E-I-E-I-E-I-O, out of the Championship we go

Fans of Derby County and Aston Villa will be flocking to Wembley for the supposed ‘richest game in world football’ (also known as the Championship play-off final). Wembley will be a sell-out and two passionate sets of fans will generate a fantastic atmosphere; a fitting finale to an unpredictable and exciting Championship season. Here we preview the game, assess the potential impacts of the final result for both clubs and look at how they might fare if they win the £170 million game.

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A script-writers dream

The journey and stories of the two finalists are a script-writers dream. In particular the managers will be a huge source of intrigue based on their extraordinary first seasons in charge of their respective teams. On one side is Dean Smith: an unassuming yet fiercely driven man who will be leading his boyhood club out on the grandest of stages with the opportunity to write himself into Villa folklore. On the other, Frank Lampard: a player of legendary status at Chelsea who commanded huge respect in the game even before transforming Derby’s fortunes and on the precipice of gaining promotion with an unfancied team in his first season as a manager.

How they got here: Aston Villa

In Dean Smith’s own words, it will be a special occasion to lead a Villa side that he has always supported, out at Wembley. That special feeling will be underpinned by the sense that being part of this grandiose occasion must have seemed a long way off when he took over a side languishing in 15th place. Since taking over in October last year, Smith has steered the club to a record 10 consecutive league wins; breaking a 109 year-old record in the process. In that time, Villa have shown title-winning form, that has taken them from mid-table obscurity to comfortable top-6 sitters.

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This success has been built upon embracing a similar attacking philosophy to the one he employed, and worked so well, at Brentford. In Jack Grealish, Villa’s attack has been spearheaded by (in my view) the best player in the Championship. Their upturn in form is also hugely down to the goal-scoring exploits of Tammy Abraham who’s hot streak has lead to rumours that Villa would be prepared to pay £25 million to make his stay permanent. Essentially, Villa under Smith have been playing to their strength which is their attack as opposed to Bruce who put great emphasis in setting up a team to be hard to beat.

How they got here: Derby County

In the opposition dugout, Frank Lampard has managed to transform the ambitions and expectations of Derby County’s fans. Many of these fans were sceptical when the untested Lampard was handed the Derby job but it didn’t take long for them to come on board. Lampard has worked his contacts at Premier League clubs; most notably Chelsea to bring in promising and hungry young players who are likely to be playing Premier League football with, or without, Derby in the near future. Mason Mount, Harry Wilson and Fikayo Tomori have excelled in the Championship and look capable of being good Premier League players.

Added to this were astute signings such as League 1’s top-scorer from the previous season, Jack Marriott whilst Scott Malone, Martyn Waghorn and Florian Jozefsoon have also improved the squad. This very youthful team plays with bags of energy and despite a tricky period during February and March have managed to maintain a consistent standard. A strong end to the season garnered momentum for the play-offs which they utilised in overturning a first-leg deficit to Leeds.

Manager futures

If you’d have offered the Villa fans a play-off final when they sacked Steve Bruce languishing in 15th they would have ripped your arm off. Given the context then, participation in this game is a bonus and will not give Dean Smith cause to worry should they lose it (not that the Villa fans will easily accept a second successive play-off loss). In reality the Villa fans will be expecting a victory given their blistering end if season form and the fact they are playing against a team who they finished above in the regular season. A win or loss will not, in many ways, change much in the future of Dean Smith as Aston Villa Manager.

The same cannot be said for Frank Lampard. Some of his key players in this side are on loan and there are no guarantees that Derby would be able to recruit them back to the club or attract suitable replacements. If they don’t go up this season by winning this game, it isn’t difficult to imagine Derby struggling to replicate a promotion push next year. A Wembley loss will be cause for as much worry as it would heartache for Derby fans. After Lampard’s exploits this season, and his standing in the game, it is perfectly imaginable that he will be managing in the Premier League next year anyway. Derby fans will be rightly nervous about the impact of a Wembley loss in their managers tenure at their club.

How might these sides fare in the Premier League?

Make no mistake – both of these clubs, with large fan bases, would pose a threat to the continued participation in the Premier League for a number of clubs. That said, history would suggest that they face an uphill battle: only 5 of the 12 teams promoted via play-off route since 2006/7 have stayed up the following season. In that 12-year period, the highest-placed finish was recorded by West Ham with 10th in 2011/12. They also have the smallest available window in order to recruit new players which in an ultra-competitive market is a big disadvantage.

If Villa were to go up I would fancy them to stay there (subject to the usual caveat of a successful summer of recruitment). Keeping hold of Jack Grealish and Tammy Abraham would also be requisites to a successful Premier League return. A revitalised and energised fan base with a very talented and calm manager would be a tough nut to crack for the leagues current inhabitants. They also benefit hugely from a squad with a decent amount of Premier League experience. Verdict: would stay up

A Derby win would pose more uncertainty, purely from the point of view that there are more shifting parts in terms of their squad make up. Nevertheless with Lampard at the helm and the contacts he has in the game (and based in this year’s evidence) I would give them a decent chance. Again the successful recruitment of new players, some of whom possessing Premier League experience would define the outcome of their return to the top flight. What Villa have but this Derby side don’t, is Premier League experience and I think that would be telling in the end. Verdict: would narrowly go down

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