Play-off fight is football's finest

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Thursday night represents the start of a brief period of madness in English football, with the Football League play-offs beginning in earnest with a clash between Cardiff City and West Ham United in the Welsh capital.

Nothing quite compares to the drama, pressure and joy that can come from a four-team knockout tournament, and it always manages to capture the imagination for the simple reason that there is nothing quite like it within the game.

American sports have long-known the potential value of play-off matches, with the NBA, NFL, MLB and NHL all creating their own versions, with as many as 16 teams playing off against each other to decide who wins the title in each sport.

The financial advantages are obvious to each association, with huge attendances, increased television audiences and global interest. In American Football, the SuperBowl usually creates an audience of more than a billion. It is, in affect, the final of a play-off competition.

Where football in England varies to all sports in America – including soccer – is that the actual title isn’t on the line. It doesn’t even cover the holy grail of the Premier League.

But it does deal with the top flight, and the all-important concept of reaching the Promised Land in the English game.

Built as the richest game in the world, victory in the showpiece Championship final at Wembley will secure a financial figure in the region of £90 million to add to the coffers, with increased television rights, ticket revenue, sponsorship and merchandise sales all adding to the ever-growing promotion pie.

Victory can also bring with it the dream of stability in the Premier League, although history suggests that winning in the play-offs might not be all it’s cracked up to be.

Swansea City have made a great start to life in the elite division after last season’s win over Reading, but the five previous winners before that reads Blackpool, Burnley, Hull City, Derby County and Watford. All have since been relegated and failed to return.

It should serve as a warning to the Hammers, Bluebirds, Birmingham City and Blackpool, although negative thinking goes completely out of the window when your in the play-offs.

Once you’ve made it to the final stage, you’ve got as good a chance as anyone to win it, irrespective of whether you finished third or sixth. Indeed, history shows there is something to be said for finishing bottom of this mini-league pile.

In the last decade, three of the ten teams who made it to the big league came sixth, whilst no team who finished fourth had made the step-up in that same period of time.

Whilst it’s fair to suggest that the play-off system is something of a lottery, the history suggests that Birmingham are the team with the least chance ahead of their clash with the Tangerines. It’s to be seen if they can break the fourth-placed curse.

Originally introduced in England in 1987, it’s not just the Championship that offers play-off competition at the end of the season. Both the Npower League One and League Two give teams an opportunity to make the leap up, with Peterborough United and Stevenage taking advantage of the chance last season.

And, whilst the places aren’t confirmed yet this term, it’s going to be between one of the Sheffield clubs – United or Wednesday – Huddersfield Town and MK Dons. The fourth and final place is up for grabs, with Stevenage, Notts County and Carlisle all in with a chance of taking it.

In League Two, it’s between Crawley Town, Torquay and Southend for the final automatic promotion place, meaning two of those teams will be joining Cheltenham Town in the play-offs. Crewe also look likely to make the cut, although Oxford United have an outside chance.

What these lower-league play-offs do provide is a platform for the lesser-known clubs to enjoy a moment in the spotlight. Every final is at Wembley, and every final will be broadcast around the world.

Given the significance of the games, they aren’t always easy-on-the-eye. Unsurprising, given the importance of every single match at this stage of the season. If you win it, that simply doesn’t matter.

So brace yourself for some frantic football, frenzied fans and, most importantly for the public, good old-fashioned entertainment.

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