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Jackpot Football: Previewing this Weekend's Football League Play-offs

The play-offs are inherently unfair and hardly in keeping with British sporting values, but bloody hell are they fun.
PA Images

The play-offs are inherently unfair. Obviously. A season's hard work boiled down to a handful of matches against teams that finished on different points is hardly a model of sporting balance. It's about revenue, particularly the big finals. In fact, it's a surprise that most British fans are so resigned to them. Where's our e-petition to Number 10, lads?

This season has been a particularly extreme example of why the play-offs are such a kick in the balls for sporting values, with the best-placed qualifier in each division going out to the lowest-placed in the semi-finals. I have no allegiances here – I possess no strong feelings on any of the Football League play-off qualifiers. But for Brighton & Hove Albion to finish 15 points clear of Sheffield Wednesday over the course of the season, then be knocked out by them over two legs, is kind of shitty. Ditto Barnsley seeing off Walsall, and Accrington Stanley falling to Wimbledon. And we all know it.


Brighton missed out on automatic promotion on goal difference; Walsall by a point; and Accrington on goal difference. All three put everything into the domestic campaigns, were objectively excellent, and missed out by a margin that basically boils down to luck, referees, and the British weather. After that, it's not a huge surprise that the wind went out of their sails. Even fans of the clubs that reached this weekend's finals will admit that they got lucky.

Guess that's why they call it a lottery. So, rant over, let's release those balls…

LEAGUE TWO – Plymouth Argyle (5th) vs. AFC Wimbledon (7th) – Monday, 15:00

AFC Wimbledon are well liked across football for rising from the flames of the MK Dons debacle. The south-west London side have steadily climbed the divisions over the past 13 years, reaching the Football League in 2011. Led by former player Neal Ardley and with an actual Womble for a mascot, it's bloody tough to begrudge them a crack at League One – even if they did finish 10 points behind Accrington Stanley this term.

READ MORE: Passion, Progression, and the Future of Fan Ownership at AFC Wimbledon

Whether they're ready for promotion is another matter. Being fan-owned brings certain financial restrictions, and the playing squad would need a considerable overhaul for them to compete in the third tier. Lyle Taylor's 21 goals this year were crucial, and he's clearly a man to retain whether they go up or not.


The Dons also have Big Bayo Akinfenwa // PA Images

For a thorough and surely unbiased view from the other side, here's a piece by the Plymouth Herald titled: 'Five reasons why Plymouth Argyle will beat AFC Wimbledon'. Seems legit, right?

Argyle are looking to rise back through the divisions after doing a very passable impression of a breeze block dropped from a plane in recent years, having plummeted from the Championship to League Two with back-to-back relegations. Quintessential Scottish boss Derek Adams has done good work at Home Park, and they'll be favourites on the day.

Despite the rage that opened this piece, there is a nice symmetry about these sides meeting in the play-off final being as they actually opened the campaign against each other back in August. That ended in a 2-0 win for Plymouth away at Wimbledon, while the return fixture saw a 2-1 win for the Dons at Home Park. We'll take that to mean that this will be a tight fixture, perhaps even repeating last year's penalty shootout between Southend and Wycombe, but sadly lacking the permatanned presence of Phil Brown.

LEAGUE ONE – Millwall (4th) vs. Barnsley (6th) – Sunday, 15:00

In recent years, breaking into the Championship has almost guaranteed a crack at promotion to the Premier League. Sides like Hull City, Burnley and Bournemouth – none of whom would call themselves big hitters of 21st century football – are proof of that. As such, this game must be pretty tantalising for Millwall and Barnsley.

The Lions retain their reputation as one of England's toughest clubs, even if this is not entirely accurate in 2016. A fringe remains, but the modern Millwall are equally a small south London side looking to compete against the capital's super-teams.


READ MORE: Millwall FC – Football in an Island Future

They finished fourth in the table, four points off the automatic spots, and saw off Bradford in the semi-final. They're managed by club uber-legend Neil Harris who, to the surprise of some, has done a very tidy job in his first full year as boss. Skipper Tony Craig is a south London boy in his third spell at the club, while Welshman Steve Morison brings considerable experience at sub-Premier League level.

Steve Morison bosses Bradford in Millwall's play-off semi-final // PA Images

The Lions finished seven points clear of Barnsley and will face the Tykes at Wembley on Sunday. Oddly, Barnsley are without a permanent manager, former boss Lee Johnson having departed for Bristol City in February. Paul Heckingbottom is currently caretaker, but his future beyond the play-offs is uncertain.

The story of their season is quite something. Their form was horrendous in October and November, with eight straight defeats leaving them 23rd in the league. By mid-November, relegation seemed more likely than promotion.

But they turned it around. From 23 games played in 2016 they lost only three, drew five and won the rest. That was enough to book their play-off spot, beating Scunthorpe to sixth on goal difference. They then upset third-place finishers Walsall with a resounding 6-1 aggregate win.

Barnsley had the better of the league encounters this season. The Tykes won 3-2 at the Den back in August, Lewin Nyatanga's stoppage time header giving them all three points. They were 2-1 winners on home turf in January, a win that pushed them in 17th place. At the time Millwall were 10th.


That's largely irrelevant now, of course. An epic clash of north versus south – small dog versus imposing lion – will ensue at Wembley this weekend.

THE CHAMPIONSHIP – Hull City (4th) vs. Sheffield Wednesday (6th) – Saturday, 17:00

Here it is: the big one. The most lucrative game of football on our planet. What's it worth? A fucking billion or something? Why do Madrid and Barça and Bayern persist with the Champions League when this game is far more profitable? Fools.

Sheffield Wednesday are one of those clubs. You know the kind. When they went down from the Premier League in 2000, no one was that fussed. When they slipped into the third tier, people commented on the storied old side falling on hard times, but they weren't that moved. And now that they might return to the top-flight after a 16-year absence, there's a general feeling that yeah, it'd be alright. There's plenty of history there, at least.

READ MORE: What Becomes of Play-off Final Winners in the Premier League

The team possesses no big names. Boss Carlos Carvalhal was a relative unknown outside his native Portugal, and remains largely anonymous outside Hillsborough. Clearly, however, he has done a superb job to take the Owls to the brink of a top-flight return.

Player-wise they are a mixed bag: there are former top-flight also-rans like Barry Bannan and on-loan Aiden McGeady; a small Portuguese contingent; and English journeymen like Tom Lees and Kieran Lee. There's also a sizeable Celtic diaspora.


Everyone loves Steve "The Belly" Bruce // EPA Images/Lindsey Parnaby

Hull City, on the other hand, were only relegated 12 months ago. It's hard not to love Steve Bruce like one loves an ageing dog or a bloke at the corner of the pub you've never spoken to, and his record in the Championship is good.

Much of the team has Premier League experience, including Uruguay international Abel Hernández. He's bagged 21 goals this season – joint-second in the Championship – and will be tough to retain if the Tigers lose on Saturday. Goalkeeper Allan McGregor was ever present this term, while Curtis Davies was also part of a defence that leaked only 35 goals.

It's tempting to favour Hull for their big-time experience and the presence of many more established players. But Wednesday were in strong form late in the season, and saw off an excellent (albeit knackered) Brighton in the semis. League form is finely poised: they drew both games during the season, with a 0-0 at the KC Stadium and a 1-1 draw at Hillsborough. The play-offs may be inherently unfair, but an equally tense battle to make the Premier League would be great for the neutrals on Saturday.

Could we just ask for a few more goals, lads? A 5-5 draw followed by penalties wouldn't hurt anyone – except perhaps the hysterical fans.