Congratulations to Southampton for their promotion to the Premier League.
The Saints made fairly short work of Coventry City on Saturday lunchtime: after Billy Sharp and Jose Fonte had given them a two goal lead after 19 minutes at St. Mary’s, the situation looked beyond West Ham no matter how many goals they scored against Hull. Although Southampton were top of the table for the majority of the season, they had to settle for second place after losing at home to Reading in the middle of this month: the consolation for the runners up is that they return to the Premier League for the first time since the 2004/05 season.
Although Wilfried Zaha gave Crystal Palace the lead against Cardiff at Selhurst Park, goals from Peter Whittingham and Don Cowie earned Cardiff all three points against the Eagles and made the final gap between sixth and seventh place look larger than it was for most of the season. Middlesbrough lost at Watford due to a late goal from Troy Deeney and missed out on the playoffs: Boro fans may be disappointed now, but over the summer they should begin to appreciate that this season has seen a turning point for the club’s fortunes.
It seems a bit odd writing about the playoffs on the last day of April, but in some respects it’s actually good to get everything out of the way earlier than usual. This season’s tournament is very different to previous seasons: all of the clubs that were relegated from the Premier League last season are in with a chance of going straight back up but the last team that was promoted via the playoffs in the season following relegation was Leicester in 1996!
Although all four playoff contestants have taken part in the second tier playoffs in the last decade, Blackpool and Cardiff have the most recent experience, having played each other in the memorable final at the end of 2009/10. They’re supposed to be the outsiders this season which is a bit odd considering that clubs finishing in fifth and sixth place have produced two of the last three winners and half of the successful teams over the last 20 seasons. Having said that, Cardiff have qualified for the playoffs in three consecutive seasons and were losing finalists on one occasion.
This season it’s down to Birmingham to end The Curse Of Fourth Place, which dates back to the dramatic penalty shoot out between Charlton and Sunderland in May 1998: Charlton were the last team to be promoted from the Championship to the Premier League after having finished in fourth position. Since then, fourth place has produced six losing finalists in fourteen seasons including Cardiff (2010) and West Ham (2004) and Blues fans probably don’t need reminding that it took them three consecutive attempts at the playoffs at the turn of the century before they defeated Norwich in 2001.
West Ham are the favourites to go up by winning at Wembley, which seems to be based on the logic that third place has provided four of the last six playoff winners rather than any recent form. There hasn’t been a London club in the playoffs since Crystal Palace lost in the semi finals to Bristol City in 2008 and West Ham were the last side from the capital to win the tournament when they beat Preston in Cardiff seven years ago.
I’ll be back on Thursday with previews of both of this week’s semi finals, but there’ll also be a special post on Friday taking a look at the situation at the top of League 1: the last promotion place is between Sheffield United and Sheffield Wednesday and will be decided one way or another on Saturday afternoon. Whatever happens, the Championship will definitely be welcoming back one of the big guns in South Yorkshire next season.