It’s that time of year again, when Wembley fills with expectant supporters for the play-off finals. Over the course of Saturday, Sunday and Monday, three matches will be played that decide who will be in what division next season, and it’s time to have a look forward to those three matches, starting with Monday’s match between Stockport County and Rochdale. Stockport and Rochdale may well be comparatively near neighbours geographically, but whilst one of them has never been promoted, the other has had a tumultuous fifteen years or so, which resulted in the near closure of the club and an eventual take-over by the club’s own supporters. They’re now trying to undo the damage that was wreaked upon them by the previous owners, and their place in the play-offs is no small surprise in itself.
Stockport County vs Rochdale: If you’re under the age of about 40, you won’t be able to remember Rochdale playing in any division other than the basement of the Football League, though whether you call it Division Four, Division Three or League Two probably depends upon your age. Since being relegated into Division Four in 1973, they have barely troubled either end of the table (although they did have a close brush with the drop in 2004, and managed a play-off place in 2003. Celebrating their centenary appears to have had a beneficial effect upon them. They changed their kit from blue to their original kit of black & white stripes, and the new colours have been lucky for them, taking them up to a final position of fifth place in the league. In the play-off semi-finals, they beat Darlington on penalties after drawing 3-3 on aggregate. Stockport County’s glory days, such as they were, began in 1997 when they won promotion into what is now the Championship. They stayed there for five years before being relegated back, but the financial cost to a club that has always struggled for crowds in the shadow of the two Manchester giants almost sent them to the wall. Now owned by their Supporters Trust, promotion would be a bonus in a season in which the main aim has been to secure the long term future of the club. Stockport had to sell Edgeley Park to stay alive, and have this season launched an ambitious project to buy the stadium back. Their finish in fourth place in League Two was this season’s biggest surprise in a division in which, perhaps unsurprisingly, money talked very loudly. They beat Wycombe Wanderers 2-1 on aggregate to book their place at Wembley.
Prediction: The momentum appears to be with Rochdale going into Monday’s match, but Stockport have the players and did the double over Dale, so I’m going for Stockport.
Doncaster Rovers vs Leeds United: In League One, there’s another local derby displaced to north-west London between two clubs that have sailed close to the brink in recent years, though the ways in which they did this couldn’t be much more different. Doncaster Rovers have always been strugglers, with the town’s close proximity to Sheffield having a negative effect on their home crowds. Indeed, the very fact that they are here at all is little short of miraculous. They were relegated from the Football League in 1998, and shortly afterwards the main stand at their old stadium, Belle Vue, mysteriously caught fire. The club’s chairman, Ken Richardson, would later be imprisoned for setting it on fire himself in the hope of claiming the insurance money, but the fire almost did for Doncaster Rovers. It took them five years to get back into the Football League (through the Conference play-offs), and were promoted again in 2004. In 2006, they beat Manchester City and Aston Villa on the way to the quarter-finals of the League Cup, and moved to a new stadium, the Keepmoat Stadium, in January 2007. They finished in third place in League One this season, missing out on the second automatic promotion place with a defeat at Cheltenham Town on the last day of the season. This didn’t seem to bother them in the play-offs, however, as a 5-1 win against Southend United sent them to Wembley. Leeds United could have fallen a lot further than they have in the six years since their Champions League semi-final against Milan. Last summer, they were lucky to not be demoted to League Two or expelled from the Football League altogether, and the fifteen point deduction that they suffered was a compromise to keep them where they were rather than the arbitrary punishment that they have claimed. Had they kept the fifteen points, they would have been automatically promoted this season and, as it was, their strange exit from administration allowed them to spend heavily on new players this season, at least by League Two standards. They scored injury time goals in both legs of their play-off semi-finals against Carlisle United, and with the boat successfully steadied by Gary McAllister after the sudden departure of Dennis Wise to Newcastle in the new year, their position in the play-offs was comfortably obtained.
Prediction: It’s difficult to see past Leeds winning this. They still carry sufficient arrogance to believe that promotion is somehow their automatic right, and Doncaster have already shown their capability of blowing it when the pressure’s on in failing to go up automatically.
Bristol City vs Hull City: Or, the battle to see who will finish bottom of next year’s Premier League. Bristol City’s achievement this season has been exceptional. Promoted from League One last season, they have consistently confounded their critics in holding onto their place in the play-off positions and then refusing to be cowed by the obduracy of Neil Warnock and Crystal Palace, beating them home and away in the play-off semi-finals. Like many of the other teams involved in this year’s play-offs, Bristol City’s happiest days and saddest days have often not been too far apart. They were promoted into the First Division in 1976 and stayed there until 1980, having the temerity to finish in thirteenth place in 1979. They then, however, collapsed spectacularly, managing to get themselves relegated to the Fourth Division in record time and declaring themselves bankrupt in 1982. They then spent much of the 1980s struggling to get back on their feet, before promotion to the Second Division in 1990. Bristol City have always found themselves in a strange situation, with aspirations of greater things and a feeling of under-achievement that has been emphasised by their inability to break free from their local rivals, Bristol Rovers. Victory tomorrow would open up a little breathing space, at least. For Hull City, a few seasons in the top division would be a start. Kingston-upon-Hull remains the biggest British city never to have hosted top division football, and Hull may never have a better chance than tomorrow to achieve it. The club has had a largely anonymous history, rattling around somewhere between the Second and Fourth Divisions, but it was a financial crisis that gave them the impetus to improve their fortunes. In 1999 in looked likely that they would drop out of the Football League altogether, but an escape masterminded by Warren Joyce saw them safe, and in 2002 they left their dilapidated Boothferry Park stadium for the 25,000 capacty Kingston Communications Stadium. They were promoted from Division Three in 2004 and then from League One the following season and, although they narrowly avoided relegation last season, and this season they have been exceptional, climbing into the play-off places and threatening to snatch an automatic promotion place. In the semi-finals of the play-offs, they demolished Watford 6-1 over two legs.
Prediction: Bristol City only scored one more goal than they conceded this season and Hull have been the form team in the Championship over the last few weeks, leading me to believe that Hull will prove to be too strong for Bristol City this season.