Aston Villa, managed by one life-long fan in Dean Smith and captained by another in Jack Grealish, on Monday ended their three-year exile from the English Premier League with a 2-1 win over Derby County in the EFL Championship playoff final at Wembley.
A year after losing to Fulham in the same fixture, Villa were celebrating a return to English soccer’s lucrative top-flight that would be worth ￡170.44 million to ￡199.64 million (US$216 million to US$253 million) to the Birmingham club.
Anwar El Ghazi put Villa ahead with a header on the stroke of halftime before John McGinn capitalized on a goalkeeping error to score Villa’s second point 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 from 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.”
“I’m speechless. It was such a hard game, but when I look around and I’ve got John, Anwar, I believe,” Grealish said, elated. “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.”
“We know and felt the pressure. This club has to be in the Premier League and it deserves to be there,” El Ghazi added.
Rams boss Frank Lampard, in his first season as a manager, recalled former Chelsea and England teammate 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 league meetings this season, were much the better side for the first half.
Their dominance was duly rewarded a minute before the interval when a precise cross by Ahmed Elmohamady evaded the Derby defense and allowed 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 Stadium, which 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 that he could complete a catch instead of attempting a punch, was left floundering as McGinn steered the ball into the net.
However, 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 might have gotten the very last touch.
Injuries and stoppages meant that Villa, the 1982 European champions, had to come through seven minutes of additional time.
However, they held their nerve to join Norwich City and Sheffield United in next season’s Premier League.
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