Derby County. . . . . . . . . . . . . .1
LEICESTER, finally tasting Wembley victory at the seventh attempt, secured promotion to the Premiership by overcoming Derby through Steve Walsh's second goal three minutes from the end of yesterday's First Division play-off final.
Neutrals - thin on the ground on an afternoon of East Midlands tribalism - might argue that Leicester deserved to end their seven-year exile from the top flight after losing the previous two finals to disputed penalties. Derby, however, were manifestly the better of two plain teams and will doubtless reflect ruefully on the role of the referee, Roger Milford, in determining their destiny.
Taking his farewell fixture at the scene of his infamous handling of Paul Gascoigne during the 1991 FA Cup final, Mr Milford erred on the side of leniency to the last. Shortly before half-time, he allowed Walsh to negate the lead Tommy Johnson had provided for Derby, despite a blatant infringement. He then enabled Leicester to play out the closing half-hour with a full complement of players when other officials would have shown the red card to their captain, Simon Grayson.
Derby ought to have made the game safe - and with it the tenure of their manager, Roy McFarland, which was to be reviewed in the event of defeat - long before Walsh landed the decisive blow. Exploiting the pace of Johnson and the strength of Marco Gabbiadini, they frequently caught Leicester's defence square with early passes over the top.
In contrast, Brian Little deployed only two in midfield, his team bypassing that area with a succession of long balls from the back. The tactic was never pretty yet it proved pretty effective, hauling Leicester back into contention and planting doubts in Derby's psyche.
The opening minutes seemed likely to offer the match in microcosm. Jimmy Willis scrambled a Gabbiadini shot off the line after only 65 seconds and Gary Coatsworth, sent his first five passes into touch or to opponents.
Football eventually broke out with a marvellous five-man move which carried Derby from their right-back position to the inside- left channel. Gabbiadini's low cross then gave Johnson what appeared a certain goal. He miscued, but in the 28th minute sprinted on to Paul Simpson's chipped pass and left two defenders in his wake before sweeping his 19th goal of the season past Gavin Ward.
Thirteen minutes later Route One brought Leicester an equaliser. Coatsworth, ironically, was the supplier, though Martin Taylor's bid to field his up-and-under was impeded by a foul challenge by Iwan Roberts. Walsh rose above the keeper's flailing fists, and Derby's despair was compounded by Paul Williams's misjudged attempt to head off the line.
John Harkes twice came close to restoring Derby's lead. But Johnson continued to be the greatest threat to Leicester, who were hugely relieved to see Grayson merely cautioned on the hour following what appeared a clear professional foul on Derby's dangerman.
With extra time looming, Leicester conjured a move out of character with all that had gone before. Julian Joachim, on as substitute, found the overlapping Grayson, who underlined the significance of his reprieve with a fine first-time centre. Taylor parried Ian Ormondroyd's header brilliantly, only for Walsh to run in the loose ball.
Walsh, remarkably, was playing only his second full game since September, when he suffered a serious knee injury. Little left no doubt that he sees the converted defender as central to Leicester's prospects next season when he explained that Walsh, when fit, is always the first name on his team-sheet.
'That isn't really how we want to play,' the Leicester manager said, 'but it's been working. They're a good bunch of lads who won't be beaten.' Maybe so, but given that of the last four clubs promoted via the play-offs, only Blackburn have survived more than a season, several may have played themselves out of a new contract.
Leicester City (1-4-2-3): Ward; Grayson; Coatsworth (Thompson, 68), Willis, Carey, Whitlow; Blake, Gibson; Walsh, Roberts (Joachim, 56), Ormondroyd. Substitute not used: Poole (gk).
Derby County (4-4-2): Taylor; Charles, Short, Williams, Forsyth (Kitson, 87); Harkes, Cowans, Pembridge, Simpson; Gabbiadini, Johnson. Substitutes not used: Kavanagh, Sutton (gk).
Referee: R Milford (Bristol).