The Play Offs: Heaven Or Hell?

Forget lucky dressing rooms, carrying a rabbit’s foot, not walking under ladders or stepping on cracks in the pavement. Don’t worry about avoiding the number thirteen, not crossing your fingers or letting a black cat cross your path.

There’s only one thing that your club has to do if you want to be promoted via the Championship play offs.

Don’t finish fourth.

The stark situation facing Cardiff City is that the last time a club that finished fourth in the second tier of English football was promoted via the play offs was twelve seasons ago. In May 1998, Charlton beat Sunderland on penalties after extra time in one of the most remarkable games ever seen at the old Wembley Stadium. Since then, Barnsley, Preston, West Ham, WBA, Bristol City and Cardiff themselves have finished fourth, reached the playoff final and lost.

Some other interesting trends are that the last three playoff final winners were making their first appearance in the Championship playoffs and two of them (Burnley and Blackpool) had been absent from the top tier for some time. Both trends are encouraging for Swansea – who last played in the old first division almost 30 years ago – and the latter is good news for Cardiff: it’s been almost 50 years since they were relegated to the old second division.

Reading can take heart from the fact that if they reach the final they’re far more likely to win promotion: fifth placed teams have provided half of the finalists in the last decade, with Burnley (2008/9), Wolves (2002/3) and Birmingham City (2001/2) progressing to the Premier League. It’s a similar story with sixth placed clubs – three of the last four clubs that qualified for the final won it – and even better news for Forest and Reading is that since 2000/01 the clubs finish fifth and six have won more finals since the team finishing third.

It’s easy for fans of the other Championship to look at the playoffs and either wonder about what might have been or could be next season, but for the fans of the teams that have reached the post season it’s torture. In some respects it may be better to be overwhelmed in the first round: having had recent experience of the highs and lows of the playoffs, the worst thing that can happen is an unexpected away win, a home win that only materialises in extra time and then having your hopes crushed at Wembley.

Rather than dwelling on the past, let’s take a look at the first legs of the semi finals. This evening Nottingham Forest host Swansea (Sky Sports 1, 7:45pm) and it looks as if Forest could have a slim advantages. Swansea’s away form this season has declined slightly from 2009/10 and the Swans have only won two of their last ten games at the City Ground, losing 3-1 to Forest at the end of September. On the other hand, Billy Davies’ side have only lost twice at home in the Championship this season: the key statistic in this game might be that Swansea have conceded a goal in 16 of their 23 away games this season. Although we’re probably not likely to see a goal fest at the City Ground there a couple of unlikely scorelines: 0-0 and a repeat of the game in the old second division in September 1952, which Forest won 6-4!

Cardiff’s trip to Reading  on Friday evening (Sky Sports 1, 7:45pm) looks as if it will be a much more difficult game to predict, especially as both sides actually performed at a higher level this season than they did in 2009/10. Although the Bluebirds have only won once in their last five trips to Berkshire, Reading haven’t beaten Cardiff at the Madjewski since January 2006 and both league games were drawn this season. Once again, a goalless draw looks unlikely, especially as Shane Long andJay Bothroyd have been banging the goals in for both clubs this season.

Finally, congratulations to Southampton for being promoted to the Championship after finishing runners up to Brighton in League 1. The Saints return to second tier football after two seasons and will no doubt be hoping to ‘do a Norwich’ next season.

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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.

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