Ross Bramble previews and predicts the EFL play-offs as 12 clubs among the Championship, League One and League Two embark on a final battle for promotion.
When Andy Williams sang of “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year”, he of course referenced the Christmas season. For me, however, this is the most wonderful time of the year: playoff season.
Yes, in just a few short days, the EFL will begin its closing ceremony for the 2018/19 campaign. 12 teams from Leagues One, Two and the Championship will take their final shot at promotion in one of the most enthralling formats in football. The play-offs never fail to set my pulse racing, and this year is no different.
But which teams will be stepping into the arena this year, and who are we tipping to take the crown? Let’s take a look..
Newport vs Mansfield
Let’s begin in League Two, which seems in my opinion the hardest playoff battle to call. The first of the two ties will see Newport County take on Mansfield, which judging by the pre-season betting odds is as David vs Goliath as things get this year. Newport were a far-off 25/1 to achieve promotion before the ball first rolled, compared to Mansfield’s 9/1 – joint second-favourite at the time with eventual-champions Lincoln.
Don’t write off Newport, though. Ten games unbeaten and only four goals conceded in that time is an imperious record to enter the play-offs with, and with momentum on side and a firm, stoic defence on form, Newport will pose the Stags a mighty challenge. Mansfield themselves enter the fixture on the back of three straight defeats, all by a single goal. This has the hallmarks of a cagey, defensive tie decided on a single goal – and the first goal could be vital.
Ross predicts: Newport
Tranmere vs Forest Green
Well, if Newport were a surprise package, what exactly do we call this fixture? Neither of these two were meant to be here. Both priced at 40/1 to achieve promotion before the season, Forest Green and Tranmere will be pinching themselves at the thought of promotion. But this is no time to lose your head – advice that Tranmere need to heed, after only two wins in the final eight games of the League Two season. Forest Green, on the other hand, are coming in relatively hot, with five wins from their last eight.
Forest Green stumble into their play-off semi-final after a defeat and a draw in their final two games, but Tranmere themselves have only scored three goals in their last four. It promises to be a dogged underdog tale, no matter who comes through, but as a spectacle, this match is a triumph for League Two. Imagine if the winner of this year’s League Two play-offs were to come from this most unlikely of play-off fixtures.
Ross predicts: Forest Green
Overall promotion prediction: Forest Green. Perhaps the romance of Forest Green in a play-off final has clouded my judgement, but that’s where my heart lies in this race. A phenomenal season could be capped by a quite unbelievable promotion, and I think they might just do it.
Doncaster Rovers vs Charlton
Doncaster Rovers were tipped for a lower mid-table finish pre-season, and now find themselves gatecrashing the League One play-offs. Charlton, on the other hand, were predicted for the exact finish they managed – third. That achievement shouldn’t be understated, either, given the financial restrictions and inner turmoil ravaging The Valley. It’s a dangerous fixture for Charlton, and one that Doncaster will probably fancy.
Form is a strange one to predict with Doncaster. Grant McCann’s side were eight games without victory at this start of the year, but have bounced back with just two defeats in their last eight to secure their play-off spot. Charlton on the other hand have only suffered two defeats in 21, with an impressive 13 wins to boot. On those numbers, it seems the Addicks can do no wrong, but Doncaster will provide a stiff challenge all the same.
Ross predicts: Charlton
Sunderland vs Portsmouth
This one feels like a pick’um, doesn’t it? Two clubs that are – if you’ll forgive a phrase I usually balk at myself – “too big” for League One, and two clubs that would’ve genuinely expected to be in the automatic promotion places duking it out for a place in the final. Let’s not forget that these two have already shared a classic at Wembley this season over the Checkatrade Trophy, which Portsmouth eventually won on penalties.
Pompey come into this one on shaky form. At the start of the season, they were on an imperious run of 11 games unbeaten, and with only one defeat in their opening 20 games, it seemed inevitable that they’d be celebrating promotion. Another run of eight games without a win saw them fall off the pace and inevitably miss the automatic spots, with a stuttering no wins in three to end the season, too. Sunderland have limped across the line themselves, with only two wins in their final eight games, and enter the playoffs the back of a defeat to relegation-fighting Southend. It could be a scrappy and cautious first leg.
Ross predicts: Portsmouth
Overall promotion prediction: Charlton. Much like two boxers bludgeoning each other weary before the title match, I suspect Portsmouth and Sunderland may be a battle too great for either to eventually take the win at Wembley. Charlton have been imperious, enter in good form, and so long as they can navigate the banana skin of Doncaster, should be favourites for an overdue return to the Championship.
Leeds vs Derby County
Well, well, well. We meet again.
Spygate will be hanging over this fixture for a few more seasons yet, you’d think, but with it still fresh in the minds of both managers and Bielsa’s collar heating at every question from cheeky journalists, this one feels like it has a bit of spice. Given the chaos that ensued at Leeds vs Aston Villa the other week, too, the playoffs must feel like quite the rogue’s gallery for Leeds. First up is Derby, though, who deserve great credit for their sixth-place finish in Frank Lampard’s maiden season. The club’s financial cut-backs and untested managerial selection could’ve seen the Rams struggle in midtable, yet the rally against West Brom on the final day demonstrated that fortune does indeed favour the brave.
Leeds were fourth favourites for the title in pre-season and will feel a little disappointed to have let the incredible early-season form drop off as they have. Bielsa’s men staggered and stumbled as the season drew nearer to its conclusion, perhaps with the high-intensity of the Argentine’s style finally catching up with their legs. No wins in four and a rather embarrassing final day defeat to bottom club Ipswich don’t set Leeds up well for this one, in stark comparison to Derby’s six-game unbeaten run and the bounce from their comeback against West Brom. Whichever way it goes, this one should be full of stories.
Ross predicts: Derby County
West Brom vs Aston Villa
What a weird and wonderful season its been for both of these clubs. The universal outrage that met West Brom’s sacking of Darren Moore, the cabbage that a Villa fan threw at Steve Bruce at the end of 2018… and yet, here they are, both preparing to duke it out for a place at Wembley.
The job Dean Smith has done at Aston Villa since taking the reigns has been highly commendable, with an impressive surge of ten back-to-back wins carving a path right through the heart of a playoff race that seemed impossible to penetrate for the Villains at the end of February. A draw and a defeat to Leeds and champions Norwich respectively to end the season are frustrations, but hardly killer blows, and the return of Tammy Abraham will be another point in Villa’s favour.
West Brom, on the other hand, seemed to flatter to deceive all season. Ask their fans and they’ll tell you Darren Moore didn’t display a great tactical nous and deserved his firing. Their current boss, James Shan, was offered the job until the end of the season with the remit to keep the ship on course, which he’s done without ever really demonstrating with Moore’s sacking was the intelligent step. West Brom were the one everyone wanted to draw, and while dangerous on their day, don’t strike me as a club ready for the play-offs, or for the Premier League.
Ross predicts: Aston Villa
Overall promotion prediction: Aston Villa. The electric form that the Villains bottled in the run-in could be the secret sauce to eventual promotion. Beware Leeds, however – if they can navigate their game with Derby, the slick and pristine Wembley pitch could provide the perfect platform to pass and press their way to the Premier League.
Follow Ross on Twitter @rossbramble