Utter ecstasy for the few, unrivalled disappointment for the many – the Championship play-offs rarely fail to disappoint, especially for the neutrals. Dubbed the most valuable game in football, clubs look to bag roughly £200 million across three games. To put that into perspective, this years’ FA Cup winner will receive less than £2 million. The stakes could not be higher.
This season, the story is no different, with Reading, Sheffield Wednesday, Huddersfield Town and Fulham all fighting for promotion. The action gets started on Saturday, with Fulham hosting Reading, before Huddersfield host Wednesday on the Sunday. The second-legs take place the following mid-week, before the finalists face off at Wembley on 29th May.
Many eyes were raised at the appointment of former Manchester United defender Jaap Stam, but the Dutchman has proved all his doubters wrong this season, guiding the Royals to an impressive third place. The 44 year-old had only had experience as an assistant manager prior to his spell at the Madejski Stadium.
His side score freely, with 18-goal frontman Yann Kermorgant leading the Royals by example – at the veteran age of 35. Having said that, the Royals have the leakiest defence of the four teams left fighting, conceding 64 goals over this season. The likes of Ali Al-Habsi, Chris Gunter and Gareth McCleary all provide valuable Premier League experience within the side.
They’ve won seven of their last ten – statistically the best form of the four remaining teams – but have succumbed to worrying defeats recently, notably a 3-2 loss to relegation-threatened Nottingham Forest, as well as a shock 7-1 defeat away at Norwich a month ago. It will be the defence that will cause most worries for the Berkshire-based side, as they look for a return to the top-flight after relegation in 2013.
Once a reliable Premier League side, following relegation in 2014, Fulham have drastically under-achieved in the Championship. Last season they finished in 20th. Indeed much like Stam, manager Slaviša Jokanović has worked wonders at Craven Cottage.
Nobody in the Championship has scored as many goals as Fulham have this season – an impressive 85. With a relatively tight defence, the Cottagers have by far the best goal difference of the four teams. They are also unbeaten in their last six, beating play-off rivals Sheffield Wednesday and Huddersfield in the process. Performances like these will give the 6th place finishers hope going into the Reading tie.
16 year-old Ryan Sessegnon has caught many of the headlines this season, scoring an impressive double at St James’ Park as Fulham beat Newcastle in March. He forms part of what is quite a young squad, with Chelsea loanees Tomas Kalas and Lucas Piazon. Combine this athleticism with the experience of Scott Parker, now 36, and Fulham have impressed. Hunting down and eventually over-taking Leeds was no mean feat.
They only finished five points behind their opponents Reading, and Jokanović will hope his side can continue through to Wembley.
The Owls are the only side who also finished in last years’ Championship top six, and there will be a sense of ‘unfinished business’ when Carlos Carvalhal’s men take on Huddersfield for a trip to Wembley.
Carvalhal has recently taken the Championship Manager of the Month award, and he has overcome criticism to secure a play-off place. With Fernando Forestieri, Carvalhal has one of the division’s most exciting players at his disposal. Twelve goals and five assists for the Italian has confirmed his quality following last season’s impressive displays.
Steven Fletcher will be dreaming of another opportunity in the Premier League. He’s already bagged 53 goals in England’s top division, so he can be a valuable calling-point for some of the inexperienced Wednesday players.
Older fans will remember the Owls as founding members of the Premier League, but following relegation in 2000, they have never returned to the top flight. The traditionalists will certainly be rooting for Wednesday. Their stunning Hillsborough Stadium also deserves a place among England’s elite.
A run of six wins on the trot was emphatically ended by Fulham on Sunday. The Owls will have to prevent this harming them psychologically as they face fellow northerners Huddersfield.
The Terriers have probably been the surprise package in the Championship this season. They finished 19th last season, and their modest wage bill matches that of rock-bottom Rotherham. Like Stam, boss David Wagner had minimal managerial experience before this season; he had only managed Borussia Dortmund’s reserve team in the German fourth division.
Town have the best defence of the four sides, conceding less than a goal a game on average. However they have also scored the least goals, remarkably having a negative goal difference. In Nahki Wells, Aaron Mooy, Chelsea loanee Izzy Brown and Rajiv van La Parra (who is Gini Wijnaldum’s half-brother) they have exciting players.
Recent form, though some say it goes out of the window, will inevitably be on their minds. One win in their last five is not promotion form. These exciting players also have a distinct lack of Premier League experience.
Wagner has done an extraordinary job, though it feels as though they are up against it as they fight for promotion.
The play-offs are the pinnacle of the Football League season. This year, with north playing north and south playing south, we are sure to get exciting and intriguing semi-finals. Looking at previous winners, perhaps these four should not get too excited – QPR and Norwich City both went straight back down over the last two seasons. Hull now look favourites to follow in their footsteps.
As neutrals, let’s hope for a Zamora-esque moment in the final. Nobody can predict the play-offs – that is the glory of their nature, but, come 29th May, only the few will be celebrating. Three-quarters of these hopeful fans will be left contemplating what could have been.