Aston Villa are headed back to the Premier League. Had you told that to any of these fans in claret and blue in December they’d have laughed you back onto the train at New Street station. But believe it. Dean Smith almost didn’t, flailing both arms in the air with uncontrollable delight. The local boy is living his childhood dreams of taking his club to the top table. A goal in each half at Wembley, from Anwar El Ghazi and John McGinn respectively, saw them beat out Derby County in sport’s most lucrative fixture. A late consolation goal from Martyn Waghorn just wasn’t enough.
On a stage of this importance, at the climax of a breath-taking season, the angst is to be expected and it seemed to consume Derby. They’ve possessed a tenacious quality at times this year, but that fight was buried too deep for them to access until too late. Waghorn's flick after Jack Marriott's shot did inspire hopeful cheers of a similar comeback to that at Leeds two weeks ago, but it wasn’t to be.
Frank Lampard was growing increasingly despondent on the touchline, his folded arms clasping in the nerves as he paced back and forth. He knew all it took was one moment to flip the game on its head, but his team hadn't turned up until the final moments and his expression said it all: It was just too far out of reach.
Both managers have to be commended for a sterling first season in charge at their respective clubs. Smith helped to ignite Villa’s fiery campaign late on. After sitting in 12th at Christmas, and, even when they stumbled in the New Year, his side pulled off a record 10 straight victories through March and April to drive them firmly into the top six. Brentford players and fans might be looking on, wishfully dreaming that, had Smith stayed, this could’ve been their moment instead.
Stood in the opposing technical area, Lampard has given rise to a similarly fearless energy which propelled Derby into the play-offs on the final day of the season, and then helped defy odds to score thrice at Elland Road and send Marcelo Bielsa’s side reeling.
There’s no denying his appointment last summer was a gamble, and he stepped in at a time of building pressure to take Derby up to the top flight. Given this is his debut as a manager, he’s shown that he’s far more than just a name. So much so that it’s arrested the attention of Chelsea, and what is probably his dream job. Will he stay knowing he’ll have to go through a pressure-packed campaign all over again?
It would be silly not to address that big blue Premier League elephant in the room, the team that has a common factor that links everyone in this game together. Chelsea have not just enriched both squads with talented loanees, including Villa’s top scorer Tammy Abraham and Derby’s player of the season Fiko Tomori, but also both dugouts with John Terry, Lampard and Jody Morris. Don’t forget the experience of Ashley Cole in the Rams' dressing room - this game will likely be his playing swansong.
As grey clouds hung over Wembley, the nervous errors surfaced at the back for Derby, starting with a goal kick that lead to Jack Grealish firing over from the edge of the box within the first 10 minutes. This crept in again, and again in the second half, as pressure from McGinn forced Kelle Roos to kick into touch.
It was Villa that seemed the more commanding, both going forward and at the back. Whenever the Rams broke clear of midfield, space was minimised quickly and chance after chance closed out. While at the other end, Abraham came close from the edge of the box, and El Ghazi’s tricky runs from the left looked promising – Smith’s side were just lacking a finish.
It was El Ghazi’s run without the ball which then granted that finish and a first goal just before half-time. Ahmed Elmohamady’s pinpoint cross from the right caught the diving winger on the back of the neck, sweeping it into the far corner. Cole had been caught out of position, forcing Tomori out to cover, which gave Villa time to cross for the goal. Though his maturity did help Derby at times, Cole was ultimately there to plug a gap, and his age was showing.
Another error at the back lead to the second too, as man-of-the-match and Villa’s player of the season McGinn found himself in the right place at the right time to head away from Roos into the corner. Villa now had a cushion to work with.
With half an hour to go, on came Marriott for Derby, the hero of Elland Road who struck twice to taken them to Wembley. It would need the same kind of magic to stop their opponents here. And with 10 minutes to go, a long ball from Tomori started a move that saw Marriott fire towards the corner and Waghorn put the slightest of touches to guide it home.
Black and white shirts piled forward, and with pace down the wing in substitute Florian Jozefzoon they threw everything they could at Aston Villa in the closing moments. But the claret and blues held firm. Jed Steer was commanding in his own box, pulling off a number of vital interceptions to keep Derby out.
And so, as Jack Grealish and James Chester lifted the winners' trophy high into the air, a splutter of gold confetti glistening around them, Villa had their revenge for last season's defeat against Fulham. They walk away a top flight club, and will be at least £170m richer because of it.
The Rams meanwhile taste play-off defeat once more, the fourth time in six seasons. After vast cash injections over the last five years - including more than £70m on transfers alone - the big question will be whether Mel Morris is willing to dip into his pocket once more to allow yet another fight for Premier League football.
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