nPower Championship Play Off Final: Will The Hornets Sting The Eagles?

The old clichés about the ‘richest game in the world’ will abound on Monday afternoon when Crystal Palace and Watford face each other in the nPower Championship playoff final.

I’m going to start by looking at the game from a slightly different angle. It’s all very well for the media to chuck ridiculous numbers around, but it’s actually quite interesting to see exactly what the winners can expect next season. Six of the last ten playoff winners were relegated immediately, with their average finishing position being 16th. In that time frame, only West Ham (9th, 2006) finished in the top half of the Premier League.

The fate of the losing team is far simpler. I’ll be returning to my own set of well used phrases in the autumn when I start using the term ‘playoff hangover’ to describe Brighton, Leicester and Monday’s losers when they’ve lost to Yeovil or Bournemouth instead of Chelsea and Manchester United. Only six clubs in the last 20 seasons lost the playoff final and were promoted to the Premier League at the end of the following season and another three clubs reached the playoffs but lost in the third round. The good news for the playoff losers: only once in the last 20 seasons has the playoff runner up been relegated (Leeds in 2006)

Watford’s current team isn’t as good as the sides that won promotion in 1999 and 2006, both of which spent one season at the top level before finishing in last place. The current Crystal Palace side is roughly around the same level as the teams that were promoted via the playoffs in 1997 and 2004, but once again, both those squads were relegated after one season.

So who will join Cardiff and Hull in having to buy a new heat transfer machine for replica shirts next season? It’ll have to be another different angle here, as it’s an away game for both teams. As I mentioned in the semi final previews, neither of these teams have exactly been in form recently. Palace’s 2-0 win at the Amex a couple of weeks ago was only their second win in their last ten away games and although they’ve been better defensively of late, the last time the Eagles won consecutive away games was around the time the clocks went back. Watford have managed to win four of their last ten games away from Vicarage Road, but they lost five of the other six – it’s either boom or bust for the Hornets.

From a wider perspective, the Championship playoff final is normally a straightforward game. Sixteen of the last 20 games were settled in normal time and of the four that went into extra time, only half were decided by penalties – the last time that happened was in 2002, when Birmingham beat Norwich at the Millennium Stadium.

In the context of third v fifth finals, the stats are bit cloudier. There have been six games that fit the bill in the last two and the higher placed club has won three of the last five, but the interesting angle here is that these games usually feature a few goals. Here’s the rundown:

1996: Leicester 2-1 Crystal Palace (AET)

2003: Wolves 3-0 Sheffield United

2006: Watford 3-0 Leeds

2009: Burnley 1-0 Sheffield United

2011: Swansea 4-2 Reading

2012: West Ham 2-1 Blackpool

What’s interesting about that is that eight of these clubs are currently still in the Championship – only Swansea and West Ham are still in the Premier League and both the playoff finalists from a decade ago will be playing in League One in August.

Verdict: I’m expecting a cagey half an hour to begin with, but in the fifteen minutes before half time in their last ten away games, Watford have scored three times as many goals as Palace have – this is basically Troy Deeney time. Palace are vulnerable during this period – they’ve conceded five goals in that time frame, including two at Brighton and three at Ipswich. It’s also worth mentioning that in their last ten away games, Palace have only scored twice in the first half, whilst Watford scored seven times.

The fun should start after an hour – this is where Palace could make a breakthrough as Watford have defensive frailties. The Hornets conceded goals at Bristol City and Peterborough in this period, which doesn’t exactly bode well and The Eagles scored twice as many goals in the second half of their most recent away games as they did in the first period.

There’s been a goal in six of Watford’s last ten away games in the last quarter of an hour, but more worryingly for Palace this is another period where they’ve conceded goals. I’m expecting the decisive goal to come at this point in the game.

Verdict: Overall, it’s hard to separate these clubs, but one possibly decisive angle is that Watford were one of the most improved teams away from home last season. The Hornets won twice as many games as Crystal Palace did and their goal difference was the best in the Championship. To put Palace’s away form into some perspective, they averaged less than one goal on the road and Peterborough – who were relegated – had a better goal difference on the road. If this holds true on Monday, it’s possible that this game could a rout and Watford will have earned themselves a lot of money and at least one season in the Premier League.

I’ll be back early next week with some thoughts on the final, but my wife’s younger sister is getting married this weekend. Congratulations to both of them, but in a spectacularly poor show of timing, I’m not going to be able to watch the Champions League final and I’m also not expecting to see much – if any – of the last game of the season in the nPower Championship…



nPower League One Play Off Final Preview

Only two places left in the Championship and tomorrow’s League One playoff final is between two sides that will be new to the Championship. Brentford last played in the second tier two decades ago (when it was the old Division One) while this season’s fourth placed finish is Yeovil’s best season in the Football League since they were promoted from the conference ten years ago.

