The Play-Offs

I recently wrote a blog directed at the deplorable Hyundai A-League finals here Australia and its inability to reproduce the emotion that a relegation/promotion system produces.

A promotion and relegation system introduces additional aspects to the game with one of the most dramatic being the play-offs. For those of you who are unaware, the play-offs are somewhat similar to a finals series but the rewards are vastly different.

In most tiers of English football that are beneath the Premier League, a series of play-off finals take place for the four teams that finish the regular season below the automatic promotion spots, which are in most cases are 1st and 2nd.

The initial matches, or semi-finals, are played over two legs with 3rd playing 6th and 4th playing 5th, with the return fixtures following. The team who finish higher on aggregate advance through to the final. The final is played at a neutral ground, which in England is always Wembley Stadium, between the winners of each Semi-Final.

Unfortunately, this will be the first time that I am experiencing the play-offs with Sunderland AFC. Poor form at the end of the regular season saw the Black Cats miss out on automatic promotion and drop from 3rd to 5th in the league on the final day. I was devastated as my expectations were automatic promotion, or bust.

I find myself unable to move passed the fact that if Sunderland had converted 3 of their 19 drawn matches into wins, I would be celebrating automatic promotion. Yet here I am, an anxious wreck, coming to terms with the fact that I might have to endure another season of League One football.

Initial signs are somewhat positive as Sunderland won their first play-off match against Portsmouth. I can only pray that this will help kick start some form of momentum which helps the team gain promotion back to the EFL Championship.

I became curious about the last time Sunderland competed in a play-off final. It was 15 years almost to this day in the 2003-04 Football League First Division season, (now known as the EFL Championship), and it ended in heartbreak.

After finishing the regular season in 3rd position, the Black Cats came up against an in form Crystal Palace side, who won the first match between the two 3 – 2. The second match ended in dramatic fashion, Sunderland were on the cusp of qualifying for the final after taking a 2 – 0 lead after half time, before Crystal Palace scored in the 90th minute to send the game into extra time.

With the scores all locked 4 – 4 on aggregate and neither team able to score in extra time, the game went to penalties, where Crystal Palace won 5 – 4.

At the time of this match, I was 14 years old and didn’t care too much for football. How times have changed.

I am thankful that England’s play-off system is not a replica of Germany’s Bundesliga. 2 league, where the only play off that occurs is a home and away match between the team that finishes 3rd on the ladder and the team that finishes 3rd last in the Bundesliga. Meaning Sunderland’s season would have been well and truly over as they were unable to hold 3rd spot on the last day.

Now here we are, 15 years since our last promotion play off. I cannot sleep properly. I’m an anxious wreck and my mind keeps making up alternate scenarios which could have unfolded as I try to escape the reality.

It’s evident I am a fully fledged fanatic, (or addict depending on how you look at it), and if Australia want to tap into the fanatic market and promote the fading A-League, then these football league fundamentals need to start taking shape before it’s too late.

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