Third and fourth tiers provide play-off finals to savour
A quick straw poll on Twitter this evening suggested that Huddersfield Town and Sheffield United’s all-Yorkshire clash at Wembley next Saturday is the play-off final that neutrals are most keenly anticipating by some distance. While the sample size was fairly small, it was an expected result. The League One play-off final is a mouthwatering prospect, with two of English football’s grand old names contesting a vital match. But the division below has thrown up an intriguing encounter as well.
To traditionalists, the notion of playing the Championship play-off final in advance of the League One and League Two finals is a nonsense. Sadly, this is the world we live in these days. Although the history of the play-offs does not stretch back particularly far, even the very names of the competitions have long since drifted away from those many of us grew up with. We are left with a topsy-turvy scenario whereby, instead of the FA Cup ending proceedings, the bottom division of the Football League will provide the curtain closer for the domestic season.
At least the match will take place at Wembley. Last year, Stevenage and Torquay fans had to trek all the way up to Old Trafford for their showdown. The Gulls missed out in a post-season nail-biter again last night, this time falling to Cheltenham Town at the semi-final stage. The visitors won the second leg at Plainmoor 2-1 to win 4-1 on aggregate and seal a meeting with Crewe Alexandra in north London.
And this is a League Two play-off final which may attract the attention of an unusually high number of interested onlookers. Not only is it the final game of the domestic football season. It also has all the makings of a classic match.
In their determination to focus on young talent and long-term sustainability, Crewe are the exception rather than the rule in English football. Don’t take it from me. Take it from the Guardian’s football finance expert David Conn, whose book ‘The Beautiful Game?’ lays bare the ills of the game on these shores in withering detail. Each chapter shines the spotlight on a different club and there is very little cheer, save for a small number of heartwarming tales – one of which concerns the Dario Gradi philosophy at Gresty Road. Where other clubs have failed to learn from past mistakes – Notts County, for example, cited as an example of poor practice well in advance of the Munto Finance era – Crewe have stuck to their principles.
That may be galling for other supporters – it’s easy to grow envious of the squeaky clean – but, quite frankly, they can like it or lump it. And judging from the evidence of their play-off semi-final victory over Southend, Crewe very rarely lump it. It’s football for those who thought that the soul of the sport had disappeared into the horizon and it was fitting that 17-year-old Max Clayton rubber-stamped his side’s win at Roots Hall.
Cheltenham may not have a nationwide reputation for producing excellent young footballers, but their story doesn’t contain giant sums of investment either. A relatively recent addition to the Football League, the Robins could have sunk without trace after rising to League One – arguably straying dangerously far from their natural habitat in the process.
Instead, they have stabilised under former player Mark Yates after a worrying Martin Allen-shaped period that Cheltenham fans would probably rather forget. Yates has moulded an enviable side with scant resources, assembling a midfield that could hold its own in the division above. As with Clayton’s strike 24 hours earlier, it seemed right that the vital goals at Torquay came from the dashing winger Jermaine McGlashan and stylish playmaker Marlon Pack.
So we have two of the good guys fighting it out on the Sunday, but what exactly is it about the previous day’s League One play-off final that is exciting so many fans of other clubs?
The prospect of a former giant rising back towards the elite will entice some. Sheffield United’s glory years took place well over 100 years ago, while Huddersfield Town were the golden boys of the 1920s and 1930s. So this has an old-fashioned feel to it, which is only enhanced by the famous striped shirts which will be on display.
More than anything, however, this is a match which has a real “do or die” element to it. The pitch invasion at Bramall Lane last Monday had more to do with sheer relief than anything. For a club of Sheffield United’s size, beating Stevenage 1-0 over two legs with a goal in the closing minutes perhaps shouldn’t be anything to shout about. But after the misery suffered in recent weeks, here was some good news at last and a sense that the tide may have turned back in their favour. In summary, Wednesday’s automatic promotion at the expense of United clearly made it even more important that the Blades joined them in the second tier via Wembley glory.
Standing in their way, Huddersfield Town. In much the same way that Cardiff City have enjoyed a series of excellent seasons in the division above only to acquire a negative label as “bottlers” for their inability to get over the line in the play-offs, the Terriers could be said to be victims of their own success. Whatever their wage budget and however many goals their top scorer may have struck, Huddersfield have been successful in establishing themselves at the head of League One. Unfortunately, that can still mean being associated with failure if the wrong numbers come up in the play-off “lottery”.
The weight of expectation means that neither of these sides can be content with their season unless it ends with victory next Saturday. It is this sort of scenario which creates such drama – no matter how poor a two-legged play-off semi-final may be, it still promises glory at some stage. Whether that comes through a Chris Porter header to settle a largely uninspiring slugfest between two nervous teams or a finishing masterclass from Jordan Rhodes, there is always a telling contribution.
That is the moment which these two clubs are inevitably set to provide for the neutral – an entire season topped with a cherry or ruined. Either way, there will be Yorkshiremen who will be unable to enjoy the following day’s meeting between the Robins and the Railwaymen. As for the rest of us? Bring it on.