Brentford are the favourites to win promotion, but I think this is going to be a very, very close game that could have a surprise ending. Here’s why:

This is the eight time in the last 20 seasons that the League One playoff final has been contested between the sides that finished third and fourth at the end of the season. However, five of those eight finals have been won by the lower placed team and the last time the third placed team beat the team that finished immediately below them was 13 years ago, when Gillingham beat Wigan.

Additionally, half of those eight finals needed extra time to separate the clubs – including last year’s showdown between Huddersfield and Sheffield United – and finals that go to extra time tend to come in bunches. Between 2007 and 2011, all the games were settled in 90 minutes, but six of the eight finals between 1999 and 2006 were undecided at full time.


League One Playoff Finalists 1997 (lost to Crewe), 2002 (lost to Stoke), losing semi finalists 1991, 1995, 2005 and 2006

Hardly an inspiring record is it? It’s not as if Brentford are going to Wembley with a lot of recent form either. You get the impression that they’re only favourites because they finished two points ahead of Yeovil.

The Bees have won only three of last ten games in League 1, their last win coming in a 3-2 victory against Portsmouth at Griffin Park in the middle of last month. Goals – from Bradley Wright-Phillips and Clayton Donaldson in the last five minutes gave Brentford a come from behind victory.

The West London side been in the playoff positions for half the season but were in with a chance of automatic promotion before the crazy ending to their game against Doncaster at the end of last month. To be honest, the Bees drew far too many games to really be considered auto promotion candidates – only four teams in League One featured in more stalemates this season.


League One Playoff Finalists: 2007 (lost to Blackpool)

The Glovers were looking like a solid mid table team until they went on a run of eight wins between the end of December and the start of February, but since then they’ve manoeuvred themselves into the playoffs by being tough to beat.

This season’s final table is a little misleading: although Yeovil have one of the poorest defensive records of the top ten sides in League One, over the latter half of the season they were much tighter at the back.

Absolutely no problems up front though – only Swindon and Bournemouth scored more goals this season. Irish striker Paddy Madden is League One’s leading scorer and James Hayter scored the winning goal for Doncaster Rovers in the 2008 League One playoff final.

VERDICT: one of the overlooked aspects of this game is that whatever happens next season, Yeovil will be the best team in the West Country if they win promotion. Manager Gary Johnson, left back Jamie McAllister and midfielder Gavin Williams were all involved with Bristol City’s more successful seasons in the Championship.

Having won both league games against Brentford this season, I think Yeovil are underrated. The Bees have one of the worst records in the playoffs at any level and also seem to have acquired the habit of screwing up at the worst possible time this season. Defeat at home against Doncaster was bad enough, but they also let Swindon back into the game in injury time at the end the playoff semi final at Griffin Park and I think they may get found out tomorrow.

Update: congratulations to Yeovil Town, who were promoted to the Championship following their 2-1 win over Brentford yesterday.



Plenty Of Potential Drama On The Last Day

The end of another season for most of the clubs in the nPower Championship – the last nine months seem to have flown by. With so many crucial games today, it’s hard to know where to start, so in case you’ve no idea what’s happening, here’s a recap.

Hull or Watford will be promoted as runners up to Cardiff City.

The last playoff place will be between Crystal Palace, Bolton, Nottingham Forest or Leicester. Brighton are in the playoffs regardless of what happens and unless something very peculiar happens at Selhurst Park or the Amex, the Seagulls will finish fourth and probably won’t be promoted.

At the bottom, Wolves will have to score a lot of goals and win to stand any chance of staying up. After that, whatever happens is anyone’s guess.

It’s almost impossible to chose the game of the week as there are so many candidates, so I’ll stick to those that will have an impact on the playoffs and relegation. Sky Sports will be showing Hull v Cardiff on Sky Sports 2 and Watford v Leeds will be on Sky Sports Interactive – both games kick off at 12:45pm. Brace yourselves for lots of ‘as it stands’ graphics and double box silliness, but regular readers won’t be too surprised that I’m looking elsewhere for the vital games.

Brighton v Wolves

On 11th May 1985 – the same day as the fire at Bradford City in which 56 fans lost their lives – Blackburn Rovers beat Wolves 3-0 at Ewood Park and the visitors were relegated to the third tier of English football for the first time in their long and famous history. 26 years and 51 weeks later, Wolves are facing exactly the same predicament.

Even though there were no playoffs in 1984-85, Brighton would have qualified for them. They beat Sheffield United 1-0 on the same day to finish sixth, three points ahead of Leeds.

