For our friends in West Ham, the potential trip to Wembley is no more than a trip across London (a trek though it may be), and accommodation probably won’t be an issue. For all the other runners and riders, Playoff day could well involve early starts, long train journeys – which themselves could well be stressful affairs depending on the result – or a costly overnight stay in whatever rooms are available, often at inflated prices. Booking early could save you a few quid on the train or hotel, but who has the best chance of getting to use their tickets? Let’s have a look at how the playoff picture currently stands.
Four teams have secured their places in the nPower Playoffs, and as of tonight the first leg of West Ham v Cardiff will be under the belt. West Ham will be considered clear favourites going into the tie: they finished the season strongly, and only missed out on automatic promotion by a couple of points, and should be feeling pretty confident of returning to the top flight at the first attempt. In Carlton Cole, Kevin Nolan and Ricardo Vaz Te they have a core of players who have played Premiership football previously and have found their shooting boots during the year.
Cardiff may have some trouble forgetting past experiences: they were beaten at Wembley by Blackpool two years ago and by Championship winners Reading at this stage last year. However, they are unbeaten in their last ten matches and have already beaten the Hammers once this season, and with a fully fit squad are in a great position to go all the way.
In the other semi, Blackpool and Birmingham know all about life in the Premiership, and their two legs should be very tight indeed. During the season Birmingham have the advantage, earning a 2-2 draw at Bloomfield Road and picking up a 3-0 win at home. Both sides have relied on a mix of veterans and exciting young players through the season, and there is very little to choose between the two.
The second automatic spot is a showdown between Sheffields Wednesday and United, but as both face teams who are already relegated (Wycombe and Exeter respectively) Wednesday should be confident of heading up the easy way. That leaves MK Dons and Huddersfield secure in fourth and fifth, then a final-day shootout between Stevenage, Notts County and Carlisle, who are separated by only a point. Stevenage has the advantage of a much greater goal difference, but it’ll be a nervy finish for all three, one of whom will face either of the in-form Sheffield sides in the playoff semis.
It’s shaping up to be a frantic final day in League Two as Crawley, Torquay and Southend fight for the final automatic spot, with Torquay visiting a Hereford side playing for their Football League survival, while Southend take on already-relegated Macclesfield and Crawley travel to Accrington, who have little more to play for than pride. Meanwhile Crewe Alexandra still need a point from their last fixture against Aldershot and will hope that local rivals Port Vale will give them a hand by beating their only remaining challengers Oxford United. Whoever takes the chequered flag will face an uphill battle against two well-organised and confident sides.
So if you’re following one of these teams and feel confident of a trip to the big game, you can pick up some cheap hotels in London if you know where to look. Otherwise, we’ll be following every kick from now until the end of May, when the marathon is over and the worthy victors decided.