Championship Play-Off Final – The Final Piece Of The Jigsaw
Well the epic survival Sunday is now over and it included tears flooding in Newcastle and Middlesbrough – not to mention Fulham qualifying for Europe and Ricky Sbragia quitting as manager of Sunderland.
We now turn our attention to the Championship final tomorrow at Wembley between Sheffield United and Burnley, contesting for that precious final place in the Premier League. I will be attending the game which will encompass a cosy 314 mile round trip, frayed nerves and plenty of Dutch courage.
Owen Coyle has had a hugely succesful first full season in charge at Turf moor, leading Burnley to fifth place in the league and the semi finals of the league cup, after an incredible run in the competition that included the scalps of Chelsea and Arsenal. Burnley have won many admirers due to their attractive brand of attacking football, the aforementioned wins aganst Premier League sides have also no doubt helped to endear them to the neutrals.
This is to be Sheffield United’s 3rd play off final from four attempts in the competitions current format. The Blades though, are still yet to gain promotion via this method and will not want to complete an unwanted record of being the first team to lose at the old Wembley, Cardiff’s Millenium Stadium and the rebuilt Wembley. Kevin Blackwell’s men finished third in the Championship and could have sneaked automatic promotion on the final day of the regular season.
With both teams playing good football in recent weeks many are labelling this as a tight one to call. Both sides appear to be on a roll and will both take in excess of 35,000 supporters to the national stadium for the final game of the Football League season.
Head to head the Clarets have the edge over the Blades, having won both encounters in league season. The 1-0 home victory for Owen Coyle’s on April 20 was not only United’s only defeat in 17 league games, but was the game that broke the club record of 15 games away games without defeat that was set this season.
While Burnley have a fully fit squad to choose from, United are missing left-back Gary Naysmith, (injured in the defeat at Turf Moor) Gary Speed and Ugu Ehiogu in addition to sweating on the fitness of Darius Henderson, Jamie Ward and John Joe O’ Toole.
This will be Burnley 61st game this season which further demonstrates the job Owen Coyle has done a small budget – Burnley have only used 23 players all season. While this is an achievement it demonstates the huge challenge that Burnley would face should they prevail tomorrow. While Burnley’s finances are rather modest , Sheffield United are a club with the infrastructure already geared up for the Premer League – particularly taking into account attendances figures, the stadium and the monies being paid to the club in the aftermath of the Tevez affair.
As a Blades fan I go into the game with the memories of the four previous failed play off attempts and three failed FA Cup semi final atttempts at Wembley and Old Trafford (twice) clear in my mind. I will be the happiest man in the country tomorrow if United can finally prevail on the big occasion but gut feeling tells me it will be another LONG trip up the M1, spent looking forward to trips to Scunthorpe, Peterbrough and erm…Newcastle.