Leeds United 2 Derby County 4 (agg: 3-4)
There is a moment before a vital goal is scored when there is silence, as thousands of lungs are filled with air in expectation of the celebration that will follow. A split second of calm before that magnificent, intoxicating explosion of euphoria. Just ask Jack Marriott. Just ask Derby County.
Derby’s substitute had scored with his first touch in the first half to drag his side back into this play-off semi-final and it was his lofted finish, as the game appeared to be heading into extra time, that won it for them. The ball hanging and spinning tantalisingly in the sky before dropping into the Leeds net, sparking bedlam in the away section and desolation everywhere else.
Whatever happens when they meet Aston Villa in the final at Wembley, Derby will remember this for years. Whatever Frank Lampard goes on to achieve in his managerial career, he will struggle to replicate the same emotions this triumph unleashed.
This was the night Derby went to Leeds United and forced them to capitulate. The night they silenced the laughter over the Spygate scandal, the night they danced around the crestfallen bodies of men in white shirts and celebrated in the faces of their opponents.
There were some spiteful exchanges after the final whistle, as Leeds’ failure dawned on them and Derby’s glee got the better of some.
There was some goading of the home team’s coaching staff, there was the brief threat of crowd trouble before police circled the delirious Derby supporters, but this was not just a win, it was revenge. Not served cold, either, but piping hot, in the full heat of battle. Derby had lost all three games against Leeds this season but won the fourth and most important one.
“I wanted it so much, sometimes you can want something too much, but we have done it tonight,” said Lampard. “They say emotions are intensified when you are a manager and it is true.
“As a manager you are worrying about so many different things, you feel responsible for everything, so the euphoria after a result like that, after losing the first leg 1-0, it is easy to get caught up in the emotion. The feeling I’ve had tonight matches anything I’ve had in football, the way I’m feeling right now. I aimed high, I was aware of the financial issues, so to get to Wembley, it is fantastic.”
Elland Road had been waiting for this moment. It throbbed and pulsated. In every seat, in every stand the natives roared. The old stadium resplendent in the May sunshine, thousands of white scarves held aloft as the teams walked out, then twirled around heads in the final seconds before kick-off. Leeds was ready. Leeds expected. Leeds failed.
Behind the pride and passion, there is always doubt, always the worry that Leeds would, as the song goes, fall apart again. And when the pressure was on, it was Leeds who folded. They missed out on automatic promotion because they could not hold it together and all those horrible failings returned.
Derby trailed by a goal from the first leg, the perennial play off failures – three play-off defeats in five years– but knew they had a chance, this could be an opportunity not an ordeal.
Leeds began like a cobra trying to bite its prey and Bielsa’s men struck first, Stuart Dallas sweeping the ball into the net.
Leeds looked good, but self-destructed just before half time, as goalkeeper Kiko Casilla and captain Liam Cooper got in each other’s way and Marriott, on as a substitute for Duane Holmes, scored with his first touch.
Derby moved in for the kill, scoring their second 38 seconds into the second half as Mason Mount somehow lost his balance and still managed to scoop a shot over the head of Casilla.
The energy inside the stadium began to become a negative force and Leeds self-harmed again, Cooper tugging the shirt of Bennett inside the area and Harry Wilson converted the spot kick.
Somehow Leeds came again, Dallas dropping a shoulder and curling a shot into the far corner. Hope returned, but after Gaetano Berardi’s sending off, Leeds could not cling on, Wilson hitting the post before Marriott condemned them to yet another season in the Championship. Derby's Scott Malone was also sent off after a second yellow card and will miss the final.
“It is a very painful situation,” said Bielsa. “It’s not convenient to talk about this [my future] right now, but if the club offers me an opportunity to carry on, I will listen to that proposal. One of the strengths of this season has been the support of the fans towards me and the team. We had the conditions to finish first or second, we had the conditions to be the best team in the play offs, there have been mistakes, that leads to doubt of the head coach. I could not find the solution and that is my job.”