An ode to the Second Tier play-offs
It’s been a strange week.
The final bank holiday weekend of May is usually a weekend full of football. So, naturally there was air of sadness at the start of the week as the Championship play-off final was scheduled to be played. Whether you’re a fan of second tier football or not, the Championship play-off final is a game watched by many up and down the country.
It finalises the Championship season nicely. A culmination of 46 games (49 for the lucky pair), of travelling around the country following your side, and taste testing a pie in every single ground you visit (but not a Wembley pie, not worth remortgaging the house for that).
You’ve navigated the hazy Summer start. Battled freezing, bitter winds on a Tuesday night in Stoke and now the season is coming to a Spring end. A huge amount of effort, concentration, fingernails and poor excuses for your team's display has been invested into the season.
There might be some drama, some excitement, a corker of a goal and the camera may even pan to a teary fan.
The Championship play-off final is a lucrative game of football that can have a huge influence on the future of a club (see Aston Villa as an example). But the play-offs are so much more than ‘the richest game in football’ and ‘promotion to the promised land’ as many pundits and the media like to refer to.
It pulls you in, no matter what
These games are unforgiving and brutal. Your side might have finished 1 point off the automatics, or even squoze into the play-offs on goal difference. But it doesn’t matter at all, because the play-offs do not care. You have to reset, start again and hope that your side has the mentality to go again. And even as a fan it takes a toll.
Are you excited or nervous? Personally, it’s a round of games I dread but cannot get enough of. Like many, i’ve rearranged holidays, i’ve gone through thick and thin to get to play-off game (both semi-final and final). And that’s because that euphoric feeling that you may get a taste of is just far too addictive to turn your nose up at. Even if you constantly taste disappointment, the play-offs just pull you in.
What do the stats say?
The play-offs make everyone overthink. You start asking yourself “this is definitely our year, THIS IS DEFINITELY OUR YEAR”. Even if you lose three play-off campaigns on the trot, just like Birmingham City in 1999, 2000 and 2001. It finally came good for the Blues in 2002 but three unlucky years might make you think twice, or three times about going again. Might not be as bad as Derby County’s record though, with four final appearances and just one promotion and possibly one of the worst ways you can lose a final (10 man QPR and Bobby Zamora anyone?). But even after six play-off campaigns, Derby fans still turned up in numbers, just as Birmingham City fans did in 2002, but why?
Success for Championship clubs is what exactly? A place at Wembley is a cup final, might not be the FA Cup, but it’s a trip to Wembley and a chance to see your side lift a trophy after walking up the Wembley steps.
You can't get enough of it
The Championship play-offs have served up some memorable moments. The semi-finals tend to be more dramatic and the final can serve up some WTF moments. Where else do you see a 39 year old veteran striker score a goal of the season contender in your club's biggest game in its history? The bloody Championship play-off final, that’s where.
It pulls you in, even as a neutral. Take last seasons play-off semi finals for example. You’ve got a penalty shoot out deciding a place in the final between West Brom and Aston Villa and one of the most dramatic games in football, let alone the play-offs between Leeds and Derby.
Only the Championship can serve up the unpredictability that these games served up (Aston Villa were mid table at one point in the season, compared to West Brom who were flirting with the automatics). Derby scraped into the play-offs on the last day, whereas Leeds United were in the top two for a large portion of the season.
Neither Leeds nor West Brom made the final and both were made to rebuild for this season. But that’s the draw of the play-offs, it’s high risk emotionally but the reward is something that cannot be taken away from any football fan.
It’s chaos for a neutral, and despair if your team is involved, but you just have to love it either way.