The Play-Off Final - A Fixture Of Great Contrasts

As a Forest fan it should be easy for Daniel Storey to side with Derby's play-off final opposition. The contrasts with big spenders QPR makes things much more difficult...

Last Updated: 23/05/14 at 09:42 Post Comment

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When Real Madrid played Bayern Munich in the semi-finals of this season's Champions League, all the talk was of a clash of football styles, a fight for the game's soul as opposite elements faced off, counter-attack eventually ruling over possession and patience.

Similarly, this weekend's Championship play-off final, the unromantically labelled richest game in football, is also a battle of opposites. This is tactical coach vs. man motivator, carefree spending vs. making do, free-flowing attacking vs. defensive solidity.

The contrasts between Derby County and Queens Park Rangers could not be more apparent. Whilst the East Midlands side failed to spend more than £750,000 on a single player last summer, instead relying on loan deals and cheap options such as Johnny Russell from Dundee United and Craig Forsyth from Watford, QPR celebrated relegation by paying £4million for Charlie Austin and over £5million for Matty Phillips, almost unprecedented spending in the second tier.

If Rangers' spending was notable, their top-flight and international experience is utterly astonishing. Harry Redknapp has used 19 different players with international experience this season, sharing 651 international caps between them. Furthermore, players used by the club this season have played a total of 4,264 Premier League games between them (and yes, that took some maths) compared to Derby's 170. It's no wonder that their wage bill is higher than Atletico Madrid and Borussia Dortmund.

At the helm is Harry Redknapp, a manager still evidently bitter at being passed up for the England job and sacked by Spurs. And yet, given a chance to prove his doubters wrong, Redknapp has failed. Despite his side having more resources than ever before seen in the second tier, QPR have limped to the play-offs. They scored just 60 goals in 46 matches (lower than all but one team in the top half) and finished 22 points behind champions Leicester - between December 21st and March 8th QPR won just 15 points from 13 matches.

Conversely, Derby have been joyful to watch (providing you aren't a Forest fan). They are the top scorers in the division and have benefited from the lift provided by the appointment of Steve McClaren. The decision to sack manager Nigel Clough in September was a significant gamble, but at the time my concern was that if the former England manager was going to succeed anywhere, it was Derby. That has been proved spectacularly right.

Even so, in opting for McClaren, Derby took a huge leap of faith. The coach had enjoyed notable success at FC Twente after his ill-fated spell with England, but each of his three jobs since had ended in failure. Derby supporters may have congratulated their new manager for his disastrous 13-game spell at their bitterest rivals, but many would have been tentative in their welcoming of McClaren to Pride Park.

They need not have lost much sleep, and McClaren has transformed Derby's fortunes. A Championship table drawn from his appointment date onwards would have seen Derby go up automatically ahead of Burnley, and Brighton were swept aside with frightening ease in the play-off semi-final.

McClaren is typically modest on his effect at the club. "We're way ahead of schedule and if you'd have told me we'd make the play-offs at half-time of the first game against Ipswich in October, when we were 4-1 down, I wouldn't have believed you," he said.

"We wanted to be competing in and around that sixth position, so it is credit to the players what has happened," McClaren continued. "I have said all along Nigel Clough assembled a very good squad, so we have credited him with that. We have just taken it on, put our stamp on it, introduced a few new loan players, who have helped us, and the blend and the balance has been right."

Compare such humility with Redknapp's comments in March. "The chairman's not a silly man - he knows I'm the best man for the job. I will survive. I love what I do. I do it because I enjoy it. I don't need the money. Any fool who understands football would look at the injury situation. That's how it's been for us this season." Revisit the third paragraph for my thoughts on such excuses.

There is nothing inherently wrong with QPR's approach this season, but their literal win-at-any-cost approach doesn't sit well with many fans of the Championship. As a Forest supporter, it shouldn't be difficult to root for Derby's opposition in their biggest match for seven years but yet, despite obvious club allegiance, it becomes impossible not to respect what McClaren has achieved in such a short space of time.

After an end of season in which the very fabric of the Football League has been undermined by the idea of League Three, good news stories are greatly appreciated. McClaren and Derby very much fall into that category - Saturday provides the chance to give it the perfect ending.

Daniel Storey - Follow him on Twitter.

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