Play-off final: Ones to watch
To the eventual winner, the Championship play-off final is the most valuable game in sport. The steel nerves of Kevin Phillips won it for Crystal Palace last year so as Derby prepare to take on QPR, Sky Sports analyses three potential match-winners at Wembley.
By Ryan Parrish
Last Updated: 23/05/14 2:53pm
At the start of the season, few would have predicted Derby's sudden rise following Steve McClaren's arrival, while QPR's lavish squad of stars was widely expected to ease to a top-flight return. But who could be the player to fire their side back into the big time? Sky Sports takes a look.
The 25-year-old, who joined permanently from Norwich last summer, has enjoyed his best season to date as he hit 22 Championship goals on the way to reaching Wembley. It is often said that momentum is the not-so-secret weapon needed to win the play-offs and having netted six times in his last seven outings, including goals in both legs of the semi-final win over Brighton, Martin has exactly that.
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Following the first-leg win at the Amex Stadium, manager Steve McClaren underlined the importance of having the striker back in the team after refusing to risk him against Leeds on the final day. "Chris is our top scorer, he's vital to our build-up and our football. He was very effective, he scored the penalty and then hit a great strike to put us ahead,” he told the Express. McClaren was not the only one to recognise Martin’s fine form, though, as Gordon Strachan rewarded him with a first Scotland call-up for the friendly against Nigeria later this month.
Martin has contributed just under a quarter of Derby’s goals so far this campaign – 24 per cent – after showing he can also turn provider by chipping in with eight assists in his 46 appearances. In a season where Norwich’s expensive striking fraternity of Ricky van Wolfswinkel, Gary Hooper and Johan Elmander could muster just eight goals between them, Chris Hughton must have been looking on in disbelief as Martin continued to rattle them in for Derby.
After QPR paid a Burnley a fee reported to be in the region of £4million to bring Charlie Austin to Loftus Road last summer, the striker cannot have imagined that it would be his former side whose top-flight place was secured by this stage of the season. The 24-year-old endured a somewhat slow start to his debut campaign with the Rs, failing to score in his first five Championship games, but he soon found his feet and contributed to 31% of the goals scored by Harry Redknapp’s men despite a prolonged period out with a shoulder injury.
Similarly to Martin, Austin scored twice in the semi-finals, but both of his goals crucially came in the second-leg of their tie against Wigan as his extra-time winner booked a place at Wembley. Team-mate Joey Barton starred that night, but he was keen to lay praise on his team-mates and particularly Austin. "We've got quality in the team and the big man (Austin) scores goals, that's what he does,” said Barton, speaking to Sky Sports after the game which saw Austin take his tally to 19 for the season.
QPR’s alarming dip in form at the start of February coincided with Austin’s absence from the side as they won just once in the first seven games that he missed. However, any fears of rustiness in the run up to the play-offs were soon allayed by the striker hitting five goals in five ahead of the clash with Derby, meaning Saturday’s final could not come at a better time for him.
Much like his team-mate, Martin, Craig Bryson’s season has been a career best. The 27-year-old Scotland international had never previously scored more than six goals in a single campaign, but this one has seen him become the Championship’s highest-scoring midfielder with an impressive tally of 16. His 13 assists is nothing to be sniffed at either and only Burnley full-back Kieran Trippier (14) managed to set up more goals.
Just weeks into his tenure at the iPro Stadium, McClaren soon recognised how integral of a figure Bryson could be. “He has been fantastic. I have watched him from afar before coming back to Derby and I knew the impact he can have. But when you work with these players you get to know them better. He is a great team player - such energy, and what a runner. He has been one of the focal points of this team,” McClaren told the Burton Mail.
The 27-year-old’s pass success rate of 85% is also impressive and his displays this season have seen him secure Derby’s Player of the Year award as well as a place in the PFA Championship Team of the Year. A hat-trick against Millwall made him the first Derby player to hit three in one game since now assistant manager Paul Simpson in 1996, before a further treble, this time in the 5-0 demolition of bitter rivals Nottingham Forest, helped endear himself even further to the Derby faithful.