This should not have surprised anybody, given that the populations of Fleetwood and Burton-on-Trent combined are less than the capacity of Wembley.
The argument surfaces each time a game at Wembley is played against a backdrop of empty red seats and invariably takes a turn into whether clubs in the lower echelons ‘deserve’ to have their play-off finals held at Wembley.
To reduce this solely to an argument about crowd sizes misses several points. The biggest of these being that football is still a game which runs on the fuel of dreams. Individual dreams of players and fans, and the collective dreams of small clubs and the communities they represent. Wembley remains synonymous with the pinnacle of the vast majority of these dreams. While it might seem erroneous to ‘reward’ teams finishing third to seventh in League Two, it would take a hard heart to deny lower league players the possibility of a Wembley final when they might only get one chance to play there, or the child who might become an active fan of their local lower division team as a result of a trip to a play-off final.
This is before we mention the likes of Fleetwood chairman Andy Pilley and his Burton counterpart, Ben Robinson, who have overseen the rise of their clubs up the league pyramid from unpromising beginnings. For these two men, and the battalion of football-loving, community-focused people who have worked unseen for years, a trip to Wembley seems like an appropriate reward. For Pilley and Robinson seeing fans sat more closely together at, say, the Ricoh Arena might have made for a more telegenic picture and soundtrack. But it would have been about as romantic as petrol station flowers and a box of Milk Tray. View the role fantasy and wish-fulfillment has to play in football in such reduced, cynical terms; and another piece of the game’s soul is lost.
Moving away from numbers, the inherent cruelty of the play-offs, in whatever division, lends itself well to a Wembley showpiece. Not good enough to go up automatically? Then you run the risk of losing out on promotion at the worst place of all to lose a big final. Automatic promotion is its own reward, and I do not know a single person among my friends who are regular match-goers who would choose going up through the play-offs over automatic promotion. I support a club who has been promoted both ways; there is no contest in terms of what feels better. As magic as the feeling Andy Pilley and the Fleetwood players, fans and staff would have had on Monday is, I’m sure they’d have rather finished in the top three and not had the worry. The idea that a Wembley appearance rewards comparative mediocrity is a falsehood for this reason. The stress of the play-offs and the consequences of losing are the price you pay for not being quite as good. Now that is what I call a fair trade off!
Do you think that the lower division play off finals should be held at Wembley? Should the venues be decided taking geography and average attendances into account when the finalists are known?