The Championship Play-off Final: What, when, where, why and who?
As the Championship comes to a close with a gripping play-off final between West Ham United and Blackpool, Joe Harrison explains all the action from Wembley Stadium.
1. West Ham won the Final 2-1 gaining the third promotion place from the Championship, meaning that they will play in the Premier League next season.
2. Blackpool’s defeat makes them the 71st team confirmed as playing in the Football League next season; the final team will be the winner of the Conference Play-Off Final between Luton Town and York City.
3. For the second consecutive season, the team that finished in 3rd place in the final Championship table earned promotion via the Play-Offs (coincidentally, both losing finalists were the team who finished 5th).
4. West Ham win their second Play-Off Final at their third attempt, their last promotion to the Premier League, in the 2004-05 season, was also gained in this way. They become the only team relegated to the Championship last season to return at the first time of asking.
5. In their fifth campaign, and their tenth tie, Blackpool are eliminated from a Play-Off competition for the first time in their history.
1. 15 mins: Matty Phillips misses two brilliant chances in just over a minute. Firstly, after some excellent interplay between him, Kevin Phillips and Tom Ince, he breaks in behind West Ham’s defence but scuffs his shot tamely straight at Rob Green. Then, following a mistake by Guy Demel, he cuts inside two men before curling a shot wide of the far post from inside the area. Had either chance fallen to his teammate and namesake, Blackpool may well have taken the lead.
2. 35 mins: GOAL WEST HAM. Carlton Cole makes it 1-0. He collects a perfectly weighted ball from Matt Taylor, clipped over Ian Evatt’s shoulder, before finishing calmly from the right-hand corner of the 6 yard box.
3. 48 mins: GOAL BLACKPOOL. Tom Ince equalises for the Tangerines, with a goal remarkably similar to Cole’s opener. A long diagonal pass is misjudged by Winston Reid and Ince finishes first time from almost the exact spot Cole gave West Ham the lead having gotten the goal-side of the poorly positioned Matt Taylor.
4. 70 mins: Blackpool are dominant but failing to convert their chances. First, on 67 minutes, after excellent build-up play, the ball falls to Play-Off specialist Stephen Dobbie, but he scuffs his shot badly wide from Eardley’s pull back. Next, after a corner from the right is only partially cleared, Ian Evatt’s shot from the edge of the area takes a deflection before being hacked away from off the line.
5. 87 mins: GOAL WEST HAM. Blackpool pay for their missed opportunities as Vaz Te scores a late winner. Panic in the Blackpool box as Cole forces his way through. Gilks, sprawling at the forward’s feet, manages to divert the ball away but it falls to Vaz Te, who finishes from (you guessed it), the right hand corner of the 6 yard box. Blackpool fail to create any meaningful openings in the remaining minutes, and West Ham claim the victory.
1. 6 yards out from goal and slightly to the right.
The rough location of all three goals in the match so indisputably the game’s most important location.
2. The half-way line.
The scene of challenges in the build-up to both West Ham goals that Blackpool felt were fouls but, crucially, Howard Webb did not, waving play on, much to the Hammers’ advantage.
3. The 10 yards in front of Blackpool’s defence.
As in the semi-final against Cardiff, West Ham pushed up high, pressuring their opponents when out of possession. Blackpool’s ability to deal with this throughout the game varied (unlike Cardiff, who simply couldn’t cope). When they escaped the initial pressure, space opened up and they were able to launch meaningful attacks. During the periods in which they struggled to do this, they were forced into longer balls that were easy for West Ham to deal with.
4. The space in behind the full backs.
Both teams tried to push their full backs high up the pitch, so both also looked to exploit the gap left by the opposition’s players. Blackpool played particularly on Matt Taylor at left-back for West Ham, who eventually responded by bringing on George McCartney and moving Taylor to midfield after he had been found out of position for Blackpool’s equaliser.
West Ham sought to get Vaz Te in behind Blackpool’s right back Neal Eardley. Though they engineered this situation a number of times, particularly in the first half, Vaz Te was unable to make the most of each opportunity.
5. The dugouts.
Each manager’s substitutions made a difference. For West Ham, as noted above, the introduction of George McCartney at left back made them more solid, as did the pace of ex-Real Madrid Julien Faubert replacing the injured Demel at right-back. For Blackpool, the substitution of Kevin Phillips on 70 minutes seemed logical at the time, but meant when they did go behind their top scorer was already off the pitch.
1. West Ham’s pressing.
As noted above, West Ham pressured very high up when Blackpool were in possession, particularly in the first half. Blackpool looked prepared for this though and seemed to have devised two methods of countering it. First, their players attempted a number of dribbles in midfield, hoping to break the high line and run at the back four. This didn’t really work though, as West Ham pressed effectively in numbers, meaning Blackpool players were crowded out by two or 3 West Ham players on a number of occasions.
