Saturday, 29 May 2010

Play-offs would've stopped English football's greatest story

I overheard a conversation about Nottingham Forest last night. A casual observer asked if Forest had finished third in this season's Championship, why Blackpool, three places and nine points behind them would be in the Premier League instead of them next season?

The Tangerines, who on the last day of the season clinched the final playoff place, beat two teams in a knockout competition at the end of a rigorous campaign. Basically, Blackpool came into form at the right time as Forest got tired. The team who finish sixth often win promotion. When it was explained to the observer why the playoffs existed, "money" was the predictable, but truthful answer given.

Which reminds me. In 1977, Forest also secured third place in the same division to claim their place among the elite. There were no playoffs then. The rest, as they say, is history.

What came next was one of the most extraordinary ascents to the game's summit ever seen.
Brian Clough's men stormed all before them: signing Peter Shilton and Kenny Burns in the close-season, Forest went on to complete an astonishing League Championship and League Cup double followed by a successful defence of the League Cup and the first of two successive European Cups. Trevor Francis became the first million pound player and journeymen like John Robertson, Archie Gemmill and Tony Woodcock became football's biggest stars.
I'm not saying Billy Davies' charges would have done the same thing had they been promoted, but it's highly questionable if the extraordinary events would've unfolded for Cloughie's men had they been forced to play three more games at the end of a tough campaign, and just to earn the promotion they'd already won on merit.
There aren't relegation playoffs anymore as defeat for the vanquished is too painful, the drama too acute. Remember the riots at the Chelsea v Middlesbrough game at Stamford Bridge all those years ago? The conventional wisdom is that playoffs should be about a positive prize - promotion to the higher league. And that tired metaphor about the Premier League's Promised Land.
But given the history of Nottingham Forest, I am not sure about the play-offs at all.

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  1. I love them for two reasons. Oxford won them this year and Swindon lost at Wembley. Bliss

  2. I was a big fan of the play-offs until about 5pm two Saturdays ago….
    I think we need to be careful not to over-state Nottingham Forest’s achievements this season.
    Cardiff City secured their place in the play-offs with two games to spare.
    Dave Jones fielded what was practically a reserve side for the final game of the regular season against Derby County. Jones had worked miracles with a tiny squad and virtually no money all season, and the last thing he needed was to have key players injured before the play-offs.
    Let’s assume that the Cardiff City first team would’ve beaten Derby on the final day. Let’s also assume that if 3rd place meant automatic promotion, the players would’ve pushed a little bit harder in the drawn game at Reading, the fourth from last game of the season. And let’s pretend that the televised 0-0 encounter against Nottingham Forest in early April really was a promotion decider. It would’ve been a completely different type of game, the dynamics would’ve been completely different, and who could’ve predicted the outcome?
    My point is that once teams know they’re in the play-offs, they take their foot off the gas a bit (or a lot, in Cardiff City’s case).
    None of us can assume with any certainty that Nottingham Forest were the third best team in the league. Once they realised they’d done enough to reach the play-offs, and knowing the top two were far too far ahead to be caught, it was bound to have a psychological impact, even if Billy Davies urged them to treat each game with utmost seriousness. We cannot say with any certainty who the third best team in the league really was.
    Play-off matches are nearly always entertaining, with inevitable tense moments of drama that give World Cup semi-finals and finals a run for their money.
    I wasn’t too downcast when Cardiff City lost in the final. If I’m honest, I know full well that the club would’ve been a complete disaster in the Premier League next season. All four defenders are often far too slow to clear the ball.
    At least eight players would need replacing, and other names would need to be brought in to give the squad the depth it needs to compete at Premier League level. It is a huge ask, even with the new investment that’s been announced in the last few days. I’d rather have an extra year in the Championship and make a proper fight of the Premier League when the squad is deeper and these weaknesses have been addressed.
    Aside from the entertainment and financial benefits of the play-offs, as a matter of principle I don’t like them. However, an inevitable consequence of getting rid of them in a big league like The Championship would be that a huge number of teams would have at least five matches at the end of every season with absolutely nothing to play for. They wouldn’t be able to finish in the top three, and there’s no way they’d be relegated. As West Brom and Newcastle have shown this season (and this is by no means a rarity), the gulf between the top few teams and the rest is often absolutely enormous, far more so than in Brian Clough’s time.
    I acknowledge that play-offs in some sports are necessary. In Premier League Snooker, for example, without the play-off system there would be matches of no consequence televised on Thursday nights on Sky Sports for weeks on end during the autumn months.
    In rugby (both codes) the league title is decided by a play-off system, including for the first time this season the Magners League. In something as significant as the league title itself, this cannot be right, regardless of the financial incentives and dramas the play-offs bring.
    Winning a league title is special, because it really is the ultimate test. Any team can have a fluky cup run, but to play every team home and away and have the highest number of points proves beyond doubt that you are the best. The Premier League must never, ever follow rugby’s example (I don’t think it ever would). It stinks of commercial desperation.
    However, when it comes to promotion issues, I’m afraid the play-offs are here to stay.


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