DERBY County's Premier League dream was shattered in the cruellest possibly manner by 10-man Queens Park Rangers at Wembley this afternoon.
The Rams bossed the Championship play-off final for an hour or more and had a numerical advantage after Rangers' midfielder Gary O'Neil was sent off with 30 minutes left to play.
But up popped Rangers' substitute Bobby Zamora in the final minute to crash home the decisive goal just as extra-time beckoned.
Derby's distraught players fell to the turf on the final whistle and the tears flowed as Rangers celebrated winning the £120m showdown 1-0 and booking a place at the top table of English football following relegation last season.
For Derby, they have had an excellent season, something that must not be forgotten amid the understandable, gut-wrenching disaapointment.
The Rams named the same team that dispatched Brighton in convincing fashion in the semi-final second leg. Will Hughes, a scorer in that game, kept his place and so fit-again Craig Bryson - 16 goals from midfielder this season - was on the bench.
A big call by Steve McClaren to resist a recall for Bryson but the head coach did describe the performance against Brighton as "near perfect", and so stuck with the same 11.
With Bryson on the bench, Derby's line up cost a mere £2.2m up against Rangers' expensive collection.
Rangers also boasted the experience, the big-game know-how, but the Rams have bristled with energy and tempo this season and were roared on by more than 38,000 supporters - the biggest mass exodus of fans to watch Derby in an away game.
The rain fell heavily at kick off but it failed to dampen a terrific atmosphere. One half of the stadium was a wall of black and white, the other blue and white.
Both managers, McClaren and Harry Redkanpp, got soaked as they stood with their players for the national anthem, but there was no sign of an umbrella!
A determined Jake Buxton won his first two jousts with Kevin Doyle and a couple of direct runs from Johnny Russell troubled Rangers back line. It was nip and tuck in the opening 15 minutes, hardly a surprise given what was at stake.
Rangers' wide man Junior Hoilet looked to get at Rams left back Craig Forsyth while Niko Kranjcar offered a threat when he came in from the left on his right foot.
Forsyth stood up defensively and then found himself in attack and on the end of a Jamie Ward centre, but he headed over from a tight angle when he may have been better trying to head back across goal and keep the ball alive.
Derby wanted a penalty when Hughes went down as Richard Dunne closed in, but referee Lee Mason called it right and there were signs the Rams had started to settle.
They won a couple of corners to pin Rangers back, both deliveries by Russell disappointed. Derby needed to find Chris Martin's feet more regularly and have runners closer to him because the striker shapes their play.
Hughes whipped a shot high over as the Derby fans applauded in the 31st minute for Radio Derby presenter Colin Bloomfield, who is battling cancer. It was a wonderful moment and with half an hour gone there was nothing to choose between the two sides.
Rangers lost Kranjcar to injury but the Hoops' pressing saw them stitch up the pockets of space Derby like to play in.
When Ward found space, he was impdeded and the Rams went close to taking the lead from the free kick five minutes before the break.
Ward's curler gathered pace off the wet pitch and Rob Green moved sharply to make a fine save at his post.
Rangers' threat had become more sporadic as the first half progressed and this was summed up by substitute Armand Traore's strong run, but poor shot.
The sun appeared and the sky above Wembley was now cloudless as Derby started the second half on the front foot. Derby's fans reacted by almost raising the roof with their support although they were relieved to see Rangers' top scorer Charlie Austin fire wide from a good position.
It was the kind of opportunity Austin has taken on many occasions for Rangers, and his previous club Burnley.
A costly miss? It seemed that way when Rangers were reduced to 10 men on the hour following O'Neil's red card.
Hughes' pass found Russell who darted into space on the edge of the area only to be brought down by O'Neil. The referee took his time, as more officials should, and consulted his assistant before dismissing the midfielder. Was O'Neil the last man? Quenstionablbe, but the cynical foul alone deserved a red.
McClaren introduced Simon Dawkins and Bryson, and Bryson immediately forced a save from Green as did Martin a minute later. Rangers' goalkeeper was now being kept busy, his next save came from Dawkins.
Penned in, Rangers dug in, and had to because they struggled to find a way out of their own half as Derby's pressure mounted.
But could the Rams find a goal their pressure merited?
Sticking to their normal game and not becoming anxious against ten men was the key although Rangers' two banks of four provided stubborn resistance.
And their resistance was rewarded when Zamora smashed their winning goal high past Lee Grant, who had been a spectator all half.
Hoilet got away from Buxton and when Richard Keogh's poor clearance fell to Zamora he made no mistake to send the Rangers fans wilde with delight.
DERBY COUNTY: Grant; Wisdom, Buxton, Keogh, Forsyth; Hendrick, Thorne, W Hughes (Bryson, 67); Ward (Bamford, 90+1), Martin, Russell (Dawkins, 67); subs not used: Legzdins (gk), Sammon, Whitbread, Eustace.
QUEENS PARK RANGERS: Green; Simpson, Onouha, Dunne, Hill (Henry, 67); Hoilet, Barton, O'Neil, Kranjcar (Traore, 33); Doyle (Zamora, 57) Austin; subs not used: Murphy (gk), Yun Suk-young, Morrison, A Hughes.
Referee: L Mason (Lancashire)
SCORER: Zamora (90) 0-1
SENDING OFF: Queens Park Rangers: O'Neil (60) foul on Russell.