After as rambunctious a play-off second leg as can possibly be imagined Derby County claimed the right to face Aston Villa in the final on 27 May to try for promotion to the Premier League. It was end-to-end entertainment all night, a feast of incident, goals and excitement, and neither side deserved to lose despite Scott Malone’s late dismissal for a second yellow reducing both sides to 10 men by the end.
It never ceases to astonish how full-blooded and thrilling these play-off encounters can be, when both sides must know that the likely prize on offer, financial considerations aside, will be a season of toil and tribulation in the top flight. Leeds players hit the deck in the manner of Ajax a week ago as the final whistle sounded. They had been true to Marcelo Bielsa’s attacking traditions, but let themselves down in defence on a couple of occasions.
Frank Lampard said beforehand that Derby’s first task would be to quieten the Elland Road crowd, and though the ground was at its most raucous at kick-off the visitors were not doing a bad job of quelling the atmosphere until Stuart Dallas gave the home side the lead midway through the first half. Leeds had started brightly before being pushed back and were struggling to get the ball into the Derby box before they were awarded a free-kick 30 yards out. Kalvin Phillips flighted it perfectly, and though the ball may not have made any contact with Patrick Bamford’s forehead the striker proved a distraction and Kelle Roos could not prevent the cross striking an upright, allowing Dallas to tuck away the rebound with ease.
With a 2-0 aggregate lead Lampard’s strategy had no chance of succeeding, and as the Leeds fans turned up the volume there were some predictable taunts at the Derby manager and his Chelsea background. Events were quite feisty on the pitch as well, with Malone and Pablo Hernández both booked after a coming-together on the touchline, Phillips picking up a card for a poor challenge on Harry Wilson and Bamford seeing yellow for simulation in the Derby area.
Leeds were making good progress down the right wing, with Hernández and Mateusz Klich both finding space, and a cross from the latter might have broken the deadlock even earlier had not Luke Ayling put his volley over the bar. Mason Bennett hit a post with a looping header a couple of minutes before the interval for Derby, yet though that indicated they were still capable of getting back on terms the manner in which they did so surprised everyone. First Lampard made an enforced substitution in the 44th minute, sending on Marriott for the struggling Duane Holmes. Marriott trotted onto the pitch probably expected a kick or two at best before the half-time whistle went, but immediately found himself the beneficiary of a mix-up between the Leeds goalkeeper Kiko Casilla and centre-back Liam Cooper when trying to deal with a loose ball. Casilla came out of his area then retreated, leaving Cooper to hurriedly attempt to clear, and the ball squirted between the two of them to leave Marriott to find an open goal with his first touch. It was not the conclusion to the first half Leeds wanted, or the ideal time to concede an equaliser, and when Casilla managed to leave his area again before half time without properly giving Gaetano Berardi time to clear there were audible grumbles from the fans behind his goal.
Plenty has been written about the role momentum and confidence play in comebacks in the last few days, and Derby needed less than a minute of the second half to offer the latest evidence. Completely undaunted by the rousing rendition of Marching on Together that greeted the resumption of play, Richard Keogh drove forward to find Mason Mount, who made room inside the area for a shot and scored just 38 seconds after the restart, somehow producing an effort on target despite appearing to stumble in the attempt. Tellingly that was only Derby’s second attempt on target of the evening, yet both had produced goals.
Leeds tried frantically to regain the lead, only to come up against some inspired Derby defending. Jayden Bogle cleared off the line from Phillips, Roos stood up to a fierce shot from Bradley Johnson and when a follow-up came in at even greater velocity Malone bravely stuck his face in the way. The force was with Derby now, and the next time they went upfield they scored, Cooper receiving a booking for tugging Mason Bennett’s shirt and Wilson calmly stroking away the penalty. That made it 3-1 on the night and put Derby in front in the tie for the first time, though they could only hold on to the advantage for five minutes. Dallas took a neat return pass from Klich to burst into the area and beat Roos with a firmly struck low shot for his second goal.
Emotions were still running high, and Berardi’s temper got the better of him as he was goaded into retaliation in the 78th minute to pick up a second yellow just nine minutes after his first. The right-back punched the extendable tunnel in frustration as he left the pitch, but Leeds had to see out the remainder of the game with 10 men. Bogle had a penalty appeal turned down, Wilson struck a post when he really should have scored but finally, with five minutes left, Marriott closed the second half as he had ended the first, with a well-taken goal. Isiah Brown and Jack Clarke both tested Roos in the closing seconds but the goalkeeper stood firm to book a safe passage to Wembley.