I was asked the other day by a non-football-following colleague of mine whether I knew ‘anything about Third Division football and, if so, whether Millwall will beat Swindon on Saturday?’ Quite apart from liking the old-school effect of the ‘Third Division’ moniker, I was most disappointed not to be able to give him an answer. Whilst I am usually not afraid to pick a winner and have frequently been made to look foolish in the past as a result, this weekend’s League One playoff final is seriously too close to call. Whilst Blackpool secured the most lucrative promotion in history last weekend, the prize on offer for Millwall and Swindon is no less impressive; with the new TV deal separating Championship clubs even further from their League One and League Two brethren, neither club will feel they can afford to be left behind. Just as Lanterne Rouge recalls the 1994/5 Championship playoff final as seeming like the onset of a new era, the signing of the TV deal and its implication for smaller clubs marks this year out as a watershed, too. Even more than usual, this year’s League One playoff final is a big game.
Unfortunately, the magnitude of the occasion seems to have been largely overlooked by the nation’s footballing media. Apart from the cursory pre-match previews, the like of which you would see for any League One game throughout the season, there has been a distinct lack of attention paid to the match. This is partly due to the upcoming World Cup, which naturally dominates the footballing headlines at present (does anyone actually believe England will win it, by the way? I don’t know anyone who does — not seriously, anyway…), partly due to the meedja’s obsession with the ‘showbusiness’ of the upper echelons of our game, and partly due to the fact that Millwall and Swindon are two relatively unfashionable clubs. In addition, coverage has not been helped by the fact the League One and Two playoffs are being played a week later than the Championship playoff in order to accommodate England’s friendly against Mexico and numerous countries’ World Cup training schedules. The ‘playoff weekend’ on the end-of-May bank holiday has become something of an institution in the English footballing calendar, whilst the rebranding of the Football League since Coca Cola became sponsors in 2004 has placed increased emphasis on the Championship. The ‘casting adrift’ of the two lower division playoffs this year has undoubtedly contributed to their relative lack of media attention, and is yet another sign of the big Championship teams flexing their muscles at the expense of the greater Football League as a whole, as Keith Lamb and the like move ever closer to their desired Premier League 2. Jumping aboard that bandwagon before the gap becomes too great to leap is therefore essential for the future ambitions of both the competing finalists.
On to the game itself, then. All the signs point to a closely-contested and hard-fought game. I expect a match high on drama and intensity…and perhaps not so high on silky skill and fancy footwork. Both teams are very similar in that they are both solid, workmanlike outfits who are well organised, with each player knowing their job well, if unspectacularly. The ruthlessness of both sides was seen first hand by this columnist earlier in the season during 5-0 (Millwall) and 4-1 (Swindon) victories over the pallid Stockport County. Both are built on a solid defence, with a mixture of grit and gracefulness in midfield and a touch up quality up front. Swindon’s chances will depend greatly on how they cope without suspended captain Gordon Greer, whilst Millwall will hope that international prospect Steve Morison will be able to exploit this potential weakness in the Robins’ defence. If Morison does end up on the winning side, it will cap a remarkable first season in professional football for the 26-year-old, who has made up for a relatively slow start to the season by scoring an impressive 23 goals for Kenny Jackett’s side. Swindon’s attack will be led by the precociously talented Charlie Austin, whose 20 goals have transformed him from ‘one for the future’ to a mainstay of Town’s side. His partnership with 29-goal Billy Paynter has been the bedrock from which Town’s promotion campaign has thrived.
Whilst the two teams are reasonably similar, the story of the two clubs’ recent history is in stark contrast to one another. Millwall were playoff finalists this time last year, and only a late Martyn Woolford goal denied them on that occasion. Virtually all their players have therefore played at Wembley previously, and they are unlikely to be fazed by the day. Experienced players like Neil Harris, Paul Robinson and Alan Dunne know what big games are all about and will help settle any dressing-room nerves. Swindon, on the other hand, spent much of last season battling relegation. They have benefitted from a combination of experienced League One pros like Jon-Paul McGovern and Craig Easton, astute loan signings like Stephen Darby and Simon Ferry, and calculated gambles from higher up, like Jonathan Douglas and Alan O’Brien. This makes for a solid, consistent outfit who are unlikely to freeze on the big occasion.
With the teams so evenly matched, it is likely to come down to one of the more creative players on the field to produce a matchwinning moment. Swindon will look to Douglas, McGovern and the on-loan Danny Ward to supply their potent strike force, whilst Millwall will hope that Chris Hackett, Scott Barron or their own loan ranger, Liam Trotter (who, incidentally, was a sub for Scunthorpe in last year’s final) can provide an inspirational spark. In a game of such high importance, all football fans will hope that it is a moment of quality, rather than a mistake, that will prove the difference in what is certain to be a highly charged affair.