Even royalty find it nerve-wracking. The Duke of Cambridge – an Aston Villa fan – sat with his head in his hands, anxiety etched on his face, the cameras shifting to him as the seconds slowly ticked down and it appeared Derby County might complete an unlikely comeback. The seven minutes of added time felt like an eternity.
In the end it was Villa who deservedly held out and, following an absence of three years, they are back in the Premier League after winning yet another gut-wrenching, rollercoaster Championship play-off final.
Hi-ho silver lining, they sang, the first song up after the final whistle – and there is plenty of silver to be earned in what is, of course, the single richest game in world football, unlocking guaranteed broadcast incomes of £170 million from being in the Premier League for just one season. Twelve months after the agony of losing the play-off final to Fulham, Villa’s ambition will stretch way beyond that with the Duke, a baseball cap over his head, carousing with former player John Carew at the final whistle.
Villa, one of the grand clubs of English football, are back in the big time, and despite the goals of Anwar El Ghazi and John McGinn, the eye-catching moments of captain Jack Grealish and the defensive power of Tyrone Mings, this day belonged to head coach Dean Smith.
A lifelong Villa fan who grew up in Great Barr, Smith took over last October, with the fans feeling disenfranchised and the season drifting, and has brought back a sense of unity and belief that was clear to see throughout the 97 minutes of this game and in the exuberant, champagne-sprayed celebrations afterwards.
There is personal pain, too, in that the 48-year-old’s father, Ron, a former Villa Park steward, is suffering from dementia and is unaware that his son is in charge of the club they both cherish so deeply. Smith stood, arms outstretched, next to Grealish, another staunch Villa fan, as they both held the trophy aloft. There were tears in the royal box from Smith’s family.
Both men will be key to Villa’s future and fortune in the Premier League and it appears inconceivable that the club will countenance any offers for Grealish, whose captaincy and subsequent contribution has been a masterstroke orchestrated by Smith. “Boy, the kid has matured,” he said.
In importance, the 23-year-old midfielder is closely followed by McGinn who scored the decisive goal and has become such a talisman after being a £2.5m bargain buy under Smith’s predecessor, Steve Bruce.
That the goal also resulted from an error was in keeping with Derby’s patchy display. The in-game changes made by manager Frank Lampard – bringing on Jack Marriott and Martyn Waghorn, who apparently was not fully-fit – worked but the bad news was he made them when his team were 2-0, and after his decision to start with Tom Huddlestone had back-fired. The 32 year-old had slowed down the midfield and made it easy for Villa to dictate the pace.
What also did not work was Lampard’s faith in Dutch goalkeeper Kelle Roos, ahead of the more experienced Scott Carson, and he was badly at fault for McGinn’s goal. It is set to be a summer of uncertainty for Derby with doubts over the manager’s future, their best players being loanees and with the club’s finances under severe scrutiny. The squad will change, Lampard admitted, with one note being this will probably represent 38-year-old Ashley Cole’s last game.