Looking at the four clubs involved in this year’s playoffs for the final promotion spot, West Ham United have the look of a Premiership outfit vying with three second-tier competitors. The Hammers however must be kicking themselves for needing the playoff lottery ticket at all. Having started the season with the tag of hot favourites and a squad boasting plenty of established Premier League stars, West Ham have had to settle for third place behind champions Reading and then Southampton, who clinched successive promotions against the odds. Should West Ham manage to successfully negotiate the playoff minefield the signs are good that they could quickly re-establish themselves as Premier League stalwarts. Carlton Cole, Kevin Nolan, Mark Noble and Rob Green are just some of the names within their ranks that are already proven players at the top level. The East London outfit also boast impressive Championship attendance figures with regular crowds over 30,000. They will surely be hoping that promotion will see this figure surge upwards. The new Olympic Stadium too lies in wait to house the faithful. An experienced top-flight manager in Sam Allardyce is the final string to the hammer’s bow. Big Sam though, will surely know that it is not necessarily the team that is most ready for premiership football that gains it, and certainly that finishing third counts for nothing in a playoff showdown.
The playoffs are often labelled unfair due to the fact that a team finishing well off the pace can gain promotion ahead of sides which have outperformed them over the course of the season. Some would say that justice was done last season as Swansea, who finished in third playing attractive football, emerged from the playoffs to take their hard earned Premiership place. 2010 however saw Blackpool spring a surprise and book their spot after finishing sixth in the league. Similarly fifth placed Burnley shot down third placed Sheffield United at Wembley in 2009.
West Ham’s opponents in the first of the semi finals, Cardiff City, are more familiar than most to the playoff hurt. Last season Cardiff lost to Reading in the two-leg semi-final after being undone by Blackpool in the final the previous year. The side from the Welsh capital have been running near the front of the pack in the Championship for a number of years now, also narrowly missing out on a playoff spot in 2008. Cardiff have made steady progress but fans of the Bluebirds have had to look on with envy as bitter rivals City establish themselves as a Premiership side. The positive surely here is that if Swansea can go up and stay up then why not Cardiff? Many neutrals witnessing the heartache for the Welsh side in recent years may like to see them promoted but the playoffs are truly unforgiving and hold respect for neither the league table nor sides with multiple near misses.
Ian Holloway’s Blackpool shocked everyone, most likely including themselves, winning promotion in 2010. The club clearly was not ready for the unexpected step up and despite entertaining football fans up and down the country both with their often superb attacking style and regularly mind-boggling press conferences from Holloway, the Seasiders eventually washed up back in the second tier. This time they take on Birmingham in the second semi-final and while many people would like to see them back, it has to be said that Blackpool are the least likely of the four to survive long term. Bloomfield Road holds only just over 16000 and the club lacks the financial potential of the other sides involved.
After a run of successive draws Birmingham City may have discovered their form at the right time, beating champions Reading on the last day of the league campaign. The Blues are no stranger to Premiership football and should they emerge from the playoffs would without doubt have a fighting chance of stabilising themselves in the top flight. No one would deny boss Chris Hughton his place in the Premiership after a somewhat harsh sacking at Newcastle United. The St Andrews side are in danger of becoming the country’s number one yo-yo team, but with some Premiership experience in the squad and Hong Kong businessman Carson Yeung likely to provide investment, should they go up Birmingham have the next best chance after West Ham of staying there. Promotion would surely taste even sweeter should ex-manager Alex McLeish and bitter rivals Aston Villa drop the other way.
West Ham in third racked up 86 points in the championship this season; that’s 10 more that Birmingham and 11 more than both Blackpool and Cardiff. They scored more than the other three sides and conceded less. They also won five more games than Cardiff. All this though, counts for nothing in the playoff battle; ultimately it will be down to who holds their nerve and a bit of luck in what are sure to be five dramatic games of very high sakes drama. The playoff final itself is often dubbed the “richest game in football”. Promotion to the Premier League party is said to be worth well over £100million, mostly from additional television revenue. Not bad for any promoted team, especially one entering through the back door.
By Francis Johnston