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Why playoff final defeat could take Lampard from Derby to Chelsea

On a muggy Friday last August, Frank Lampard took charge of his first game as a manager. That evening his Derby County side had spells where they looked disjointed and uncertain, spells of excellent football, and right at the last, when it mattered the most, they came up with a goal in the 94th minute to claim a victory at Reading.

He probably didn't know it at the time, but that game would turn out to be a microcosm of how his and Derby's season would pan out.

After some damaging defeats, some crucial wins and a whole lot in between, nearly 10 months later Lampard finds himself in the playoff final. Derby will face Aston Villa at Wembley on Monday (live on ESPN+ at 9:55 a.m.), standing potentially 90 minutes away from the Premier League.

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In recent years, Derby have been regular contenders at the top of the Championship, having finished no lower than ninth in the past five seasons and making the playoffs three times. Thus it's easy to think their appearance at Wembley is expected, the bare minimum for the side with the most famous manager in the division.

But given the circumstances, Lampard has exceeded all rational expectations. It looked like a gamble when he took this job last summer, inheriting an ageing, expensive squad that needed to be overhauled and made younger and cheaper, while at the same time remaining competitive.

Throw in trying to change a style of play that had alienated plenty of fans under his predecessor Gary Rowett, a succession of injuries that left them without central defensive cover for the second half of the season, and a set of strikers that essentially stopped scoring around February, and Lampard's first job could have been a complete disaster.

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And yet here they are, a victory away from promotion. "It was hard to have expectations at the start of the year," Lampard said this week. "It was tough to think 'where are we going to go?' with the squad, and the changes we wanted to make in terms of how we play."

Lampard has of course not been perfect. He's been tactically out-thought. At times Derby have been disconcertingly easy to play against. He's made some questionable, naive decisions, such as playing a shadow side against Villa to prioritise other games in March, leading to a 4-0 thrashing.

But that is to be expected of a first-year manager still learning the job. His tactical thinking has developed. Towards the back end of the season some of his substitutions paid off in clairvoyant fashion. Crucially, Lampard seems to have imbued Derby with a "big game" mentality and an ability to win when it really mattered. They knocked Manchester United and Southampton out of the two cups, beat West Brom on the final day to secure a playoff spot and produced a scintillating comeback in the semifinal to eliminate Leeds.

The season is a success already, regardless of Monday's result, which is good and bad news for Derby. For all the success that comes with reaching the playoff final, it has led to speculation that Lampard could make a very big step up this summer.

Lampard is currently the odds-on favourite to succeed Maurizio Sarri at Chelsea, a result of a curious season in which the Italian has contrived to make himself wildly unpopular despite finishing third in the Premier League, and reaching the final of the Carabao Cup and potentially winning the Europa League.

Frank Lampard applauds fans as he walks out at Chelsea.
Frank Lampard has impressed in his debut season as a manager at Derby County, but is he ready for a job the level of Chelsea?

"It's been an obvious link," Lampard said. "Because of where we're at, and my time at Chelsea, I understand the link."

However, while he answered questions about Chelsea with patience and didn't entirely rule out the possibility of a move home, he wasn't keen to discuss it at length. "I don't want to think about it. I don't want to talk about it," he said, in deference to his current side's upcoming big game.

It's tough to read whether Lampard would take the Chelsea job if offered this summer. On the face of things, it seems ludicrously early for a rookie manager to leap into a role that has chewed up and spat out some of the most experienced and decorated coaches in the world.

He looked tired when speaking to the media on Friday, and a journalist asked if he was sleeping properly. He admitted a couple of times that he's looking forward to turning his phone off and disappearing to a beach somewhere after Monday. If a season with Derby is draining, imagine what it would be like at Stamford Bridge.

Lampard also will know that vacancies aren't exactly a rarity at Chelsea, with Jose Mourinho being the only manager to complete a third season there since Roman Abramovich arrived. If he doesn't go now, Lampard will hardly have passed up a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

At the same time, Monday represents a potentially huge sliding doors moment for Derby. Lampard compared it to when Chelsea, in significant financial strife at the time, played Liverpool on the final day of the 2002-03 season, in what was essentially a one-game playoff for the final Champions League place. "If we lost that game, we knew we'd be in real trouble," Lampard said. "If we won we knew things would change -- we didn't know quite how much they'd change."

At Derby finances are tight, and there will be significant player turnover whatever the result against Villa. A number of high-earners will leave, as will the three loan players that have been Derby's best this season: Chelsea's Mason Mount and Fikayo Tomori, and Liverpool's Harry Wilson. There's no guarantee that, if the club remains in the Championship, they will have the spending power to fund equivalent replacements.

All of which leads to the curious situation of Lampard probably being more likely to leave for Chelsea if Derby lose. He may conclude that a similar second season is unlikely and, with his stock high, the wisest path is to get out. He'll know that he will be afforded much more time than most Chelsea managers. The emotional lure of the job might be too much to resist.

Still, it feels too early. The ideal scenario will be a Derby victory, most importantly for a club that has seen some spectacular and dispiriting promotion failures over the past decade, but also for the development of a hugely promising manager, who can prove his chops in the top flight with the financial riches that come with it.

But whatever Monday's result, you suspect Lampard will be managing in the Premier League before too long.

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