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Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Every Loser Wins

Ahead of Saturday's League One Play Off Final, Nobes looks at two managers who have a chance of redemption at Wembley.

Kenny Jackett has taken Millwall to successive League One play-off finals

As Swindon Town and Millwall prepare to fight over the last place in next season's Championship, only one thing can be certain.

Come full time, one of Town manager Danny Wilson or Lions boss Kenny Jackett will have ended his personal play-off nightmare.

In some ways, the two couldn't be further apart. One was once rated as one of the brightest young managers in the game, the other has stepped out of the shadows in recent years to show he is a fine manager in his own right.

Both, however, are united in having suffered play-off misery in League One in the past. This weekend however, one of the bridesmaids will finally get the chance to be the bride.

For the Swindon boss, it will signal the recovery of a career which never fulfilled its early promise. In 1997, Wilson brought top flight football to Barnsley for the first time in their 110 year history.

However, he was unable to keep them in the Premier League and, after an unsuccessful spell at Sheffield Wednesday ended in similar fashion, he was cast from the highest echelons of English football.

It was at League One Bristol City where he chose to resurrect his fortunes a few months later. In four seasons at Ashton Gate he twice led the Robins to 3rd place and the play-offs.

However, in 2003 they lost out to Severnside rivals Cardiff in the semi finals, and 12 months later were 1-0 losers to Brighton in the final. On both occasions, City had come so close to automatic promotion only to fail in the end of season lottery.

He left the club to take on the challenge of the newly formed MK Dons - but suffered relegation to the basement division in 2006. However, a year later he was celebrating promotion to League One with Hartlepool.

The decision to end his reign with Pools in 2008 because the side had 'slipped into the bottom half of the table' looks all the more baffling considering they only narrowly avoided the drop this term.

Now at the County Ground he is 90 minutes away from restoring his reputation - and having another crack at the higher end of the Football League.

It is a chance the 50-year-old probably thought wouldn't take this long. He has always had a reputation for producing sides that are attractive to watch and play positive, attacking football.

Swindon have more than lived up to that reputation this term too - finding the back of net on 73 occasions, although they have also leaked 57 at the back.

It was that positive approach which served them so well in the second leg of their play off semi with Charlton. Wilson made a tactical change to take off top scorer Billy Paynter, and released the rest of his side to chase the goal they required to level the tie.

The decision paid off handsomely, and an assured display from the penalty spot in a shoot out booked them their place at Wembley.

The dignified manner in which Wilson consoled the home players - particularly captain Nicky Bailey whose penalty miss proved so costly - was a sign of a man who knew the pain they were suffering all too well.

Danny Wilson has been managing in the lower divisions for the past decade

It's also a pain that his opposite number at Wembley on Saturday afternoon has felt as recently as last year. Kenny Jackett's Millwall are making their second successive appearance in the League One play-off final.

Twelve months ago, they threw away a 2-1 lead in the last 20 minutes to succumb to Scunthorpe. It is to everyone's credit at the Den that they have bounced back from that disappointment so well this term.

It was not the case for Jackett at his previous club. He took Swansea to promotion from League Two in his first full season in charge in 2005.

A year later, and the Welsh club were on the brink of successive elevations having seen off Brentford in the play-off semis and heading into the final.

However, the Swans surrendered a 2-1 advantage against Barnsley and eventually lost on spot kicks to the Yorkshire side. Less than a year later, and he had left the Liberty Stadium after a poor run of form.

Prior to Swansea, the 48-year-old spent many years as an assistant, first to Graham Taylor at Watford and then as Ian Holloway's number two at QPR.

It was at Rangers where he first suffered play-off misery, losing to Cardiff in extra time at the Millennium Stadium in the 2003 League One final.

Since going it alone though, his success with Swansea and now Millwall has helped Jackett forge a reputation as an up-and-coming manager in the lower leagues.

His sides are always well organised and prepared, boasting a tight defence. While Millwall's direct style is not always the easiest on the eye, their high tempo game cannot be accused of being negative.

Indeed, despite being away from home, they were not afraid of taking the game to opponents Huddersfield in the first leg of their play off semi final. Had a couple of refereeing decisions gone their way, they would have taken a lead from the Galpharm.

As it was, the ease with which they contained their free-scoring opponents in the second leg while being ruthless at the other end was testament to the work that Jackett has done on the training ground.

Promotion on Saturday would present the Lions boss with the opportunity to prove his worth at a higher level. Failure, and clubs already in the Championship could do much worse than to give him his break.

However, failure won't be on his, or Wilson's mind this weekend. They've had more than enough of that in the play-offs already. For one of them - their time has finally come.

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