As 2016 draws to a close we asked The Agony & The Ecstasy author, Richard Foster, to give us an overview of how this season's Play-Off runners and riders are shaping up.
As we have heard on countless occasions all three divisions of the Football League are a slog. The relentless schedule of 46 matches, which barely offers a chance to rest and recuperate throughout the season, is a test of strength and depth as much as it is of quality. Then of course there is the added dimension of the Play-Offs for a dozen clubs who have to gather themselves for the vicissitudes of this perpetually dramatic version of Russian roulette that reach their climax at Wembley in May.
With the mid-point for each division almost reached, it is time to assess the likely contenders in what will be the 30th anniversary of their introduction and those that might be dreading it and others who will be relishing the prospect. Looking at the tables from this stage of last season nine of the clubs who qualified for the Play-Offs were already in the top 8 of their respective divisions and this is a regular pattern so it is safe to assume the majority of this year’s semi-finalists are already there or thereabouts. By contrast last season’s surprise packages Barnsley were rock bottom of League One and AFC Wimbledon were beginning their rise up the League Two table from 13th and so Shrewsbury and Mansfield should take heart, all is not lost.
Starting with the Championship, Newcastle seemed destined to return to the Premier League at the first time of asking and as their only experience of the Play-Offs was a semi-final defeat to Sunderland they will be desperately keen to go up automatically. The same will be true of Brighton who have suffered three semi-final failures in the last four years. Reading and Leeds are teams that both have an unhappy record, having contested three Finals each but still no promotions. By contrast Huddersfield have prospered with three promotions from eight attempts but they have never been involved in Championship Play-Offs. Meanwhile all of Derby’s six appearances have been in the second tier where they have gained one solitary promotion. Sheffield Wednesday will have painful memories of last year’s Final loss to Hull but will hope to bounce back like Middlesbrough did the previous year and they would want to emulate their only other Play-Offs experience, a win in 2005. Both Birmingham and Norwich have secured one Play-Offs promotion, with the Blues beating the Canaries back in 2002 whilst Norwich beat Middlesbrough in 2015.
In League One Scunthorpe have a reasonable record with two promotions out of seven in 1999 and 2009. The same cannot be said of Sheffield United who will have a morbid fear of the Play-Offs having the joint worst record of eight attempts, four Finals and still not one promotion. Bolton and Bradford have both notched up two successful campaigns whilst Rochdale are still to taste triumph in their three campaigns. Peterborough boast the best record in this division with three promotions from four attempts and will be keen to revenge their only Play-Offs loss to date against Leyton Orient in the 2014 semi-final. Fleetwood Town are one of only five teams in the League who have a 100% record after their 2014 success over Burton. Southend have clocked up two promotions and beat Wycombe on penalties in their last Final appearance in 2015.
League Two leaders Plymouth suffered at the hands of AFC Wimbledon last year but did win their only other Final back in 1995. Carlisle are relative novices having lost both their semi-finals to date. Doncaster’s finest hour in their recent history was their victory over Leeds in 2008 League One Final, which is their only appearance. Portsmouth lost out to Plymouth in the semi-finals last season, which mirrored their only other appearance in 1993 when they also lost 3-2 on aggregate. Luton’s only experience of the Play-Offs ended in a semi-final defeat to Crewe in 1997. Wycombe won their first Play-Offs in 1994 under Martin O’Neill but have failed in their subsequent three attempts. Blackpool are still the only club out of 96 to have been involved since 1987 to have won the Play-Offs in all three divisions. Barnet would need to improve from their three semi-final failures whilst Cambridge would want to replicate their solitary triumph in 1990 when they became the first team to win a Wembley Play-Offs Final courtesy of a Dion Dublin goal.
There will be the odd club that appears out of nowhere to appear in the Play-Offs picture, which is one of the main attractions of the system as it provides a route to a successful season for nearly every club at this stage of the season. As the race hots up over the coming months nerves will become frayed and the hopes of fans realised and dashed in equal measure. Welcome to The Agony & The Ecstasy.