Paradise or purgatory: Championship Play-Off Final is the greatest and cruellest tie

The last five Championship Play-Off Finals have produced a measly five goals. It doesn’t take a budding Einstein to work out that is a solitary goal per game, a figure that is far below the norm.

By comparison the last five World Cup finals have harvested 12 goals. Hell, the last five Champions League finals have lavished us with 20 goals, exactly four times its Play-Off equivalent.

There is no recently bias here incidentally. Nine from the last fifteen Championship Play-Off Finals have finished 1-0.

As last weekend’s FA Cup Final painfully illustrated, however, goals are not always the most accurate barometer from which to gauge excitement. Even if Aston Villa v Derby this Bank Holiday Monday continues the trend for low-scoring affairs there will still be no doubt in my mind that the Championship Play-Off Final is the greatest one-off game in the world.

To others it is the ‘richest game in the world’, a commonly used and perfectly apt moniker given that even a conservative estimate puts £170m into Villa or Derby’s coffers should they emerge victorious at Wembley. That amount rises to £280m should the team celebrating on Monday afternoon manage to avoid relegation next term.

These are undeniably colossal and transformative sums. Perhaps it is understandable that so much emphasis is placed upon the financial rewards each May as a Premier League season ends and all eyes turn to who will be joining the top flight throng once the summer passes.

For me though personally money is possibly the least interesting aspect to a contest I will be watching entirely as a neutral.

Put it this way, I won’t be sitting on the very edge of my sofa, chewing my nails to the quick, and utterly engrossed by the Shakespearean drama playing out before me because a late deciding strike will mean that Frank Lampard or Dean Smith gets a more substantial transfer kitty in the weeks to come and better yet affords him a shopping spree in an executive store. No, it’s everything else that makes this game so unmissable. The priceless things.

For this year’s participants – just like every year – the Championship Play-Off Final is the summation of ten months of planning, dreaming, toiling, sustained relative success, and travelling to Brentford away on a Tuesday evening. Win and all of this is handsomely validated. Lose and it amounts to nothing at all. It is paradise or purgatory; stakes so extreme as to be perverse, and it is decided over ninety short minutes where a cruel deflection or freak wonder-goal can easily dictate the contrasting Sliding Doors futures for each side.

Win and a bejewelled promised land beckons with an elevation in status that positively impacts upon every facet of a supporter’s life. Your team is on Match of the Day and all round your club is more prominent in the media to the extent where your girlfriend’s folks now know where you go every Saturday. They get it now: you go and watch that household name midfielder so recently signed from La Liga and you do so at Old Trafford or Anfield or the Emirates.

Lose and your beloved heads straight back to go and worse with a hangover that often negatively effects form and a big chunk of next season. Lose and your club’s best player is plausibly signed by the team that has just dashed your long-held aspirations.

Concerning the hangover that routinely occurs it should be stated that Aston Villa deserve a huge amount of credit for bucking that trend. Last May their players lay desolate on the Wembley turf having endured a final-fence fall to Fulham and it is rare fortitude indeed to reach that fence again at the first time of asking. Still though, it is indisputable how devastating a Play-Off Final defeat can be, to an individual, club, and town. When Sunderland’s Michael Gray missed a critical penalty in the 1998 shoot-out he was taken in by manager Peter Reid while elsewhere there are pitch-side tears that lead to summer-long depressions.

Are fans being priced out of the Championship as well as the Premier League? The angry Bolton fan in the video below certainly believes so…

It is, in short reality TV at its most horrific and manifesting itself via the medium of sport. It is agony or ecstasy; a heightened drama that reveals the very pinnacle of what we as supporters and they as players are prepared to withstand for a shot at glory. And it is for precisely these reasons why the fixture has a history of low-scoring contests and it is precisely for these reasons why the game is uniformly intoxicating and completely compelling.

It is the magnitude of what is at stake that is the spectacle.

An easy argument could be made that the World Cup final trumps its Play-Off nephew for all of the above. After all history is on the line there; a page for a country to own forever in the record books.

Such thinking though is disingenuous as it discounts the all-or-nothing ethos of a single battle to win a much larger war. Last year Croatia lost 4-2 to France in the most high-profile sporting encounter on the planet. They didn’t seem substantially upset a mere few days later during their homecoming. Pride at their accomplishment rightfully was the over-riding emotion.

There will be no parade for the losers this Monday. Their long, hard and brilliant campaign will ultimately count for nothing at all.