Aston Villa take on Derby County on Monday in the Championship play-off final with a place in the Premier League up for grabs. Dubbed the “richest game in sport”, the winner at Wembley Stadium stands to make at least £170 million in Premier League riches.

Villa are looking to end a three-year absence from the top flight, while Frank Lampard’s Derby will be looking to play Premier League football for the first time since 2009. We caught up with two BA (Hons) Multimedia Sports Journalismstudents, and ardent Derby and Villa fans, ahead of the play-off final. Representing Derby, Rebecca Hawksworth, and Villa, Dan Wiseman…

How are you feeling ahead of the play-off final? Nervous? Excited?

Rebecca: For me the nerves haven’t really kicked in yet, I’m just excited! At the start of the season I don’t think many Derby fans expected us to make the play-off final and we definitely didn’t expect to overcome Leeds, so just to get this far in a transition season with a manager who is completely new to the job is incredible in my opinion.

Dan: Both, to be honest. Though I’m a lot more confident than I was going into this fixture last season! Winning ten games in a row, in the fashion that we did, means that I genuinely feel that we can beat absolutely anybody on our day. The arrival of Dean Smith has completely revolutionised not just the brand of football that this team is capable of playing, but the entire feeling around the club – there is a clear direction, vision and a style that he wants to implement going forward. So he has played a massive part in me being able to crack a smile (even if it is a nervous one) when I think of Monday’s game.

Villa lost out to Fulham in the 2018 Championship play-off final.

What would it mean to see your team back in the Premier League?

Rebecca: It’s been so long since we were in the Premier League and everybody knows what happened last time we were there (record low total of 11 points), so to get a chance to make up for that horrendous season would mean a lot. Also from a financial perspective the money at stake by earning promotion would make a huge difference to our football club!

Dan: At this point – it’s do or die. Failure to go up this season would mean the inevitable departure of Jack Grealish, as well as making it almost impossible to sign the loan players that have been so key to our success: Tammy Abraham, Tyrone Mings, Axel Tuanzebe, Anwar El Ghazi and the like. It would also mean that we would probably see a heavy Financial Fair Play sanction come our way, given the amount that we have spent since we arrived in the Championship.

But, as a fan, what is just as important, is the nature of Aston Villa. It is a Premier League club, and a top half one at that. I don’t want to sound arrogant or disrespectful to the teams in the Championship, because the standard of the league has rocketed in recent years, but every team that Villa play see it as a cup final. The vast majority of teams come to Villa Park to defend which means the games are just that little bit less enjoyable. After three seasons, it’s time that we changed that. If we don’t, we’ll be rebuilding down here for some time.

Derby have had a few play-off heartbreaks since they were last in the top flight. How do you think it will be different this time?

Rebecca: This time we’re underdogs. Nobody expected us to get to the play-offs when we went on a bad run in February and March, and we were way off the pace. Nobody expected us to beat Leeds and now nobody is expecting us to beat Villa. The pressure is completely off us and I think this could go in our favour.

Derby’s last play-off final appearance ended in heartbreak against QPR in 2014.

Villa experienced play-off heartbreak in the final last year. How do you think it will be different this time?

Dan: I was there twelve months ago and it was harrowing. By far the worst day I’ve ever had as a Villa fan. To walk away from Wembley, still able to hear the opposition fans chanting and celebrating with the trophy, was awful. In the Championship play-offs, you often see a late arrival into the top six, a side that makes a surge towards promotion at the end of the season, often out of nowhere. Last year, that was Fulham – the team we lost to at Wembley. They made it last season, largely thanks to the inspired January signing of Aleksandar Mitrovic. He was incredible in the second half of the campaign.

But this season we are that team. We were mid-table in February and I had completely written off the season. But after signing Mings during the transfer window, combined with the return of Jack Grealish from injury, we suddenly found a successful formula and to use that famous footballing cliché, we couldn’t stop winning. We play scintillating football at times. The fact that we finished 5th, after being so poor for so long, still amazes me. I think above all else, it is the form that we carry that could make the difference.

This may sound daft, but how do you think Frank Lampard’s first season as manager has gone?

Rebecca: Incredibly well! He’s had a lack of money and had to rely on loan signings; the players he has brought in have been fantastic. The target for this season wasn’t promotion when he was appointed, so to be within 90 minutes of Premier League football in his first season as a manager is something special. He’s not been afraid to change formation and players as the season has gone on, or been afraid to try out some of our academy players. His style of play and how he comes across as a person has made him one of the most popular Derby managers amongst fans that we have seen for a long time.

Rebecca has been delighted with Frank Lampard’s first season at Pride Park.

Jack Grealish seems to have gone to a whole new level this season. How important is he to the club?

Dan: I’m going to say two things which to fans of other teams may seem a little drastic. The first is that he is by far the best player in the division, there can be no doubt about that. Leeds fans will disagree, pointing to Pablo Hernandez – a fair argument, but Hernandez is now 34. With Grealish being 23, that, amongst many other reasons, gives him a considerable edge. The second is that Jack Grealish embodies everything that Aston Villa FC has achieved this season. Without him, we were scarcely capable of keeping ourselves in the top 15 teams in the league. During a period in which he was injured, we won just 15% of our matches. Upon his return, that figure rose to 80%.

With Jack in the side, now as our captain, we’ve scored more goals, conceded less, had a higher average possession and won ten matches in a row. I cannot explain how unattainable that feat would have seemed during those three months without him. We were dire. Jack returned in a match that saw us end a run of one win in 11, with a 4-0 win against promotion-hunting Derby County – which bodes well! He’s a die-hard Villa fan, as is Dean Smith, so they both feel every emotion just as we do. Grealish is truly something special.

What has been the highlight of your season so far?

Rebecca: Definitely that play-off second leg win over Leeds! Nobody expected us to do it, not even us Derby fans! They had completely dominated the first three games against us this season but we outperformed them in the one that mattered. With all the ‘spygate’ drama that had happened earlier in the season too it made the victory even sweeter.

Dan: There are so many to choose from, this season has been the craziest I’ve ever experienced in my time supporting this club. But I’m going to go for a moment that stunned me more so than any other incident to have taken place on a football pitch – the moment a Birmingham City fan ran onto the pitch and punched Jack Grealish. My jaw dropped. I was utterly speechless. I could barely watch the match after that happened, it all just seemed to fade into insignificance.

For Jack, at the age of 23, to not only react perfectly by sitting on the turf, smiling and laughing to himself, but to then fulfil a childhood dream of scoring the winning goal at St. Andrews for Villa was the exact moment I knew that this side was capable of achieving something special this year. It was the only just response. I was so proud of him after the final whistle went. It was a memorable moment, to say the least, and my personal highlight of the season.

Dan, right, with Villa captain and fan favourite Jack Grealish.

Prediction for the game?

Rebecca: I think we’ll put up a good fight and send it to extra time, but Villa have a much stronger squad than us so I expect them to win on the day.

Dan: We have beaten Derby 3-0 and 4-0 this season, so something like that would be ideal! But, in all seriousness, there is no way that this match will end with a score line that is anywhere close to that. This game will be really tough. Frank Lampard is putting together something really quite promising in the East Midlands. This season has been so topsy-turvy, that I only see it as fitting that it is concluded with us winning promotion at Wembley, so I’m going to predict a 2-1 Villa win, potentially in extra time… though I hope not!