It’s that time of year again.
I’ve already seen a couple of daft articles about ‘how to win the play offs’ as if it was some kind of mystery that Sherlock Holmes might have found impossible. The simplest way to win any football match is to score more goals than the opposition.
Anyway, since the second tier was rebranded as the Championship before the 2004/05 season, six of the 11 play off winners finished in third place after the end of the regular season, which indicates that it’s Brighton who may have a slight advantage. The curse of fourth was broken by QPR two years ago, but it’s five seasons since a sixth placed team won promotion to the Premier League at Wembley – and Blackpool were relegated to League Two on Sunday. From that point of view, Sheffield Wednesday fans may be the most likely to find themselves wishing what might have been at the end of the month.
In this season’s post season line up, we have two of the most improved teams in 2015/16 (Brighton and Wednesday), but looking at the four teams records against each other I think there’s a very strong possibility of low scoring games culminating in extra time and even penalties all the way through this competition.
So here’s the guide to this season’s runners and riders:
Brighton & Hove Albion
Last 10 Games: 7-3-0
2015/16 record against other play off teams: 1-5-0
Play off record (second tier only): Beaten finalists 1991, beaten semi finalists 2013 & 2014.
Last third place play off winner: Norwich 2014/15.
Unrecognisable from the team that struggled last season, but with the benefit of hindsight that’s because the right man for the job didn’t arrive until Chris Hughton took over from Sami Hyppia in December 2014 – Brighton have reached the play offs in three of the five seasons since they were promoted. The Seagulls are top of the 10 Game form table and have only lost one of their last ten away games and drew 0-0 at Sheffield Wednesday in November: recent performances have been better than their overall record this season, but Brighton will be missing Lewis Dunk and Dale Stephens due to suspensions for what can only be described as stupid acts of indiscipline. That factor alone could scupper their chances of reaching the top tier of English football for the first time for 34 years.
Last 10: 5-3-2
2015/16 record against other play off teams: 2-4-0
Last 5th placed play off winner: Crystal Palace 2012/13
Play off record (second tier only): losing finalists 1992, 1994, 2014. Losing semi finalists: 2005.
Actually reached the play offs this season after the calamity of 2014/15 where a home defeat against Reading meant they dropped out of the top six altogether after leading the table as late as the end of February. Despite a dodgy start and a poor run of form at the start of 2016 that ultimately cost Paul Clement his job, the Rams haven’t been out of the play off places since October and although they’re performing at a slightly better level than in 2015/16 and beat Hull twice this season, they’ve only kept one clean sheet in their last ten away games.
Oh and their post season record is appalling.
Last 10: 5-2-3
2015/16 record against other play off teams: 0-3-3
Last fourth place play off winner: QPR 2013/14
Play off record (second tier only): Winners 2008
As I mentioned above, the curse of fourth was broken by QPR in 2014, but the fact remains that Rangers have been the only fourth placed team that has won promotion since the start of the century – Bristol City finished fourth when Hull beat them eight years ago. That doesn’t look as if it’s going to change: the Tigers failed to beat any of the other three clubs that are involved in the play offs in 2015/16 and are playing at about the same level that saw them finish as runners up in 2013. This season there were three teams better than they were: their only home defeat this season was against Derby but they lost half of their last ten aways and that’s why they’re not already on the beach.
Last 10: 5-3-2
2015/16 record against other play off teams: 0-6-0
Last sixth place play off winner: Blackpool 2009/10
Play off record (second tier only): debut.
Even though they’ve only lost once at home since the start of September, Wednesday’s inability to beat any of the other teams in the top seven is one of the reasons why they were never any higher than fifth during the regular season, even though this is their best league position since 1990/91. Another reason is their away form: three wins in their last ten games and no victory on the road since the start of April.
For that reason, I can’t help thinking that Wednesday might have a better chance of promotion next season, but might also be the most likely of the four teams qualifiers to suffer the obligatory hangover if they aren’t promoted.
Shefield Wednesday v Brighton (tomorrow, Sky Sports 1, kick off 7:45pm)
Four of the last six games in the league have ended all square but the Seagulls have only won two the last ten and have never won at Hillsborough. They don’t necessarily need to win tomorrow, but Wednesday do.
Derby v Hull (Saturday, Sky Sports 1, kick off 12:30pm)
Although Derby won both games this season, over the last ten league games between them there’s only been one draw and Hull have won all but one of the rest.
Verdict: of the four qualifiers, Hull have had the most success in the play offs and the most recent experience in the Premier League, so the club understand exactly what’s at stake here. Derby should be motivated by their defeat in the 2014 play off final and fit the profile of a team that finished outside the top six last season and have earned a second bite of the cherry. However, Brighton have been on a nomadic journey over the last 20 years and it may end in an emotional triumph at Wembley. A word of caution though: I’m awful at predicting the play offs.
All being well, there’ll be an update sometime on Sunday evening.