Alas, the end of another season has arrived. But fear not, the play-offs are here to make the wait between the last day of the season and the opening match of Euro 2012 that little bit shorter. As ever, they are difficult to predict. Sky throws all of the clichés that they can at us: the excitement, the drama, the unpredictability – repeat until bored and/or blue in the face.
Sheffield United, who finished nine points clear of the rest of the pack in third place, remain favourites at a best-priced 2/1 with most bookmakers despite having their top goalscorer, Ched Evans, jailed after being charged with rape.
Evans, who scored 29 league goals for the Blades, was sentenced to five years in prison. It is a massive loss for Danny Wilson’s side; the equivalent would be to take Jordan Rhodes away from Huddersfield Town. Without the former Welsh international, United won none of their remaining three games, drawing two and losing the other, to throw gift 2nd place, and promotion, to their rivals, Sheffield Wednesday. This would suggest that losing Evans has had a detrimental effect on squad confidence and morale or that the side struggled without their leading marksman; possibly both.
Their opponents, Stevenage, on the other hand, made it into the play-offs on goal difference, edging out Notts County by a dozen goals to extend their season by another two games at least. It continues a superb few years for the club, who enjoyed successive promotions under Graham Westley before he tried to save the sinking ship at Preston North End. Victory in the League Two play-offs last season gives them the know-how at this stage. They are, understandably, the long-shots in this four-team battle and Gary Smith’s team are 4/1 at most bookmakers for a third promotion on the bounce.
Despite Sheffield United finishing seventeen points ahead of them, they managed to take four points from the Blades in the two league meetings this season; winning 2-1 at home and coming away from Brammall Lane with a 2-2 draw, though they were 2-0 up at one stage. That could give the Boro a slight psychological edge heading into the games but, as Sky will no doubt tell us, anything can happen.
Also looking to make it to Wembley are Huddersfield and MK Dons, who do battle in the other play-off semi-final. Rather than the stereotypical caveman football, both sides play good football and would be a welcome addition to the Championship. It promises to be a tight game; both league encounters ended 1-1 and just one point separated the sides in the league standings with Huddersfield leaping above their rivals on the last day of the season to have the ‘advantage’ of playing the second leg at home.
The Dons come into the tie having lost their last game of the season 1-0 at home to Walsall whilst Huddersfield brushed aside Yeovil 2-0. Before that, though, Karl Robinson’s side, who can be found at 11/4 with BetVictor and Ladbrokes, had won their last four games and are unbeaten in seven on the road. They are difficult to break down and will be a tough test for Huddersfield and vice versa.
Since they returned to League One, MK have been a very competitive side, finishing in the play-offs in three of their four seasons at this level, and have had aspirations of becoming a Championship club for a while. These dreams are yet to be realised but Robinson has his men geared up for another push after missing out in the semi-finals of the play-offs last year to the eventual winners, Peterborough United.
Town had ambitions of going up automatically this season but it could be argued that their historic, and debatable, unbeaten run played a big part in that. There were, ultimately, too many draws and an inability to close out matches really cost Huddersfield a serious chance of automatic promotion. They threatened at times but their season has culminated in a top-six finish for the third season in a row. After missing out in the last two seasons, Simon Grayson’s side, 11/4 with Coral and Bet365, will look to put that right this time around.
Millwall beat them in the semi-finals of 2009/10 and went on to win promotion to the Championship before Town went one step further last season before going down 3-0 to Peterborough after a manic six minutes at Old Trafford. There can be no greater motivation than coming so close and yet being so far away.
Despite their loftier league positions, Sheffield United and Huddersfield have failed to impress in recent weeks which makes an MK Dons v Stevenage final a tempting 10/3 with BetVictor. And, as much as the majority of football fans in the country would hate to see it, MK Dons winning promotion at 11/4 would be where my money goes on this particular occasion.