Middlesbrough and Brighton Go To The Wire
The temptation to get a little bit annoyed at the importance of a football match being measured solely in financial terms is obvious, but there are occasions when the stars align in such a way that to not mention what could be riding on the outcome of a match would be somewhat remiss. So let’s get this out of the way very quickly. Tomorrow lunchtime’s Football League Championship match between Middlesbrough and Brighton & Hove Albion will be worth a very large amount of money indeed to the winners. The Premier League’s new television contract kicks in during the summer, and this guarantees an absolute minimum of £97m in prize money for the club that finishes at the bottom of the table next season. Factor in parachute payments, increased commercial opportunities and the like, and we’re talking about a lot of money. A very large amount of money indeed.
Against such a background, it can be easy to forget that there is a football match to play, and that this in itself carries anxieties all of its own. For both Middlesbrough and Brighton, these anxieties are very real, although they come from different places. Middlesbrough have, throughout the course of their history, spent sixty of their one hundred and one seasons of Football League existence in the top flight of the English game and their supporters might be forgiven for thinking that the Premier League is somewhere near their “rightful” place, should such a thing actually exist through any prism other than a purely meritocratic one. This season has been the seventh since the club last competed at that level, and thus far the only return on their six completed seasons has been a solitary place in the play-offs, which was achieved at the end of last season.
For clubs in this position, the reminders of what may happen to those who stagnate once they’ve fallen from grace in this respect. The likes of, to pull three examples at random, Sheffield United, Leeds United or Ipswich Town, for example, may start to resemble effective ghosts of Christmases yet to come, and it would certainly be understandable supporters came to view them with something of a shudder, an organistional personification of what might come to pass if that place back in the top flight isn’t reclaimed. The Football League Championship is a notriously difficult division to get out of in an upwardly direction, and there are certainly no guarantees that, should Middlesbrough fail to get promoted this season, they will be able to match this season’s performance next time around.
Supporters of Brighton & Hove Albion have no such issues relating to previous status. Albion have spent just four seasons in the top flight of English football, which all came together between 1979 and 1983. In more than three decades since their last appearance at that level, to say that the club’s fortunes waxed and waned would be something of an understatement. Run into the ground by uncaring owners during the 1990s, the club came inches from losing its place in the Football League altogether, lost its ground and spent twelve years playing at a wholly unsatisfactory temporary home at the Withdean athletics stadium before finally moving home and finding a way back into the Championship. The club’s teams from that four year period in the early 1980s has come to take on a near-mythical status in the years since then, and generations of supporters have grown up with stories of them ringing in their ears. These supporters now want a piece of that for themselves, to start building new legends and writing new stories in the twenty-first century.
The play-off places, of course, provide something of a buffer for the team that loses this match, but these obviously do not provide any guarantees for them and it has been widely suggested that the psychological damage caused by failing to gain automatic promotion could easily be so great that proceeding through the play-offs might even be more difficult for them than they will be for Hull City, Derby County and Sheffield Wednesday, the three other teams that will make up that particular foursome. Of course, the counter-argument to that might well be that the players are professionals and that they need to be mentally resilient enough to overcome the disappointment of missing out on automatic promotion if they are truly good enough. Professional footballers, however, are ultimately human beings, and overcoming the disappointment of missing out may well only be compounded should they face a tense and skittish atmosphere in their play-off semi-finals. Indeed, it may well be argued that play-offs are worse for a team that has only just missed out on automatic promotion, and not only because the team that finishes just outside the automatic promotion places is that which would have gone up had there been no play-offs in the first place.
The non-league game – at least, the non-league game below the National League – has found a solution which gives a tangible reward in the play-offs to the teams that finished in higher places in the normal league table. The Ryman Southern and Northern Premier Leagues all hold their play-off matches over one leg, with the higher placed of the two teams playing each other at home. This means that the team that finishes in third place in the table is guaranteed home matches for whichever play-off matches they play, while whoever sneaks into the final play-off spot will have to play all of their matches away from home. It’s an elegant resolution to the valid criticism that play-offs reduce the incentive of a club to finish as high up a league table as they possibly can, but it’s unlikely to the point of being practically impossible to imagine that any such idea would be implemented in the Football League. Those Wembley play-offs are far too valuable, and two-legged play-off semi-finals allow for double the number of televised matches. Such revenue streams are hardly likely to ever be scrapped to make play-off fairer on teams that finished just outside of automatic promotion spots.
Both clubs have reason to be fearful for tomorrow, as well as reason to be optimistic. Middlesbrough supporters for who glasses tend to remain half-full can point to Boro’s convincing three-nil win at The Amex Community Stadium shortly before Christmas, a performance that ended Brighton’s astonishing unbeaten run from the start of the season, or to the fact that, since Brighton were promoted back into the Championship in 2011, they have won five and drawn two of their nine league meetings. Brighton supporters might well retort that they are unbeaten on their last three visits to The Riverside Stadium, having won there in April and December 2013 and drawn there last season. The fact that Middlesbrough have the advantage of only needing a draw makes them favourites to pick up the result that they need, but they would likely be foolish to play for a draw, considering the tiny axes upon matches can pivot, and it might even be argued that playing away from home benefits Brighton a little. After all, only two of their five defeats this season have come away from home, the same number of matches that Middlesbrough have lost at home.
Whether out of residual interest over who will be competing in the Premier League next season, the fun of guaranteed schadenfreude – because one of these teams is destined to end tomorrow’s match very, very disappointed indeed – affiliation as a follower or supporter of one of the clubs concerned or because, yes indeed, the very large amounts of money concerned, the television audience for this match will almost certainly be a very high one. And it’s impossible to call. Needing a win and being at home would seem to significantly benefit Middlesbrough, but they’ve drawn their last three matches so their form hasn’t been great over the last couple of weeks or so, and the Football League Championship has a habit of turning up the unexpected at this time of the season. Perhaps all there is that’s left to say is that it’s at times like this that supporters could be forgiven for wondering why they get involved in this knotted stomach inducing tension in the first place. By the middle of tomorrow afternoon, the supporters of one of these two clubs will have remembered again exactly why they do.