The other tactic was to utilise West Ham’s high midfield positioning by clipping the ball into the space between West Ham’s midfield and defence. Kevin Phillips was key to this, dropping off the centre-halves often and to some effect — best displayed in the move that led to Matt Phillips’ first missed chance. This did work better than dribbling, but when West Ham pressed even more effectively, Blackpool’s defenders were often rushed into poorly hit passes, turning into long balls easily dealt with by West Ham’s poor defence.
2. Matt Taylor.
West Ham seemed determined to play their left back as high up the pitch as possible. This did cause them problems, as Blackpool looked to exploit his less impressive defensive qualities and the space he left behind him, succeeding in doing so for their goal. However, it could also be argued that West Ham’s deployment of him was vindicated somewhat in their opening goal, as it was Taylor who provided the excellent assist for Cole from a very advanced position.
3. Blackpool win the midfield battle.
Though both sides nominally lined up in something resembling a 4-2-3-1 formation (West Ham’s was more asymmetrical), thereby meaning an equal number in midfield, it was Blackpool who used their numbers more effectively. Martinez in particular was excellent, while West Ham struggled to pick up Dobbie’s movement between the lines of their midfield and attack. Mark Noble was outnumbered as Collison, O’Neil and Nolan had largely anonymous matches. This control is what led to Blackpool dominating much of the second half.
4. West Ham substitutions make a difference.
As noted, around the 55 minute mark, West Ham changed both of their full backs, making their back line more solid and less vulnerable to the threat of Blackpool’s wingers. However, it was not a perfect tactical move. Allardyce also changed to a narrower midfield to try to combat Blackpool’s control of that area, which not only failed but also allowed much more space for Blackpool’s full backs to move into, with Eardley particularly dangerous, as seen in Dobbie’s missed chance.
However, this change paid off for the Hammers as it also involved moving Vaz Te up front to partner Carlton Cole and in from the left wing. This meant that when the ball broke, Vaz Te was in the right place to score the winner, which he may not have been if he were still playing from the left.
5. West Ham take their chances.
West Ham had 3 good chances in the match and scored two while Vaz Te put the other wide in the first chance. They also hit the bar from a half-chance as Nolan’s brilliant volley was tipped onto the woodwork by Gilks. Compare that to Blackpool, who had 4 excellent opportunities yet only managed to score one of them. Ultimately, Blackpool only have themselves to blame for not winning a match in which they were the dominant side.
1. Howard Webb.
It is unfortunate to focus on the officials involved but Blackpool will feel aggrieved about both West Ham goals. In the build-up to the first goal, Tom Ince was shoved off the ball. It was a debatable decision (and one which split the Sky Sports panel) but it could easily have been given as a free-kick. Similarly, an aerial challenge on halfway went unpunished in the run-up to Vaz Te’s winner, when a free kick could easily have been given.
2. Sam Allardyce.
Vindication for the man whose relationship with his team’s fans has certainly been strained at times this season (in his words, they were talking “bollocks” at certain points). The appointment of Allardyce was perhaps the ultimate pragmatic move from West Ham — it was always likely that his brand of football would prove unpopular with elements of the Upton Park faithful, but ultimately promotion is what mattered and he has delivered.
3. Matt Phillips.
Harsh though it is to linger on individual mistakes in a match of such magnitude, Phillips’ missed chances will live long in the memory for Blackpool fans. The young winger has had a brilliant season and many predict a move to the Premier League this summer but his profligacy when it mattered most was critical at Wembley.
4. Ian Holloway.
Where now for the Blackpool manager? Understandably, his post-match interview was a sombre and downcast affair, with the Bristolian looking utterly dejected. This was followed by a Daily Mirror column near enough demanding support and investment from his owners to continue the club’s progress. Holloway may be tempted should any Premier League clubs come calling this summer but once he’s over the disappointment, he’ll realise that it won’t take many tweaks to have this Blackpool side performing again next season, even if they lose one or two players. In this regard they can take inspiration from last season’s losing Play-Off Finalists, Reading, who recovered to win the division this season.
5. Ricardo Vaz Te.
Signing of the season in the Championship? You could almost argue Vaz Te has earned the award twice — first for his electric spell at Barnsley and then for his goals since joining West Ham in January. His 10th goal in 11 games and his 26th of the season was the most crucial, sending him, his manager and his club back to the Premier League. It is interesting to note that all three of the sides promoted this season signed strikers in January who made a telling impact: Jason Roberts inspired Reading, Billy Sharp’s crucial goals took some of the pressure off Rickie Lambert at Southampton, while Vaz Te impressed for West Ham before scoring the most important goal of them all.