TEN-MAN QPR pulled off the unlikeliest of victories to win promotion back to the Premier League at the first attempt after a 1-0 Championship play-off final win over Derby County at Wembley.
Unlikely because Harry Redknapp’s men had Gary O’Neil sent off for a straight red card in the 60th minute, following a late, last-ditch challenge on Johnny Russell.
But Rangers rode the Rams storm and, when Junior Hoilett crossed for substitute Bobby Zamora in the final minute of normal time, he finished emphatically to hand the R’s a place back in the top division.
Redknapp named an unchanged side following our semi-final, second leg victory over Wigan Athletic at Loftus Road.
That meant Rob Green was in goal, behind a back four of Danny Simpson, Richard Dunne, Nedum Onuoha and Clint Hill.
Hoilett, Joey Barton, O’Neil and Niko Kranjcar began from midfield.
Top scorer Charlie Austin was paired with Kevin Doyle in attack.
Half of Wembley was a sea of blue and white thanks to specially-made flags given to every QPR supporter.
And there was incredible noise, too, as the players came out for kick-off.
Unsurprisingly, the opening stanza made for a close-run contest. Both teams were eager to stamp their mark on this final.
Rangers had the first shot in anger. Austin controlled a Barton header on eight minutes before firing over from 25 yards.
However, chances were few and far between inside the first quarter hour.
QPR players were already putting their bodies on the line. A succession of strong tackles in the 17th minute got R’s fans on their feet.
Derby enjoyed their first opportunity in the 25th minute. Jamie Ward’s deep centre from the left was met at the back post by Craig Forsyth, but he could only head wide – albeit from an acute angle.
The Rams had claims for a penalty turned down three minutes later when Will Hughes clashed with Dunne. Referee Lee Mason waved away the appeals.
Hughes also shot over from 20-yards out in the 32nd minute.
Unfortunately, the R’s were forced into an early change – Kranjcar’s afternoon coming to a premature end with what appeared to be a hamstring injury. Armand Traore came on in his place.
Russell saw a deflected shot caught by Green on 36 minutes. Five minutes later, the QPR goalkeeper was again called into action – tipping a low Hughes free-kick around his left-hand post.
At the other end, Rangers broke on the counter attack a minute before half-time – substitute Traore subsequently dragged wide after a Hill pass.
The sides went in all-square at the break.
In similar vein to the first half, the start to the second period was tight.
Derby had a succession of corner kicks inside the opening 10 minutes, but that was about as good as it got. Both sets of fans tried to rally their respective teams.
Then came the best chance of the contest yet in the 57th minute. Traore crossed for Austin – and he dragged his shot just wide.
Doyle made way for Zamora straight after that incident. Austin blazed over from Hoilett in the 58th minute.
QPR’s claims were dealt a bitter blow on the hour when O’Neil was dismissed.
Russell was played though on goal and when he took the ball in his stride, O'Neil came in with a challenge from behind to foul the attacker.
Referee Mason consulted with his linesman before brandishing a straight red card.
Redknapp responded by bringing on Karl Henry for skipper Hill in the 67th minute.
Two minutes later, Green pulled off a smart, low stop to save from sub Craig Bryson. The QPR custodian then produced a stunning reaction block to thwart Chris Martin.
A man down, Rangers had to put in the hard yards to stay in the final – and Green had to be at his best.
The Hoops number one was just that when fashioning a fine stop to deny Simon Dawkins at point-blank range.
The final 10 minutes were nervy as the R’s tried to hang on, riding wave after wave of attack. Green saved from Bryson with two minutes left to play.
Rangers soon had a now-rare attack, from which Barton blasted wide.
Against all the odds, QPR stole victory with a goal in the 90th minute.
Hoilett did fantastically well to win possession on the right-hand by-line and when his cross wasn’t dealt with, Zamora diverted home to send R’s fans wild.
What a season – and, in typical Rangers style, what an end to it.