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May 23, 2014

50-50 Challenge: The Championship playoff final

Steve McClaren and Harry Redknapp are one match away from the Premier League.
Steve McClaren and Harry Redknapp are one match away from the Premier League.
In what is dubbed the richest game in football, Queens Park Rangers face Derby County on Saturday with a place in the Premier League agonisingly close. Precise sums vary, with victory worth anything between 90 million pounds and 150 million, depending on who you read.

We've got a Championship edition of 50-50 to preview the game, featuring Wally Downes Jnr in QPR's corner and Steve Nicholson for Derby. Wally covers QPR for Hayters Sports Agency while Steve is chief football writer for The Derby Telegraph.

Round one...

What are your memories of the play-offs? How are the nerves?

Wally Downes: The harrowing Football League Second Division play-off Final at the end of the 2002-03 season still makes QPR fans nauseous. QPR v Cardiff at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff -- or The Great Play-Off Robbery as some remember it.

Rangers were undone by a goal in extra-time and it was devastating. They had endured relegations although they're always deserved. This? This was theft. Not only was it a home match for the Welsh club but a former club security man and lifelong Cardiff fan managed to sneak into the hotel Rangers were staying in on the eve of the game and raised the fire alarm at 3am, wrecking the pre-match preparations. It's something that no QPR fan has ever forgotten.

Nerves? Until the team-sheet comes out it's a waste of time trying to settle on an emotion. At about 2pm on Saturday there will a sense of inspiration or abject terror.

Steve Nicholson: I have seen Derby County in five play offs -- twice in the early Nineties, again in 2005 and then 2007.

The semifinal second leg tie against Southampton seven years ago was arguably the most dramatic night witnessed at Pride Park, now the iPro Stadium. A classic clash was locked at an aggregate score of 4-4 before Derby won a penalty shoot-out to reach Wembley.

Derby, the underdogs, went on to beat West Bromwich Albion 1-0 in the final. What happened next is best forgotten -- they endured a nightmare season in the top flight, won just one of 38 matches and were relegated with a record-low 11 points.

Make a case for why your side should win promotion

WD: For the element of chaos QPR bring. Do people not remember the last season up there? Rangers have a rich history of operating in a state of total despair or unbridled jubilance. In my short lifetime alone they've shifted in and out of financial meltdown but have also been owned by some of the planet's richest men.

They will not be mediocre, stable or predictable. They're already blowing raspberries at financial fair play in the second-tier -- imagine what they'll do up where the big bucks are when we've the money is there to make some really catastrophic errors. Again.

SN: It would be easy to say the club belongs there, but I cringe when I hear such words uttered. No club has a right to be in the top division, the right has to be earned.

Derby would be welcome because of the progressive style of football Steve McClaren has them playing and because of the size of their fan base. They would sell out every home game -- around 33,000 -- and they are the 21st best-supported club in the country this season with an average of 24,933.

Fear Factor

WD: Derby are everything QPR aren't. They are a young, hungry, quick, powerful and physically imposing side with what looks like an insatiable hunger and a manager who probably feels he needs to prove himself in England again.

Rangers have a selection of technically superior players with an embarrassment of riches in terms of experience and international caps. But Derby have total freedom to go out an attack QPR because even a resounding defeat will not leave a mark on McClaren or his emerging pool of talented players.

SN: Charlie Austin, for obvious reasons. The striker scored 28 goals for Burnley last season and he has hit 20 for QPR this term, despite being sidelined by injury for a couple of months. He can be quiet for long periods of games but can pop up with a goal at any time. Derby will need to keep a close eye on him. Joey Barton is also a key player for QPR, their talisman.

He was the best midfielder on the pitch when Rangers beat Derby at Loftus Road in November and is an excellent footballer. Derby cannot afford to let him boss the midfield.

X-Factor

WD: Niko Kranjcar will probably start in the free role and if he gets time and space on the ball he will cause Derby problems. When he gets tired or frustrated Harry Redknapp will probably have Ravel Morrison to bring on. If QPR score I can't see beyond Austin; he's a classic striker and if he had been fit all season I think they would already be in the Premier League.

SN: Striker Chris Martin has scored 25 goals this season -- the most by a Derby player in almost 30 years. He is pivotal to the way the Rams play. He can receive the ball, hold off centre-backs and bring teammates into play. Elsewhere, one of McClaren's selection decisions appears to be whether to start with Jeff Hendrick or Will Hughes in midfield. Hughes is a young player with wonderful awareness, vision and weight of pass. A real talent.

Prediction

WD: I just think that players like Rob Green -- who has had an exceptional season -- Richard Dunne, Joey Barton, Gary O'Neil and Kranjcar will have too much nous and big-match experience for Derby's heroic young pretenders. So, 2-0 QPR. Then it'll be back up into the Premier League again where they can dive straight back into ritual humiliation.

SN: The Championship is impossible to predict. This is a fascinating tussle between Derby's youthfulness and high-tempo play, while QPR have experience and big-game players. I do believe Derby can win, though.