By Richard Foster
It is early March, the evenings are getting lighter, the temperatures are gradually on the rise and winter is almost behind us at last. We will finally know the season has changed for good when the winter high-vis ball is replaced by the plain old white one. So to bastardise Queen Victoria’s favourite poet Alfred Lord Tennyson this is the time that a young person’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of the Play-Offs. There are just a dozen games left across the three divisions and the battle for those twelve spots is about to intensify.
Following on from last year there seems there will be another strong Yorkshire contingent in the mix. In the Championship, potentially joining last year’s beaten finalists Sheffield Wednesday (who admittedly do need to buck their ideas up a tad) both Huddersfield Town and Leeds United are looking strong candidates for one of those Play-Offs berths. If these two do meet then it will be a much-anticipated encounter after the touchline stramash between David Wagner and Garry Monk when the two sides met at the John Smith’s Stadium. Add the spicy tension that always accompanies these post-season games and this has all the makings of a classic confrontation.
Leeds will not be overly keen on their chances considering their history of their previous four failures and any team facing Huddersfield should try to avoid a penalty shoot-out as they are the acknowledged kings, having won all four they have been involved in – 1995, 2004, 2011 & 2012. There is even the remote chance that all four Play-Offs semi-finalists could be from the White Rose county as Barnsley who are in touching distance of Wednesday may repeat last year’s surge into the League One top six from being bottom in December.
Most of those clubs that are straining to get into the frame are showing signs of inconsistency with the exception of Fulham and Preston. Fulham will be keen to rid themselves of being the only London club not to have won a single Play-Offs match in their two previous attempts, while Preston will be dreaming of repeating breaking their duck back in 2015 when they easily beat Swindon 4-0 after a run of nine failures. Or is there an outside chance of the most successful manager in Play-Offs history, Neil Warnock adding Cardiff City as the fourth club he has been in charge of to win the Play-Offs?
In League One there is also a couple of Yorkshire clubs right in the mix with last year’s beaten semi-finalists, Bradford City as well as their conquerors Millwall who fell at the last hurdle. On the back of Billy Sharp’s goals, Sheffield United look likely to avoid their regular Play-Offs humiliation by gaining automatic promotion. By contrast Fleetwood Town are one of only five clubs boasting a 100% record in the entire league. Meanwhile the chances of another club with a perfect record, AFC Wimbledon repeating their League Two triumph over Plymouth seems a long way off but they did achieve a similar late run under Neal Ardley last year.
Scunthorpe’s recent drop-off in form has seen their grip on an automatic spot weakened and the Play-Offs are looming and if they do they would be one of the most seasoned practitioners with seven attempts yielding two promotions including the latest in 2009 where they beat Millwall in the Final, a fate that the Lions experienced last year against Barnsley. Just outside the top six are Southend and Peterborough who are amongst the more successful clubs, with five promotions between them. Perhaps the most interesting of the chasing pack are Oxford United who are one of only five clubs currently in the Football League to have never participated in the Play-Offs.
In League Two there is also another club that are looking to take their Play-Offs bow, Exeter City under Paul Tidsdale, the second longest-serving manager in English football. If both Exeter and Oxford make their respective Play-Offs then that will mean 98 clubs will have competed in the Play-Offs. While Doncaster look unlikely to need to test their 100% record as automatic promotion is probable, Plymouth seem to be heading towards a repeat of last year’s ultimately fruitless foray and maybe even another match-up with Portsmouth who they overcame in the semi-finals. Of the others in with a chance there are relatively few with too much experience, the seven clubs occupying 4th to 10th having only competed 13 times between them over the thirty-year history.
The next two months will involve plenty of jostling for position until the picture clears in late April/ early May as the twelve semi-finalists are decided. As ever, there are bound to be certain clubs who enter the Play-Offs with a spring in their step, as Barnsley did last season whereas others will be treading warily having seen the chance of automatic promotion slip from their grasp, just as Accrington Stanley did in the very last minute of their league campaign. Then over the last two weekends in May the fate of the six finalists will be decided at Wembley with all the accompanying agony and ecstasy.