Neil Evans looks at the pleasure and pain inflicted by football’s most nerve-racking weekend.
I have a love/hate relationship with the Football League play-offs. In many respects, I feel they are a flawed concept.
Take Brighton this season, denied automatic promotion – and a first promotion to the promised land of the Premier League – on the final day of the regular season, having finished a very respectable third after 46 grueling games. Instead of going straight up they entered the lottery of a (potential) three game season and, as we now know, it wasn’t even that long. They were dumped out by a team, Sheffield Wednesday, who finished a full 15 points behind them in the regular season. Great news for Owls fans, but harsh on the Seagulls.
To paraphrase one of Danny Baker’s hilarious football videos, the play-offs are a bit like a fighter winning the World Heavyweight Championship and before he leaves the ring the referee saying ‘hang on a minute, there’s another three blokes you’ve gotta fight first!’.
It’s brutal and – like life in general – it’s pretty unfair when you think about it.
As I can testify, from last season, reaching Wembley can be a very mixed blessing. Yes, it’s a great day out, but not so much when you are humbled 4-0 at the home of football.
But the play-offs do throw up the most amazing and crazy of games, often with the most dramatic of finishes that no Hollywood scriptwriter could even dream of. Even more remarkably, it is often the biggest of those three games that throws up the most amazing drama…that multi-million pound, ‘winner takes all’ shot at the Premier League.
Whatever their shortcomings, nobody can deny the play-offs are an emotion-shredding microcosm of everything that we love and loathe about the beautiful game. For Hull and Sheffield Wednesday this weekend, the enormity of the prize at stake is simply staggering – a share of the five billion pound television deal. Little wonder that fans are riddled with nervous anticipation and trepidation in equal measure.
There is bound to be a hero in waiting, a story waiting to be written and, perhaps, a villain or fall-guy waiting to take the blame. What is certain is that history suggests high tension and drama.
Take Steve Walsh’s winner, moments from time, against local rivals Derby in 1994… made all the more remarkable after Leicester’s agonising 4-3 defeat against Swindon Town a year earlier. Or Reading conspiring to blow a 2-0 lead against Bolton (and missing a penalty to make it three) in another seven goal thriller.
But no look back at the play-offs would be complete without mentioning the totally insane Charlton vs Sunderland final of 1998. Eight goals could not separate them after slugging it out in the Wembley heat, and I remember clearly tuning into the penalty shoot-out on the radio.
The tension was unbearable as spot-kick after spot-kick was dispatched until… sudden death! Although I had no real allegiance on the day, I remember roaring with delight after Mickey Gray’s penalty was saved by Addicks keeper Sasah Ilic to seal Charlton’s passage to the top-flight.
More recently, it was Hull against Bristol City at the national stadium in 2008, with 40-year-old Dean Windass’ volley denying the Robins a shot at the big time. Given who I support, I have to confess to toasting the former Oxford striker for spoiling Bristol City’s party!
And, with strange symmetry, back to Brighton (in a manner of speaking). After their semi-final exit, they released Bobby Zamora – a real irony given that Zamora had propelled Queens Park Rangers back to the Premier League with a last-minute winner against Derby just the year before last.
The reason the play-offs work is because of their intrinsic unfairness: the chance for a team that puts together a late run of form to sneak into the end-of-season shake up and go all the way. It’s far from a perfect system and one which I have no doubt will be reformed in years to come.
For the six teams involved over this upcoming bank holiday weekend it will be agony. For the three winners, pure unbridled joy; for the losers, the worst feeling you can have as a fan.
I’ve experienced the whole range of emotions and can say without hesitation that “it was the best of times… and it was the worst of times”.
Try and enjoy it if your team is involved but, for me, give me automatic promotion any day of the week! I just can’t take the stress of it all.
Read more from Neil here
Follow Neil on Twitter at @swinfan69