Winning the Championship play-off final? Priceless...
I went to four Second Division play-off finals at Wembley in the 1990s. At various times both in the approach to these events and on the day of each game, I felt nervous, tense, elated, despairing, hopeful, miserable… the works. But at no time do I recall thinking: “Bloody hell, think how much money my club will earn if they win this match.” For fans of Reading and Swansea City, it is unavoidable.
The Championship play-off final has been re-christened the £90million match, or whatever gargantuan sum of money the media have attached to this year’s festivities. And of course, it is this valuation which wholly devalues the importance of the occasion.
Before we begin, some acknowledgements. Yes, the statement is based on fact. Yes, money is what drives the game in this day and age, particularly on these shores. Yes, the top flight is the ultimate goal for all teams involved in second tier football anywhere in the world.
One final point of acceptance: football is about money at any level. But labelling the Championship play-off final as a £90million match has that grubby money-mad mentality written all over it when the game should really be a celebration of what is great about the Football League.
There are arguments that the play-off system should not exist – that teams finishing in the highest play-off spot should not have to prove themselves all over again. While this argument is understandable, the play-offs are a fitting finale to the Football League season. Until the very last moment, you can never quite tell what is going to happen.
Since it reached its conclusion last week, I have seen many people refer to the Premier League as “unpredictable”. I should be inclined to agree, given my own prediction on another site that West Ham United would overachieve, but the last twenty minutes of Manchester United’s game with Blackpool last Sunday summed it all up – United’s late comeback mirrored the crushing inevitability about so much of the Premier League.
There may still be the odd anomaly, but Manchester United claimed the league, while Blackpool, the team with the lowest budget, were relegated despite overachieving. Oh, and Arsenal promised much, played plenty of pretty football and ultimately won nothing due to individual errors and an inability to defend set pieces. Sound familiar?
Despite what the previous paragraph may suggest, I am not a Premier League hater. Neither am I attempting to convert fans of the Premier League to lower divisions. Not by writing this article, nor by way of this site in general. It just surprises me that relatively few people pay consistent interest in the Football League.
For all its millions, the Premier League could only dream of producing the drama of Swansea’s play-off semi-final win over Nottingham Forest, the emotion of Bournemouth’s trip to Colchester or the vibrancy of Chesterfield’s home game with Rotherham this season. The names may not appeal to the casual observer, but the storylines were gripping.
And this is the reason that the Championship play-off final is worth far more than £90million. This is the Football League’s crowning glory. The winners may not necessarily go down in history and the trophy itself is not particularly prestigious, but there is something incredible about two teams slugging it out in their 49th league fixture of the season with one guaranteed a place in the top flight.
One comment on a Guardian blog earlier this season thoughtfully pointed out that the Football League has done an excellent job of marketing itself in many ways. That may not manifest in financial gain – the gap has never been wider between the Premier League and everyone else – but there is a strong argument that this site would not exist without the clever promotion of the Football League as an alternative to the Premier League rather than merely a supplier of cannon fodder each season.
Taking that line, the Championship play-off final is the alternative showpiece and perhaps the least sullied of all great football occasions in this country. The FA Cup Final can now seemingly take place at any old time. It is suggested that clubs are actively attempting to avoid competing in Europe, for fear of the damage it will do to their chances in the Premier League.
So don’t let them try to claim the Championship play-off final. The fact that a quarter of the division will end up either promoted or in the play-offs after 46 games is a great beacon of hope – even the most pessimistic of fanbases will contain a number of supporters who mention a top six spot in passing, sometimes weeks or months into what has thus far been a miserable campaign. That hope is of glory, not money.
The focus should be on the near-90,000 supporters packed into Wembley for a Championship play-off final, not the £90million their clubs stand to gain upon victory. Above all, it brings another thrilling Football League season to a close in style. Let’s hope for a magnificent occasion.