Soccer AM/MW - the home of lively and humorous discussion from the Football and Non Leagues

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

We salute... the play offs

Nobes takes times to pay tribute to what he believes are the greatest invention in modern football - the end of season play-offs.

There's many things wrong with the beautiful game - clubs overspending, dodgy officiating, Darren Ferguson. However, sometimes, you just have to hold your hands up and congratulate those in charge of the game.

Such a case was all the way back in 1986 when some bright spark decided to jazz up the end of the Football League season. He decided to do away with giving a team who finishes higher up the automatic right to be promoted.

Oh no, he thought they should go through an extra few games just to prove their worth.

When you put it like that - the idea sounds absurd.

Why should a team who have proved their worth over the course of the season have to put themselves through the rigours of three more matches - in which they could lose out to a side who finished well below them?

However, the idea actually works and, over the course of the past 20 years or so, has produced some of the most dramatic and exciting football memories for fans of clubs involved and neutrals involved.

Of course, it's easy for me, as a fan of a club who've just won promotion via the play-offs to salute them. After all, my beloved Skyrockets wouldn't have been promoted this month without them.

Even before tasting personal glory from them though, I've always been a huge fan. Simply put, the play-offs are pure drama - better than any million pound series on BBC One on a Saturday evening. Yes, Casualty, I'm talking about you.

Some of the most dramatic football matches I've ever seen or heard have come in the play-offs. Who can ever forget Manchester City's stunning injury time comeback in the third tier play off final against Gillingham in 1999?

It was the stuff of dreams - almost topping the events of 12 months previously. Charlton and Sunderland contesting one of the finest games ever to be played under the old Twin Towers.

A pulsating 4-4 draw that went all the distance to penalties. It was 7-6 in the shoot out when Michael Gray took the first left footed penalty of the contest - only to see Sasa Ilic save it and send Charlton into the Premier League.

Even Sunderland fans now can reflect on that game as one they were privileged to witness in person - even if the result was a bitter pill to swallow. Such is the beauty of the play-offs.

The matches live long in the memory. Bolton's 4-3 comeback against Reading in the 1995 final to deny the Royals top flight football. Or Swindon almost throwing away their final against Leicester only to win 4-3 in the end, too.

The play-offs have thrown up extraordinary stories - cash-strapped Lincoln reaching the 2003 final or little Yeovil toppling mighty Nottingham Forest at the City Ground.

The play-offs also keep the season alive for many teams. Look at League Two - a side can be well off the pace at Christmas only to put a run together and finish 7th - the final play-off spot.

Heck, without the play-offs, Blackpool might not be on the cusp of the Premier League as they are now. The Seasiders lost 18 games in the 2000/1 season but still managed to win promotion because of the play-offs.

The play-offs, as well as being exciting themselves, actually add to the drama of the regular 46-game season. More sides have more to play for - which can often lead to exciting end of season games where teams have to go for a win.

Without the play-offs too, would the likes of Watford, Hull, and Burnley have ever got into the Premier League?

Without the play-offs, we wouldn't have seen last minute ecstasy - Steve Claridge's shin taking Leicester into the top flight at Crystal Palace's expense.

Then, 12 months later, Palace and David Hopkin exacting the same fate on Sheffield United.

Without the play-offs, we wouldn't have had the penalty shoot-outs, the topsy turvy two legged affairs, or the dramatic finals. Things could be over by March.

The play-offs have completely revolutionised the Conference too. Just one side used to be promoted to the Football League - and they would often run away with the title. The season could be over by the New Year.

Now, the season has been extended for so many more teams with a place in the top five earning a play-off spot and a shot at promotion at Wembley.

Which leads me to another point - the sheer number of clubs who have had the chance to play at Wembley or the Millennium Stadium in play-off finals. Sure you've the JPT - but nobody really cares about that.

A play-off final gives you the chance to play at a national stadium in a national final - and the prize couldn't be any bigger. No, not the trophy you get at the end, although that's very nice too, but promotion.

People say it's the best way to get promoted. Forget winning the title by 20 points. Winning at Wembley, seeing your team climb those stairs to lift a cup - knowing you'll be playing in a higher division next season. There's no beating it.

The play-offs... Soccer AM/MW salutes you!

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