MCCLAREN’S IN SIGHT OF REDEMPTION AT WEMBLEY
BRIGHTON’S nemesis Chris Martin had a big say as Derby County hopped in the driving seat to inch Steve McClaren further up Wembley way.
The last time the County boss was at the home of English football was a dark, wet evening in November 2007 that saw England miss out on qualification to the European Championship.
The former Three Lions manager may have seen his reputation washed away by Croatia back then, but in the years since he’s gone a long way to rebuilding it.
He’s succeeded in Holland with FC Twente but getting the Rams, who he took over in September, into the Premier League would be a huge step towards ultimate redemption.
The top scorers in the Championship, will now really fancy their chances of finishing the job.
Not that Brighton, who will have to create history by becoming the first side to overcome a first leg deficit in the Championship playoffs, should be discounted judging by their start.
On the day the FA revealed controversial plans to introduce a League 3 and allow Premier League B teams to play in the Pyramid, it was inevitable a young pup would play a part.
Players like Jesse Lingard would be going up against the likes of FC Halifax and Kidderminster if the FA have their way. Instead this on-loan Manchester United youngster was thriving in the electric atmosphere of the play-offs.
Inigo Calderon, who had an earlier penalty shout waved away when he tangled with Craig Forsyth, was slipped in by Will Buckley’s clever backheel as the home side caught Derby napping at a free kick.
Calderon cut back for Lingard in space and after his first shot was blocked by Jake Buxton he flashed the ball past Lee Grant.
It was first blood in a gripping opening 45 minutes. Forget playing it cagey in the first leg and sussing each other out. The teams were playing as if in a winner-takes-all tie and Derby soon started playing their part by hitting back on the counter.
Deep in their own territory, Andre Wisdom lifted the ball to Johnny Russell. He broke upfield before spreading wide to Forsyth. The left-back bombed forward, exchanged passes with Jeff Hendrick, and surged into the box where Matthew Upson’s ill-timed lunge sent him sprawling. Martin coolly put the spot kick away. The former Norwich City striker just loves it against the Seagulls – his fifth goal in eight games against them, having bagged two at the Amex Stadium on the opening day of the season.
The 24-goal striker was involved in the second. Russell set him on the edge of the box and his fierce drive crashed back off the bar, onto Tomasz Kuszczak’s back and over the line. Brighton boss Oscar Garcia was incensed by referee Roger East waving away Calderon’s penalty shout in the first half and he was fuming again in the second when Jake Buxton had a handful of Leonardo Ulloa’s shirt in the box.
The big Argentine striker was Brighton’s final day hero when he scored the goal at Nottingham Forest to take them into the post season shake up. When he did get a sight of goal Grant made a brilliant save to push his bouncing effort onto the bar.
Grant was becoming Derby’s most important man. He parried Lingard’s drive before brilliantly tipping Stephen Ward’s shot from distance over to keep Derby noses in front.
STAR MAN LEE GRANT