Cards on the table – I didn’t give us a prayer. I kept my mouth shut after the first leg, because in honesty, I had nothing positive to say. We had been managed so comprehensively, so easily, at Pride Park that what grounds for optimism were there at Elland Road? The Spymaster had us sussed. Frank Lampard was too green a manager to find a way to ruffle the legendary Marcelo Bielsa. They were a fearsomely drilled stormtrooper unit with the tactical edge over us. They were not unbeatable, far from it – and their players seemed to be dropping like flies, despite (or maybe because of) the brag that they had ‘run more than ever’ in the first leg of this semi-final – but we simply were not the team who could beat them, not this season, anyway.
So I expected nothing.
What I got was far and away the best football moment of my lifetime of supporting Derby County – a delirious, ‘I was there’ evening, which I feel incredibly lucky to have been able to witness. The 5-0 was a once-in-a-lifetime event (probably), but the intensity was not the same that day, because it became so easy so quickly. This was a very tough game, which could easily have gone the other way, yet panned out as such a dramatic and deeply satisfying triumph for the Rams that we couldn’t have scripted it better if we’d tried. Neutrals have been approaching me all day to talk about this game – all with massive smiles on their faces, because they were entertained, royally. It will go down as a one of the classic encounters in the history of two famous clubs with a mutual emnity stretching back over decades.
I reached my ‘seat’ in the John Charles Upper seconds after kick-off and the atmosphere was immediately on a different level to anything I have experienced before. The Derby fans were absolutely rocking – this was a big game and the fans were determined to rise to it.
And for 20 minutes, the pendulum threatened to swing ever so gently towards the visitors.
This was nothing like the Pride Park game. Leeds were unable to settle on and hog the ball, as they had so contemptuously at times in the first leg. An intriguing gambit from Frank Lampard was the selection of Mason Bennett and Tom Lawrence as centre forwards, with Harry Wilson playing as a number ten, at the tip of a midfield diamond. Bielsa, banned from spying, definitely had not seen this system change coming. And his side suddenly weren’t so sure of themselves.
Until they were handed an absolute gift. I didn’t realise in real time what a cock-up Richard Keogh had made of defending the free kick, but it was obvious that something had malfunctioned horribly, an appallingly soft goal given away at the worst possible time. And that, I couldn’t help fearing, was probably that. Suddenly, those free white scarves, which had been under the seats for the previous twenty minutes, created a white wall and for a few minutes, it seemed as if the tie was destined to be ripped away from us. It probably would have been all over had the shot which ricocheted off Keogh’s noggin and clipped the underside of the bar been a few millimetres lower and nestled. The margins between success and failure are always thinner than you think and on this occasion, they were as gossamer.
Lucky breaks don’t matter unless you capitalise on them, though. And when, after the greatest substitution in football history, Marriott gleefully gobbled up a freebie put on a plate for him by Kiko Casilla – who is quite mad – I have to inform you that I charged up and down the aisles, screaming “COME ONNNNN” at anybody within range. I was not smiling. I was possessed in that moment. And everyone was screaming right back at me. That devil was in all of us and from that moment on, we all believed that it could happen.
And so it felt natural enough when Mount levelled the tie within seconds of the restart. Because it was happening, basically. After one of Derby’s four goals, I took an elbow in the kisser – I think it was when Wilson buried his penalty, a la Sam Winnall. Wilson went to his own right, this time – Casilla had done his homework and dived the way Wilson usually goes. What a player Harry is – regardless of the centre backs’ ever-presence and consistency, I stand by my vote for him as player of the season.
I think Mount’s goal was my favourite of the four. When that went in, it didn’t matter who you were – black, white, Asian, young, old, you were getting hugged. A pile of Derby fans rolled out of the aisle and arrived at my feet and I think I was standing on the seat above them, or surely not standing on them, or… floating?
Tom Huddlestone was introduced to try to shore things up, but Leeds levelled it up on aggregate straight away. Oh, for an away goals rule. A lad next to me, hands behind his head, had a thousand-yard stare that wouldn’t have looked out of place in ‘Nam. At times, Leeds were slicing through our midfield much too easily for comfort and extra time could have been a real test – which is why it was so utterly brainless of their defender Gaetano Berardi – already on a yellow – to go sliding recklessly into a challenge that wasn’t even in the same timezone as the ball and get himself dismissed. Thank you very much, you utter bellend. Of course, Berardi wouldn’t even have been playing had Pompous Jansson, who spent the pre-Pride Park press conference bragging that he would play in a wheelchair if necessary, had been declared fit enough to start.
Still, Leeds tried to play their way through Derby, but a Rams winner was on the cards, with Wilson striking the inside of the post before that sumptuous finish from Marriott proved a fitting end to the tie. We don’t have anybody else who would have scored that goal – he was born to score and I absolutely love him. I have been worrying and worrying about his spell on the bench and praying for him to come back into the side. It is a surprise to absolutely nobody that his goal took us to Wembley – all he needed was that one chance.
To walk into that ground without even a thought of Wembley, but to have been galvanised immediately and believed so strongly with a group of people and to see it unfold in the manner it did was staggering. My voice was utterly shot by the 300th rendition of Joy Division, but it didn’t matter. Eventually, I just stood there miming the injection of the overwhelming atmosphere into my veins
For the supporters to generate the atmosphere they did and to celebrate with the team, manager, staff and chairman as they did is a moment that has to mean something bigger than just that one night at the Home of Hubris. It is a moment for us to build on as a club, regardless of what happens at Wembley – yes, Wembley, let it sink in.
Remember Chris Martin talking about “the monster of expectation”? Last night was the opposite of that. I can’t speak for others, but I felt truly liberated by not expecting a thing.
Which was why the post-game celebration was so wonderful. To see Lampard stride forward and pump his fist at the fans in the manner of a man who felt and meant it with every fibre of his being and then, inevitably, give us The Bounce – this moment of togetherness has to mean something more than just a great, historic victory.
Regardless of the result at Wembley, the way in which everyone – players, staff, manager, chairman/owner, supporters – were so tightly bonded has to have a meaningful legacy. It has to be a platform that we build on as a club for seasons to come.
If we lose in the final, so be it – the cash from the play-off final gate receipts will at least be a bit of a boost for the transfer kitty and we go again.
If we win, then that is a different story altogether. But that is a big if.
It is also a subject for a different article (and maybe for a podcast, too…)