous relief, a promotion that absolutely had to happen and with consequences that didn't bear thinking about if they had missed out. Now this rather unpleasant season is over, they can start thinking about a brighter future.