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Moses and Midas: A Rather Prophetic Play Off Final in Store

I imagine, as he stood on the sideline, flashbacks of Moscow 2008 lighting up whatever else is in John Terry’s head, he was feeling apprehensive at best and positively mortified at worst. He gave nothing away though, did he? His face was as you’d expect from a man with ‘leadership and experience’ written under ‘Key Attributes’ on his CV.

Whatever emotion occupied him slowly dissipated as it seemed the West Brom management had handed in their teamsheet instead of their list of penalty takers. Stepping up first, second, third, and fourth for the hosts were their right-back, centre-back, other centre-back, and left-back. It was either that or a Football Manager scenario gone wrong. We’ve all forgotten to select who’s on pens before, haven’t we?

Whatever the logic, Aston Villa continue to benefit from all others parting like the Red Sea as Dean Smith leads them towards the Promised Land. The past month has seen Marcelo Bielsa allow them a freebie, WBA capitulate inside four second-half minutes in the first leg (including conceding a penalty), Dwight Gayle get himself sent off in the closing stages of that game, and then Chris Brunt doing the same in the second leg. If that wasn’t enough, the away goals rule wasn’t even in place to conspire against them and thus they were afforded the lottery of penalties - a lottery they were given the winning ticket to.

With Smith cast as Moses, Jed Steer was his able staff, warning off those trying to derail their journey; namely, Mason Holgate and Ahmed Hegazi. After 120 minutes and just a Craig Dawson goal to show for it, West Brom had now seen their first two penalties expertly saved. What with Steer’s excellent denial of Jay Rodriguez’s early effort in the first leg, and then two penalty saves in the second, it may well be him seen as the saviour should Derby fulfil their duty to roll over and die, to enable Villa to realise their prophecy. Will anyone remember that Tammy Abraham scored the winning penalty after Albert Adomah nonchalantly waltzed up and blew the chance to secure that fleeting title himself? Probably not.

If Smith is Moses, then he’ll face Midas at Wembley, for Frank Lampard made a much-vaunted first half substitute and it actually worked. Normally found under ‘Making a Statement’ in the football textbook, his side were 1-0 down on the night - 2-0 on aggregate - playing at a boisterous Elland Road, against a sumptuous Leeds, and very much needed to make one. A statement that is, though the substitution very much worked.

Within seconds of coming on, Jack Marriott, who had somehow missed out to David Nugent for a starting berth in the first leg, capitalised on Kiko Casilla and Liam Cooper’s miscommunication to slot into an empty net. Within seconds of that came the halftime whistle. Just minutes earlier, the second half was looking as if it would be rather routine: this was Marcelo Bielsa’s world and we were all just watching it.

Marriott’s strike was genuinely game-changing, as was the scenario by which it was brought about. Casilla and his defence did not recover from the breach of trust the goal conveyed and the second half saw a very tenuous relationship between the backline and the goalkeeper.

Whatever Bielsa instructed, whatever words of motivation he gave, it was all worthless forty seconds later. The first minute after the restart was the entire second half distilled. Richard Keogh played a direct ball into the feet of Harry Wilson, Wilson slipped it to the left and into the path of Mason Mount, and Mount slalomed into the box, lost his footing, but managed to scoop the ball over Casilla as his legs splayed. Somehow, the game was level with all but an entire second half to play. Bielsa started pacing, Elland Road was collectively winded for a while, and a relentless game of attacking football continued unabated.

The Championship play-offs provide a nice ending to the season for the neutral and it’s that opening half of the sentence which makes me love it as much as I loathe it. I was actually surprised to hear that the play-off system has been used in the second tier of English football for 33 years now. I’d just presumed it was just another modern facet of the game to dramatise and entertain for a consumer audience rather than give any thought to invested fans. It was small consolation because it is still an utterly miserable way for three teams’ seasons to end.

Play-offs play out very differently to cup finals. In a cup final, both teams want to win, which is the same in a play-off final; but unique to a play-off is the punishment of losing – another 46-game season at the same level on the back of such a sickening end. The second half was the very embodiment of that essence.

Twelve minutes after levelling matters, Cooper pulled his man’s shirt and a penalty was given and then converted by Wilson. It was an incredible turnaround – and that’s against the backdrop of a multitude of great comebacks in the past couple of weeks. Yet there was still two red cards and two goals to come. If the home fans paused for thought after the equaliser, they were now paralysed by it.

When Leeds’ Stuart Dallas then restored the parity that at least the score-line suggested, it still felt that Derby were the side with momentum favouring them. If you removed the scores from the screen, however, it would be difficult to say who was winning, losing, or if the game was indeed a tie. During Sky’s post-match analysis, the game was described as “like a basketball game,” and that’s succinct and accurate, so we’ll go with that.

The final ten minutes continued at an insane pace and Leeds were still going for the kill, despite being a man down thanks to Gaetano Berardi’s second yellow card. As he had been doing all night, Luke Ayling hedonistically roamed forward from his starting position of right-back and it became his side’s undoing. Popping up close to the centre-circle, Ayling lost possession and in the big gap his absence had created was Jack Marriott. Richard Keogh was the man to spring the pass – also influential in Derby’s second – and a dinked finish from Marriott gave Derby a lead that they’d hold onto until the final whistle eleven minutes later.

“They’d written us off,” Frank Lampard said of the collective ‘they,’ which was pretty much everyone (yes, even you despite shaking your head and thinking ‘I wasn’t’). The Sky commentary team openly admitted to doing so, I know I had, and a quick glance at the post-match headlines, such as the BBC’s ‘Derby Stun Leeds,’ suggests the general consensus was as such.

For Leeds fans – and surely any follower of English football with any notion of ‘purist’ in their footballing DNA – it will now be a case of hoping Marcelo Bielsa remains at the club for a second season. What he has done in a season is incredible, as Jamie Ralph told us last week.

“Yes, without doubt,” he said when I asked whether 2018/19 can go down as a success even without promotion. “Leeds were 13th last season. To take them to 3rd, into the play-offs and maybe even more with practically the same squad is a massive success, in my opinion. As a Newell’s fan, I’d just love to see him lift a trophy again.”

If he does stay, I believe it is likely the squad will stay together and improve, alongside any investment the club provide. If he leaves, however, it would not surprise me to see the squad gutted, as I suspect Ajax will be too. The cost of their achievements this season, but failure at the penultimate hurdle, is that their star players have been showcased and were close enough to smell the Premier League’s riches. Manchester City, Tottenham, and Southampton are three teams perfectly suited to the style Leeds’ players have been drilled in, and others such as Liverpool and Norwich share many similarities with Bielsa’s approach. I personally hope both Bielsa and his players are at Elland Road next season.

Dean Smith and his Aston Villa side may well consider themselves lucky to not have to face Leeds and Frank Lampard will be hoping his counterpart doesn’t get past Mount Nebo.


Wordsmith at The Terrace.


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