Looking back at what I’ve written about Wolves this season, I still find it hard to believe that this is the same team that – at the start of October – had won four games in a row. By Christmas the wheels had started coming off and the 3rd rd FA Cup defeat by Luton was the end of Stale Solbakken.

Wolves have a horrible record at Brighton historically and against the current top six this season. They’ve managed just one win in their last ten visits to Sussex (in September 2004), but they’ve lost every single away game against the current top nine teams this season. Brighton don’t need a miracle. Wolves do.

Crystal Palace v Peterborough

Cast your mind back to approximately 5:00pm on December 1st 2012. Crystal Palace had just beaten Brighton 3-0 to go top of the Championship. Peterborough had been beaten 4-1 at home by Blackpool and were bottom, which they had been for most of the season until then. Five months later and the scenario is this: one more unconvincing result for Palace and they’ll be in the Championship next season. One more outstanding effort from the Posh and so will they.

Posh haven’t won at Selhurst Park since April 1963 and have failed to score there in three of their last four league games. Although they’ve won at both Cardiff and Hull this season, their record against the top half of the table is 2-2-7 and they’ve failed to score in seven of those games.

Palace have only lost twice at home, but haven’t won any of their last four games in front of their own fans, despite having taken the lead in the games against Leeds and Leicester:  despite still being the leading goalscorer in the Championship, Glenn Murray hasn’t hit the net at Selhurst Park since the start of March. The 4-0 home defeat by Birmingham City at the end of March really seems to have upset Palace’s confidence and if they’re off form against Peterborough, the season could finish on a sour note. It’s worth remembering that a point isn’t really any good for either side.

Nottingham Forest v Leicester City

This game is exactly why the Football League is better than the Premier League. Last week’s League 1 game at Brentford – where the winner could win the title if Bournemouth didn’t win at Tranmere – was decided on a goal following a missed penalty, This week we have a local derby in the Championship that could decide the last playoff place but may be completely irrelevant if another team – in this case Bolton – wins their local derby.

The bad news for Leicester is that they’ve not won at the City Ground since January 1972 and they’ve drawn far too many games against the top sides this season – in fact, they’ve not won any away games against teams in the current top half of the table. I didn’t fancy their chances last Summer and their recent form has been mediocre at best: their last away win came at Bristol City in mid January.

Mind you, Forest’s home record against the teams immediately around them is nothing to write home about either: they’ve not beaten any of the teams they might face in the playoffs – but the one sensible thing that the Al-Hasawi’s have done this season was give Billy Davies his old job back. Watch out for Forest next season – especially if Billy Sharp decides to stay or they sign a proven goalscorer.

Here’s what I think will happen:

Watford will batter Leeds – the Hornets have scored in six of their last seven games at Vicarage Road and scored in the first half of four of those – and will finish second. Hull need to beat Cardiff, but I can’t see that happening, primarily due to Hull’s nervous end to the season but also because Malky Mackay won’t want the Champions finishing their campaign with a defeat. Bolton will score early and beat Blackpool, therefore securing the last playoff place because Nottingham Forest and Leicester will be involved an anti-climactic draw. Nigel Pearson won’t be in charge at the King Power Stadium at the beginning of next season.

Wolves will lose at Brighton and will go down, but will be favourites to win automatic promotion from League 1 next season. Although Peterborough will do their best at Crystal Palace, Barnsley will pinch a point at Huddersfield to send the Posh back to League One. As I pointed out at the start of this season, Posh have never spent three consecutive seasons in the second tier.

There’ll be an update as soon as the games have finished, including the dates and times for the playoff ties.

UPDATE: I’ve been a fan since the early 1970s and I can honestly say that I’ve never seen anything like what happened this afternoon.

The basics: Hull are up. Wolves and Peterborough are down. Leicester sneaked into the playoffs.

The reality: 18 minutes of first half injury time at Vicarage Road…Watford lose two ‘keepers to injury…Cardiff take the lead at Hull…at various points during the day Huddersfield, Millwall, Barnsley and Peterborough could have been relegated…Troy Deeney gets a red card…Hull miss a penalty, then Cardiff score a penalty about 90 seconds later…Steve Bruce chases the ref down the tunnel…Watford’s teenage debutant keeper makes a huge mistake…

I need a lie down. Back later.



Cardiff Win The Championship, Bournemouth Win Promotion To The Championship

I think we all knew it was coming, but having earned a point at Turf Moor, Cardiff City won the 2012/13 nPower Championship.

Congratulations are also in order for AFC Bournemouth, who will be playing in the Championship next season after their 3-1 win over Carlisle yesterday.

The Cherries – under former Burnley boss Eddie Howe – will be playing in the second tier for the first time since 1990 and The Goldsands Stadium shouldn’t have any competition in the contest to be the smallest stadium in the Championship in 2013/14.