OUR LADY OF BLESSED ACCELERATION, DON’T FAIL ME NOW
There is a scene in the Blues Brothers when Jake and Elwood wander into an unknown bar and pass themselves off as the band booked to appear that evening. “Er, what kind of music do you usually have here?” asks Elwood of the barmaid. “Oh, we got both kinds,” she replies. “We got country and western.” And so, seamlessly, to the Football League play-offs. After losing and then winning the National League play-off final in 2017 and 2018, Tranmere get this weekend’s triple-headed ball rolling against Newport County on Saturday, having become battle-hardened by their previous experience. “A core of the group,” says goalkeeper Scott Davies, “have been through both emotions.” That’s happy and sad. Both emotions. The two emotions that there are in Playoffworld.
This weekend our attention turns once again to Wembley, graveyard of dreams, crematorium of hope, bonfire of the buoyancies. It is towards the looming arch that the players and fans of six teams will trudge over the course of this long weekend, and away from it that half of them will plod a couple of hours later after watching the efforts of nine months exploding like the celebratory glitter-bombs which shower the jubilant victors in unnecessary if shiny debris. And for the winning players, the familiar pleasure of victory combined with the rare joy of potentially transforming the future not just of their clubs but of their very selves.
Tranmere were the sixth best side in League Two this season, while Newport came seventh. If successful, County would have the second-worst promotion-resulting goal difference in the entire history of English league football (it is zero; they were the only team in the top 15 not to finish in the positive). “Newport have done fantastically well to get to this stage,” tooted Tranmere boss Mickey Mellon, with brutal condescension.
Sunderland and Charlton got their seasons under way with a game against each other on the first Saturday in August, and will end it with a game against each other on the last Sunday in May. This is the first time the same two teams have met in two play-off finals, bringing to mind the 1998 second-tier goalfest that absolutely nobody has relentlessly dredged up in the build-up to this game. Charlton lost that August curtain-raiser but finished three points above Sunderland and, having won eight of their last 10 games, go into this one in high confidence: “Good form is good because it puts you into a good place,” philosophised manager Lee Bowyer.
The Championship play-off final concludes the jamboree on Monday, with Plain Old John Terry’s Aston Villa and Frank Lampard’s Derby County competing to focus on the ball despite the blinding glare of incalculable riches. Victory in “the most lucrative one-off match in world football” will bring the winners at least £170m, according to top number-crunchers at Deloitte. “The financial prize is likely to reach £300m if they survive the first season in the Premier League,” added the senior manager of their Sports Business Group, nominative determinism’s Sam Boor. Like Tranmere, Villa were in a play-off final last season, though having lost it they have only experienced one of the emotions. Fortunately their manager, Dean Smith, seems to have worked out what the play-offs are all about. “You have to prepare,” he says, “for winning or losing.”
QUOTE OF THE DAY
“I do different things, with less intensity. I have a better perspective of what is going on. I see the mistakes managers make … and I don’t pay the price for it” – Arsène Wenger gets his chat on with Amy Lawrence.