What are your initial thoughts ahead of this weekend’s fixture?
I think it’s kind of been written, hasn’t it, ever since Steve McClaren left QPR to join Derby. He found a few doors were closed for him when he tried to get back into the game. Harry Redknapp, so long a rival, gave him an opportunity at QPR where by all accounts, he did fantastically well. Steve speaks very highly about Queens Park Rangers – and everyone there speaks very highly of him. From the moment that Derby got into a play-off place, and QPR looked like they weren’t going to finish in the top two, this was the fixture that was almost written in the stars as it were. There are so many storylines in there, Joey Barton against Will Hughes, a future England star against a guy who is probably unlucky, in my opinion, never to have had a better opportunity with England. I think it will be a fascinating afternoon.
What’s the mood like in and around the city of Derby heading into this one?
The city is absolutely buzzing. I remember seven years ago when Derby last went to Wembley, they were the underdogs that day but did a job on West Brom to get promoted. Though I can’t remember the buzz being like it is now. The way they’ve played football since Steve McClaren came in this year, the way the club, maybe without realising, had slipped into a bit of a coma. It was all just ticking over and nothing very exciting. And now it is. The city is buzzing, the club is buzzing and everyone is excited. But I still think there’s a bit of ‘if not this year, we’re in such good shape that next year we’ll have a really-good stab at it’. I think there’s just a positive feeling. Look how quickly the tickets sold out. Everybody is excited and just can’t wait for the day. I think Derby are going into it optimistic, they’re confident that they can win the game for sure. Everyone is just excited to be involved after a long time not being involved in the Championship promotion battle, it’s nice to just to be back in amongst that.
On the evidence of the semi-finals – and both teams’ seasons – what type of fixture are you expecting?
Like I said, it’ll be fascinating. I look at Derby and think there’s only one way that they can play, and that’s attacking. They’re going to try to create chances and go for it. But I do remember the game Derby had against Queens Park Rangers back in February at the iPro Stadium, where they won 1-0, and that was tight and edgy. Derby can play that way if they have to – but frankly, I don’t know what type of game we’re going to get. I hope it’s entertaining, because that’s always good to watch and helps with the nerves a little bit. Will it be a tight affair? We’ll see but I honestly don’t know. That’s what I think is the most-interesting thing about it.
What type of test do you think Derby are expecting from QPR?
I think Rangers will be hard to beat. I remember the game at Loftus Road, I remember the game at the iPro. QPR are so difficult to play against and Steve McClaren knows that from the start of the season when they barely conceded a goal. Charlie Austin is a dangerous player who seems to really like playing against Derby, they’ll have to keep him quiet first and foremost. Derby are just aware that there’s an awful lot of quality in the Queens Park Rangers side, and maybe they haven’t fulfilled their potential in the way everyone expected them to this season. I know injuries have played a big part in that. From Derby’s point of view, they’ll probably use that to talk themselves up as the underdogs going into it, but whether they are or not is not up to anybody to decide, because it’s pure mind games. We saw a bit of that with Uwe Rosler and Harry Redknapp. I think that’s how Derby will look at it.
Which player is most likely to win it for Derby?
Star man? I’ll say George Thorne, who QPR won’t have seen yet as he wasn’t in the side when Derby won in February. I’m sure everyone saw the goal against Brighton, he’s just doing fantastic. He’s added an extra dimension in midfield – he’s a fantastic player who does the defensive work but he’s also quality on the ball. He can score goals, he’s hit a couple of great ones which gives Derby a bit of an extra edge.
I don’t make them – I make a point of it because whenever I do, it goes badly! For superstitious reasons, I can’t give a prediction. But it’ll be fascinating.