The Agony and the Ecstasy of the Football League play-offs

There’s always next season’ my mom used to tell me.All my hopes for the season, all the dreams I’d had of my team sealing promotion and lifting a trophy on the grandest stage of them all had all been taken away from me in one foul swoop.

A last minute goal from Simeon Jackson, a goal riddled with controversy in front of 40,000 jubilant Gillingham supporters had seen the Gills make an instant return to league one and had left me, along with 25,000 other proud salopians wondering what more we could have done to finally seal a return to the third division.

That sinking feeling was all too familiar for us; two seasons before we had witnessed our team surrender a goal lead to lose to Bristol Rovers. The play-off blues was fast becoming our addiction, would we ever be ever to seal promotion and more to the point, what would the next season have to offer us. So like every fan who has gone home and been told my their family that there is always next season, I have to ask, is there?

On the face of things the end of season gamble that is the play-offs seem like a blessing, more matches means more money for the club, a potential trip to Wembley offers the same reward and if your luck is in a promotion could well be on the cards. However when we look deeper at the situation we see that the play offs could well be much more of a curse than a blessing for those unlucky enough not to seal themselves that treasured final play off spot.

The teams who manage to progress through the nerve tangling semi-finals and then seal promotion in the final get a day they will never forget, they earn an unforgettable victory in front of thousands of their fans, but what about those who lose? Losing in the play offs can have a serious effect on a team in terms of finance, morale and fortunes.

During the first month of pre season teams will be sorting out contracts, seeing who they can keep for the following season and letting go who they don’t need. However, if your team are in the play offs you don’t have the opportunity to do this, managers will be unsure as to what division their teams will be in so offering players a contract could be a dangerous ploy if a player isn’t good enough for the division above. On the other hand you run the risk of losing a player who has been instrumental in your play-off push and they may well begin to question the clubs loyalty to them if other clubs come sniffing. Getting into the play-offs also makes this more likely, lower league teams receive a lot more attention and media coverage than what they normally do and this garners an interest in players which may not have been there originally.

Then there is the teams morale. A defeat in front of 70,000 fans can have a huge effect on a team, especially if they narrowly missed out on automatic promotion only to throw it with 90 minutes to go. Rebounding from this soul crushing experience as proved a lot harder than people may think. Many would assume that losing in the play off final makes you a sure fire bet to be challenging for promotion but as many fans will tell you this is not always the case. In the last six years alone in the Championship, two of the teams who have faced defeat in the play off final have not been able to come back the next year and have ultimately felt the disappointment of relegation. These two teams were Leeds and Sheffield United, in 2006 and 2010 respectively. Swindon suffered a similar fate in 2010. After being defeated by Millwall in the play off final by a solitary goal, the Wiltshere club crumbled under pressure the following season, finishing bottom of League one.

Other teams have felt the cruel end of a season that is relegation after repeated attempts to win the play-offs have seemingly had a long term effect on their future, Lincoln and Preston North End being fine examples of this, after both managing to make the play-offs six out of seven seasons, they eventually couldn’t keep going and slipped out of the division the wrong way.

This isn’t to say its all doom and gloom for those who taste the bitterest defeat of all in the final. Some teams have rebounded from defeat well, kept their squads together and sealed an automatic promotion the next season.  Some teams have also gone on to have a season bite at the apple, going to the play off final in consecutive seasons and doing the business second time around. Millwall being a prime example of such an incident. They lost 3-2 to Scunthorpe in 2008, only to defeat Swindon 1-0 a year later.

It’s not just the teams who make the final who suffer the play-off blues though, four of the twenty teams who had made the play offs in League Two over the last five seasons have since faced relegation whereas only five have achieved promotion, a very fine margin.

Finally lets spare a thought for the ‘bottlers’, the teams who have become seasoned pro’s at throwing away the play-offs, re-entering the mix every year but still failing to get the job done. You all know who you are, Cardiff, MK Dons, up until this season my own team Shrewsbury Town. These teams will either find success sooner or later or years of failed attempts will see them be over taken by the teams around them and ultimately they will fade into obscurity.

So to all the fans still involved in this years play-off lottery, I wish you all the best of luck. This is not some prophetic message of doom for the coming years; just don’t be prepared to be swapping those tears for cheers straight away. Those play-offs blues are quite addictive you know.

You can follow me on Twitter @LiamHoofe


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