Derby County made light work of their play-off semi-final opponents, Brighton, comfortably beating them 4-1 at the iPro Stadium to make it 6-2 on aggregate and secure a place in the final at Wembley for the second time in six years.
Goals from Will Hughes, Chris Martin, George Thorne and Jeff Hendrick punctuated a clinical Rams’ performance, sending them into the London showpiece bang in form – Kazenga Lua Lua’s late effort little more than a consolation for the Seagulls.
Derby had to work hard for their 1-2 victory in Brighton on Thursday night, but found life much easier in the second leg, comfortably sweeping aside the visitors, to record an impressive win and go into the final with bags of momentum behind them.
The Ram’s edged a cagey first half in which both sides looked terrified of making any mistakes with the carrot of a Wembley play-off final dangling tantalisingly in front of them.
But it was Derby that drew first blood when Craig Forsyth’s cross found Hughes in the centre of the Brighton box and the young midfielder steered the ball past Kuszczak in the 34th minute.
Brighton’s leading goal scorer, Leonardo Ulloa had a golden opportunity himself before half time, when he was found six yards from goal by an excellent chipped through ball from Rohan Ince, but Lee Grant repeated his first leg heroics and blocked the striker’s point blank effort.
With around ten minutes of the second half gone, the Rams further imposed themselves on the tie with top scorer, Martin, doubling their second leg advantage with a shot from close range after Jamie Ward’s cushioned header across the six yard box.
West Brom-loanee, Thorne, made it three with around a quarter of an hour ago, when a headed clearance looped towards him and he returned it with interest, his sweetly hit volley flying past Kuszczak from all of 25 yards.
And Jeff Hendrick piled on the misery for the travelling supporters; putting away a fourth as he swept the ball high into Brighton’s net from just inside the box, with just three minutes to go.
Kazenga Lua Lua was able to notch a late consolation, giving the Albion fans something to cheer, but it did little to dampen the home fans’ celebrations as they raced onto the pitch at the final whistle to mob their black-and-white-clad, Wembley-bound heroes.
George Thorne had the first shot of the game with less than 60 seconds gone, after Will Hughes headed the ball into his path, but he dragged his shot wide from around 20 yards.
In a bizarre moment, play was stopped briefly in the third minute as the players were tasked with popping dozens of black and white balloons that had entered the field of play from the crowd.
Despite the away side chasing the tie, Derby had started the brighter of the two sides and repeatedly bore down on the Brighton back four, but the visitors defended well, making it hard for the Rams to create chances
It wasn’t until the 18th minute that Derby got another shot away, when Andre Wisdom showed a turn of pace to get away from a defender before firing towards the bottom right corner, but his shot lacked power and Kuszczak made a routine save.
A couple of minutes later, a jinking run from Hughes – in for the injured Craig Bryson – beat a couple of Albion defenders and broke into the box, but he was eventually stopped and the ball was hacked clear.
In the 22nd minute, Hendrick was the first player to make his way into referee, Craig Pawson’s notebook, for a tough tackle on Rohan Ince.
A minute later, Craig Forsyth had the home crowd off their feet when his effort from the edge of the area bulged the net, but the joy was short-lived when it became clear his effort had only hit the side of Kuszczak’s goal.
It was then Brighton’s turn to have a man booked, with Lewis Dunk seeing yellow after a bad foul on Hendrick in the middle of Brighton’s half.
Derby were controlling the second leg and it seemed almost inevitable that they would take first blood at the iPro and that proved to be the case in the 34th minute as the Ram’s gave themselves a two goal lead on aggregate.
Ward held the ball up well on the left wing before playing the ball to Forsyth and the full back’s whipped cross needed only the faintest of touches from Hughes to steer it past a helpless Kuszczak from close range.
Brighton immediately went on the offensive, knowing that time was of the essence, and a great left wing cross found Ulloa in space on the edge of the box, but he completely misjudged the flight of the ball and his volley bobbled tamely wide.
In the dying moments of the half, Grant then came to the Rams’ rescue when a superb chipped pass found Ulloa in the six yard box and as the Seagulls’ top scorer brought the ball down, the Derby ‘keeper rushed out to block his effort from point blank range.
The second half started reasonably quietly with an uneventful first ten minutes, but it wasn’t long before the game exploded into life once more.
In the 55th minute, Johnny Russell crossed to the back post, finding Ward who headed back across goal and into the path of Martin who stuck out a leg to poke the ball past Kuszczak, all but ending the Seagulls’ hopes of progressing.
And the deficit could have been even more moments later when Ward found space on the edge of the area and tried to curl it inside the far post, but Kuszczak, at full stretch, was able to get a hand to the ball.
The Rams were in the ascendency and as they poured forward in search of a third, Ward looked to create with a header once more, nodding the ball down to Hendrick who’s shot took a huge deflection and bounced just wide of the target.
Despite their dominance, Derby had to remain alert at the back when on the break, Brighton worked the ball to Keith Andrews who shot from just outside the box forced Grant into a low, diving save.
And Brighton came forward again, shortly after, this time through Lua Lua who tried his luck from the corner of the area, but his drive was straight at Grant who fell on the ball to quell the danger.
But all Brighton’s hard work looked to be undone in the 76th minute when a Russell free kick was headed clear and as it dropped, Thorne smashed a volley back towards goal and beyond the sprawling Brighton ‘keeper to give the Ram’s a four goal aggregate lead.
And with just minutes to go, Hendrick made it four, putting the tie beyond any doubt as he swept the ball high into the centre of the Seagulls’ net.
Brighton were able to pull one back late on when UIloa hit a low ball across the area from the right wing and Lua Lua controlled it, before thumping a low shot past Grant.
It was little more than consolation though as Derby saw out the last few seconds before being mobbed by their supporters at the final whistle, who can now begin to look forward to a final against either Queens Park Rangers or Wigan.
Derby County: Grant, Wisdom, Keogh (C), Buxton, Forsyth, Thorne, Hendrick, Hughes (Eustace 85), Ward (Dawkins 67), Russell (Bamford 78), Martin.
Substitutes: Legzdins, Sammon, Naylor, Whitbread.
Brighton & Hove Albion: Kuszczak, Calderon, Greer (C) (Chicksen 24), Ward, Dunk, Andrews, Ince, Orlandi (Mackail-Smith 57), Lingard, Ulloa, Buckley (Lua Lua 57).
Substitutes: Forster-Caskey, March, Brezovan, Agustien.