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Derby County 4 Brighton 1: Steve McClaren eyes return to Premier League

Derby win 6-2 on aggregate

Steve McClaren will probably have to contend with that image of him holding an umbrella, powerless to stop the dreams of the nation dying around him as England lost to Croatia in November 2007, for the rest of his life.

But he will return to Wembley in two weeks for the first time as a manager since that infamous night with his reputation emphatically restored.

He stands on the brink of leading Derby County back to the Premier League after a whirlwind seven months.

Goals from Will Hughes, Chris Martin, George Thorne and Jeff Hendrick completed a performance of such style and verve, the winner of Queen’s Park Rangers and Wigan Athletic will not want to face them. “We look a damn good side,” said McClaren. “We deserve this, we felt we were good enough to get to the final. It was the perfect performance.

“I’ve been back a few times to Wembley in the stands and will be back for the Cup final on Saturday. But for the play-off final, I won’t be taking a bloody brolly I know that. It won’t be like it was last time, it will be completely different.”

A sixth straight win on home soil was never in doubt from the moment Hughes opened the scoring with a classy back-heeled finish 35 minutes into this second leg after Derby had ground out a 2-1 win at the Amex Stadium in Thursday’s first encounter.

Where they earned their fortune on the south coast, there was no need for it in the East Midlands as they passed poor Brighton off the park.

Hughes’ cheeky effort from Craig Forsyth’s cross settled the nerves and Brighton were never able to respond. Indeed, the second half was a procession.

Martin buried his 25th of the campaign after reacting quicker than the visiting defence, minus Gordon Greer who had picked up a hamstring strain, to meet Jamie Ward’s header down from Johnny Russell’s cross.

Goal No 3 was to follow on 77 minutes as Thorne, the on-loan West Bromwich Albion midfielder, emphatically volleyed in from the edge of the area after Simon Dawkins’ shot had deflected into his path.

Hendrick went on to score the fourth three minutes from the end after starting and finishing a move that also involved Patrick Bamford.

Kazenga LuaLua was to get one back a minute from time – finishing from Inigo  Calderon’s cross – but there was to be no dampening the mood of Derby’s fans who carried off their heroes after invading the pitch at the end as McClaren’s return to the big time gathered pace.

“They were much better than us,” admitted Brighton manager Oscar Garcia. “I don’t want to look for excuses, they deserve to be in the final.

“It has been a fantastic season for us and not many people thought we could reach the play-offs.”

Derby County (4-3-3): Grant ; Wisdom , Keogh, Buxton, Forsyth; Hendrick, Thorne, Hughes  (Eustace 84); Russell (Bamford 79), Martin  Ward (Dawkins 67). Substitutes not used: Legzdins, Naylor, Sammon, Whitbread.

Brighton and Hove Albion (4-3-3): Kuszczak; Calderon, Dunk, Greer (Chicksen 24), Ward; Orlandi (Mackail-Smith 58), Andrews, Ince; Buckley (Lua-Lua 57), Ulloa, Lingard. Substitutes not used: Brezovan, Agustein , Forster-Caskey, March.

Referee: C Pawson.