The 2016 Play-Offs were possibly the cruellest of all. For those who argue about their fundamental unfairness and the inequity of the system there is plenty of supporting evidence. After 30 years, this is the first one in which none of the top ranked Play-Offs teams has qualified for a Final. To add fuel to the fire all three suffered missing out on automatic promotion by a whisker, thwarted at the death by the narrowest of margins.
In the Championship Brighton lost out on goal difference to Middlesbrough, whom they faced in their last regular league match and could only draw. Walsall were squeezed out by Burton Albion in League One by a solitary point and most heartbreaking of all, Accrington Stanley were denied by an added time winner by Bristol Rovers in the very last game.
The accumulated gap between these three vanquished clubs and their semi-final conquerors was a massive 35 points, which is no consolation to those who feel the anguish and pain of their clear superiority over 46 matches being wiped out in the cut and thrust of the two-legged semi-finals. And yet to counterbalance these tales of woe there are some extraordinarily positive and life-affirming stories.
AFC Wimbledon completed a quite remarkable rise up the leagues in securing their sixth promotion in the space of 13 seasons. From their first-ever match in the Combined Counties League, the tenth tier of the pyramid, in August 2002 they will kick-off their campaign in the third tier of English football this coming August. The delicious backdrop to this heady rise, which surpasses the ascent of the original Wimbledon FC to the First Division back in the 1980s, is the prospect of meeting their nemesis in the shape of MK Dons as league rivals next year.
Their victory over Plymouth Argyle in the Final was fully deserved as the impressive Lyle Taylor’s accomplished finish set them on the way before Ade Akinfenwa delivered what may prove to be the perfect swan-song to his AFC Wimbledon career with his penalty in 100th minute to wrap up the game. That this match was played out in front of nearly 58,000 spectators - the second highest for a fourth tier Play-Offs and higher than the previous day’s League One Final - clearly shows that the popularity of the Play-Offs is alive and kicking.
Saturday’s Championship Final saw Hull return to the Premier League at the first time of asking, a match that was lit up by Mohamed Diame’s exceptional strike midway through the second half. Weirdly, in the post-match interviews Carlos Carvalhal appeared the happier manager as he rightly praised the magnificent support the team had received from 40,000 raucous Wednesdayites throughout the game and long afterwards. Their show of support in wake of defeat was as impressive as it was rare. Whilst Steve Bruce was relatively downbeat, uncertain whether he will continue at Hull despite becoming the first manager to achieve four promotions to the Premier League.
The best story came in the League One Final where Barnsley achieved the most remarkable renaissance since Iain Dowie coined the word “Bouncebackability” 12 years ago after Palace’s promotion from the fringe of relegation at Christmas. The Tykes outdid that as they recovered from being rock bottom in early December to become the only side to win a Play-Offs Final from that position. Added to this, Paul Heckingbottom took over after Lee Johnson upped sticks to go to Bristol City in February when Barnsley were 12th in the table. In his second care-taking role at Oakwell, Heckingbottom had already taken them to Wembley when they won Football League Trophy the month before he guided them to an accomplished win against Millwall.
That Final was lit up by Adam Hammill’s superb strike in the 18th minute, which even surpassed Diame’s the day before, and established Barnsley’s superiority following Ashley Fletcher’s clever finish in only the second minute. Fletcher was a danger all afternoon and comparisons with his Manchester United peer Marcus Rashford suggest he could have a bright future. Millwall could not cope with the early tempo of a Barnsley side brimming with confidence and even though Beevers pegged one back in the first half, there was an inevitability about Barnsley’s third although quite how the smallest player on the pitch, Isgrove was allowed to head in from a corner will remain a mystery.
Barnsley’s extraordinary triumph was slightly tarnished by the ugly scenes that followed the third goal when Millwall fans in the upper tier confronted their Yorkshire counterparts. But nothing should be allowed to take away from Heckingbottom’s achievements and in any other season he and Neil Ardley would surely be considered the managers of the year were it not for Claudio Ranieri. For the vast majority of fans the dramatic denouements enjoyed at Wembley over the last weekend are proof enough that the Play-Offs are an essential and vibrant element of English football.
Fittingly the last words should come from Andy Williamson who after 45 years of service at the Football League retired this year. He was involved in the original decision to introduce the Play-Offs describing them as “the single most beneficial change in the history of the Football League.” It was also his idea to bring the Finals to Wembley, which added gravitas and a sense of occasion. Williamson admitted that there were a few doubters early on “but Richard Foster’s book says it all – it will be ecstasy for some but agony for others!” And we would not have it any other way.