Sky Bet Championship Play Off Final Preview

The match kicks off at 5:00pm on Saturday afternoon and the talking heads will be indulging in their usual breathless hyperbole from 4:00pm on Sky Sports 1. As I pointed out before last season’s game, there’s a 90% chance of the winners finishing in the bottom half of the Premier League next season and about an even chance they’ll be relegated – which exactly what happened to Norwich this season.

Anyway, I digress.

This will be the first ‘fourth v sixth’ final since 2009/10 (when Blackpool beat Cardiff) and only the second game featuring what we might call the ‘outsiders’ in the last decade.

Interestingly, the lower placed team at the end of the regular season has won four of the last ten finals -which might be good news for Hull fans but is counterbalanced by the fact the Tigers finished fourth. Although the Curse of Fourth was broken by QPR a couple of seasons ago, it’s still arguably the worst place to finish in the Championship if you’re seeking play off glory.

Before I launch into the team previews, it’s worth remembering that both finalists have failed to score in seven of the last ten finals, with six of those ten games producing under 2.5 goals. As we’ve got the second and fifth best defences in the Championship facing each other on Saturday, it wouldn’t surprise me if this is a low scoring game.

Hull City

Last ten away games: 4-1-5 (10-11)

Play off record (second tier only): winners 2008

Three of the last five Championship play off winners have been clubs that have been relegated at the end of the previous season, so that’s another reason to believe that Hull be involved in a battle to avoid relegation from the Premier League this time next year.

Hull have been a yo-yo club over the last decade: dangerously close to relegation from the Championship nine years ago, they’ve spent the last eight seasons either being in the race for promotion from the Championship or being not quite good enough to last more than two seasons in the Premier League.

My thinking about The Curse of Fourth had to change after QPR beat Derby a couple of seasons ago. Hull are one of the best fourth placed sides over the last decade: only Middlesbrough (last season) and Preston in 2005/06 are probably better and this season’s Hull team are performing at a better level than the team that won automatic promotion in a dramatic finale in May 2013.

Best comparison: West Ham, 2011/12. The Hammers had been relegated from the Premier League in May 2011, but were top of the table in February 2012 (at about the same time Portsmouth went into administration & Neil Warnock was appointed manager of Leeds) and then fell away after a sequence of seven draws in ten games. Hull last lead the division in February but dropped out of the automatic promotion places for good after they failed to win any of their next five games and almost blew their place in the final last week:

Strength: during the regular season, Hull were fantastic at the KC Stadium but that perception changed dramatically in the game you’ve just watched the highlights of.

Weakness: Fulham lost fewer away games than Hull in 2015/16 and for a team that’s one game away from the Premier League, losing at two of the three clubs that will be playing in League One in August is far from encouraging. The big problem for the Tigers was scoring on the road – although they scored three times against Derby in the first leg of the play offs, Hull haven’t scored more than twice in an away league game since they beat Sunderland 3-0 in a Boxing Day game in 2014. This season they lost every away game in the Championship they failed to score in.

Player to watch: Abel Hernandez. The Uruguayan is the definition of a striker who hasn’t been able to cut it at the very top but is lethal at second tier level. He was disappointing in Serie A for Palermo and didn’t do much in the Premier League in 2014/15: 21 goals this season is testament to his talent. He also has one big advantage over his Hull counterpart, but I’ll come to that in a minute.

Sheffield Wednesday

Away form: 3-4-3 (10-10)

Play off record (second tier only): début

Here’s how Wednesday clinched their place in the final – it’s a bit long if you’re a neutral, but at least it’s got some commentary with it.

The only other team to have jumped from 13th to a play off final in the last decade was the Burnley team of 2008/09 and although Wednesday were never outside the top ten from mid October, they were never better than fifth in the table for the rest of the season. That was their best finishing position in the second tier for 25 years, but it’s fair to say that this season’s Wednesday team is both not as good as the Ipswich side that finished sixth and lost to Norwich in last season’s semi finals and under Carlos Carvalhal they’ve clearly over achieved this season.

Best comparison: Nottingham Forest 2010/11. Forest earned a point more and had a slightly inferior goal difference that this season’s Wednesday side but were knocked out of the play offs by eventual winners Swansea and have had one top ten finish since.

Strength: home defence. Which is going to be irrelevant on Saturday evening.

Weakness: away form. Including the play off semi final draw at Brighton, Wednesday have still only won three of their last ten away games in the Championship, the last victory coming at Huddersfield at the start of April, also last time they kept an away clean sheet. They only beat two teams in the top half of the table and failed to beat any of the relegated sides away from home and only picked up one point from six against MK Dons.

Player to watch: Fernando Forestieri. There must be something in the water in Sheffield as the Argentinian striker has scored 15 goals this season, which is more than twice his previous best (at Watford two seasons ago) and one third of his total goals in a ten year career. However, there’s a problem: he’s not scored on the road since the start of April (Abel Hernandez has scored four in Hull’s last ten aways) and having seen him play in person this season, if you can isolate him he’ll lose interest very quickly.

Verdict: Wednesday need to stop Hull from scoring to have any chance of winning promotion back to the Premier League, but they’ve not kept an away clean sheet since April and with all due respect, Huddersfield aren’t the best team in the Championship. Hull have ‘been there and done that’, have recent Premier League experience and know what it’s like to both win and lose at Wembley: so it’s Hull for me. 

Hull 1-0 Sheffield Wednesday. Mohammed Diame’s 72nd minute goal means that the Tigers will back in the Premier League next season. I’ll be back at the start of July for the first of the previews for the 2016/17 season.

Update: Barnsley are back, 3-1 winners over Millwall in the League One final.

Author: Mike Roberts

A football fan since the 1970s, I take my inspiration from the standard of writing that made Shoot! magazine streets ahead of anything else back in the day. I'm also a complete and utter stathead, which I blame on being exposed to American sports at the end of my teens.