WIMBLEY/England: An Aston Villa side managed by one lifelong fan in Dean Smith and captained by another in Jack Grealish ended their three-year exile from the Premier League on Monday with a 2-1 win over Derby County in the Championship playoff final at Wembley.
A year after losing to Fulham in the same fixture, Villa were celebrating a return to English football’s lucrative top-flight that will be worth at least £170 million ($216 million) and as much as £200 million ($253 million) to the Birmingham club.
Anwar El Ghazi put Villa ahead with a header on the stroke of half-time before John McGinn capitalised on a goalkeeping error to score Villa’s second just shy of the hour mark.
Derby substitute Jack Marriott ensured a nervous finish for Villa with a goal nine minutes from time but it could not prevent County losing in the playoffs for the fourth time in six seasons.
For Smith, whose father is suffering from dementia, this was a poignant victory.
“I went to see my old man on Friday and I managed to get his eyes open for two minutes and I said to him ‘next time you see me I’m going to be a Premier League manager’,” Smith told Sky Sports. “He smiled and nodded, for me that’s enough.”
‘Have to be in Premier League’
Meanwhile, an elated Grealish said: “I’m speechless. It was such a hard game, but when I look around and I’ve got John, Anwar, I believe. It means the world to go up, we know where this club belongs.
“I’ve stayed here and we’re back there now. I’ve led my boyhood team to the Premier League.”
El Ghazi added: “We know and felt the pressure. This club has to be in the Premier League and it deserves to be there.”
Rams boss Frank Lampard, in his first season as a manager, recalled former Chelsea and England team-mate Ashley Cole as well as Tom Huddlestone into his starting side.
Cole replaced suspended Scott Malone at left-back, while midfielder Huddlestone took over from Duane Holmes, injured in the semi-final victory over Leeds.
Villa’s Smith, made one unenforced change by bringing in winger Albert Adomah instead of Andre Green, who dropped down to the bench.
Smith’s side, who had already put seven goals past Derby without reply in two regular season league meetings this season, were much the better side for the first half.
And their dominance was duly rewarded a minute before the interval when a precise cross by Egypt’s Ahmed Elmohamady evaded the Derby defence and allowed Netherlands Under-21 international El Ghazi, who had lost his marker, to run in at the far post and score with a stooping header.
It was a goal celebrated by the massed ranks of Villa fans at Wembley that included Britain’s Prince William.
Villa doubled their lead in the 59th minute.
El Ghazi’s shot was deflected high into the air and Derby goalkeeper Kelle Roos, who waited for the ball to drop so he could complete a catch instead of attempting a punch, was left floundering as McGinn steered the ball into the net.
But at 2-0 down, a desperate Derby raised their game and pulled a goal back nine minutes from time.
Florian Jozefzoon’s cross was nodded back in by Jayden Bogle, and substitute Marriott rolled a shot into the far corner, although Martyn Waghorn may have got the very last touch.
Injuries and stoppages meant Villa, the 1982 European champions, had to come through seven minutes of additional time.
But they held their nerve to join Norwich City and Sheffield United in next season’s Premier League.