League One play-off final preview: Huddersfield Town v Peterborough United
The play-off system is oft-criticised, writes John Verrall. Few can argue that it offers drama in abundance, but it also regularly stops the most deserving team, by league position, from getting promoted.
Should a team that finished 6th in the league table really get promoted ahead of the team that finished 3rd? Despite creating fairytales — take Blackpool and Dagenham from last season — they can also create a feeling of injustice. This season, though, the play-off final reflects the league table. 3rd versus 4th will meet at Old Trafford in a battle for promotion.
Huddersfield Town and Peterborough United can both boast realistic claims that they deserve to be in the Championship next season. In previous campaigns they may have done enough, but this season they came up against Southampton and Brighton who were imperious throughout. With a high pressure, winner-takes-all situation, it promises to be a spectacular play-off final. Both sides play attacking football. Both sides have spent big. Both sides need promotion.
Many will argue that form going into games like these simply does not matter. It is whoever deals best with the pressure and turns up on the day that will gain promotion. However, a late surge from teams has provided the momentum to fire them to victory before in these situations so many times before. How many times have a team come from nowhere to gain promotion through the play-offs?
Yet neither of these two can be accused of sneaking in at the last minute. They have been contenders all season. Indeed, neither side has been outside the top six since early February and both teams harboured automatic promotion ambitions for much of the season.
Huddersfield’s form is particularly impressive. Unbeaten in the league during 2011, they recorded 8 wins from their last 11 games in the league before being cruelly denied second spot by Southampton.
Having said this, cracks have begun to appear in recent weeks. Without a clean sheet in 6 games, a usually reliable defence is looking porous. Four goals were let in against Brentford, albeit in an end of season game with little to play for. Perhaps more alarmingly, Bournemouth managed to smash three past them in the second leg of the play-off semi-final at the Galpharm.
This statistic is particularly important due to their opposition in the final. You cannot afford to give Posh chances. 106 league goals have proven how ruthless Peterborough United have been this season and a leaky defence is something that Posh will punish.
Performances have also dropped off. Huddersfield have ground out results rather than spectacularly destroyed teams. Resilience is an important quality for a team to have, as is consistency, and the Terriers have shown these two characteristics in abundance throughout the season, but many games could have swung against them in recent weeks.
The first leg of their play-off game against Bournemouth was the perfect example of this. The hosts had easily enough chances to win the game and would have been disappointed not to take a lead to the Galpharm, something which ultimately cost them.
Posh cannot match up to Huddersfield’s consistency. They have ended the season patchily. 4 wins in 12 games does not represent promotion form. But Darren Ferguson’s men have been playing in what were effectively pre-season games in the build-up to the play-offs. After their draw at Huddersfield during the league season, any lingering hopes of second spot were eradicated.
Everyone knows about Posh’s schizophrenic nature. 106 league goals scored. 75 conceded. Going forward, Peterborough have been devastating. It is a total that makes them the top scorers in the whole of Europe. It is a total that should have got them promoted. Unfortunately, it is a total that is somewhat tarnished by the figure that shows in the “goals against” column. Posh’s defending has been non-existent on regular occasions this season and the team can be naive in their approach; throwing men forward regardless of the scoreline.
Huddersfield Town: Peter Clarke
There are few superlatives that haven’t been used to describe Peter Clarke by regular visitors to the Galpharm. While players like Anthony Pilkington, who misses out due to a broken leg he suffered late on in the season, Jordan Rhodes and Benik Afobe tend to steal the headlines, Clarke has been a rock in the defence all year. Captain fantastic, he epitomises the Terriers’ best characteristics. Driven, determined and a leader of men, he has driven his team forward and has been a protagonist in an impressive campaign so far for the Yorkshire outfit.
Huddersfield Town will know that if they can shut Posh out, they are the likely winners of the tie. It seems almost inevitable they will score, given Peterborough’s defensive record, and Clarke will be a central figure in their attempts to keep a clean sheet. One more man-of-the-match performance from the former Southend centre-back – their player of the season for two consecutive seasons – may well provide Huddersfield with the foundation that they need to secure Championship football for the 2011/2012 campaign.
Peterborough United: Craig Mackail-Smith
The script is set. In what will be Mackail-Smith’s final game for Peterborough United, he is due a grand send-off. Mackail-Smith has played a crucial role in the two promotion seasons that he has experienced since joining in 2007 and is as determined as anyone to complete the hat-trick before leaving.
A tireless worker, a defender’s nightmare and an impressive finisher, Mackail-Smith is easily the best striker in the division. He has bagged 34 goals this season in 55 appearances and currently sits on 98 for Peterborough United. Few would bet against him taking his tally to 100 in the biggest match of his Posh career.
Head to head
It’s fair to say that the game is perfectly set up. In the three games the clubs have played against each other this season, they have won one apiece with the other drawn.
The sides first met at London Road where Huddersfield raced into a 2-0 lead before Posh struck back and scored four goals to win the game 4-2. It was only the fourth game of the season but it was clear to see that both sides had the credentials to be near the top of the table at the end of it.
Next up was a Johnstone’s Paint Trophy clash at the Galpharm. Again, Huddersfield flew out of the blocks and were 3-0 up before half an hour had been played but Posh clawed their way back into the match with second-half goals from Aaron McLean and Mark Little. It was not enough though and the hosts held on, progressing to the next round.
Finally, the two clubs met in a crucial, top of the table clash at the Galpharm. A defeat for either side effectively put them out of the race for automatic promotion and both teams were determined not to lose. A Grant McCann penalty put the visitors in front and they looked comfortable for 70 minutes before Huddersfield awoke. Piling forward and creating chance after chance, it seemed that they would find a way back into the match but, after Joe Lewis saved a late penalty, it seemed that Huddersfield’s chance had gone. However, the Terriers never gave up and secured a point when Jack Hunt burst through the Posh defence before finishing beyond Lewis.
Appetite suitably whetted yet? Well, there is more. Peterborough and Huddersfield contested a play-off semi-final in 1992. With a place in Division Two at stake, Posh entered the game as underdogs but overturned the odds with victory over two legs thanks to a late goal from Steve Cooper. It is a game that still leaves a sour taste in the mouths of Huddersfield’s fans, who are seeking revenge this time around. However, the tie is still remembered fondly at London Road, and many say the emotions felt were greater than those when the team went on to seal promotion at Wembley against Stockport.
Huddersfield have much greater experience of the play-offs and contested them last season, suffering defeat to Millwall in the semi-final. Huddersfield fans will hope the pain of that defeat is enough to drive the club on to promotion. The club have been successful in the play-offs before, winning them on two separate occasions.
Posh haven’t been in as many play-off games as Huddersfield but seem to have a knack for winning them. The club are participating in their third play-off campaign and they are yet to lose a tie at this stage. Indeed, their recent defeat to MK Dons was the first time they have lost a match in the play-offs. Two played, two won. Peterborough fans will be hoping that this record looks even sweeter at 5 o’clock on May 29th.
This game has the ingredients to be something special. It is the match that will define both teams’ seasons. Anything less than promotion will be seen as a disappointment – they have both built squads that were designed to achieve this. Championship football is there for both clubs to seize now, ultimately, it comes down to which club wants it more. On May 29th, we find out.