Hull City boss Phil Brown celebrates his sides play-off victory at Wembley in 2008.

As the Championship football season reaches a crescendo of excitement, supporters of many clubs up & down the country must be looking at their OWN clubs current plight, & thinking not where they want to finish, (we all want our own team to finish top!) but more to the point whether where they do finally finish is considered an acceptable, realistic, reasonable, honest reflection of their season come the end of next week.

I am, as it happens just one of those fans! My Club, Crystal Palace (a club I support with a passion) are currently mid-table in the Championship, have not got a proverbial pot to piss in financially, due mainly to an over-sized squad of mediocre players with limited ability on impermeable contracts, (that we are unable to shift even if we had tried to offload them at a Sunday morning boot fair), along with its fair share of internal wrangling.

I am not using this as a platform for slinging mud or lambasting my own Club, as I am well aware that quite a few football clubs are in similar situations, due in part to the current financial climate. I digress…………where was I, the play-offs.

This season the Championship had for the most part been dominated by three clubs, Wolves, Birmingham & Reading, basically leaving the rest of the league to scrap it out for the remaining three places that would secure a play-off spot, & the potentially lucrative opportunity to reach the ‘promised land’ of the Premier League. However with various twists & turns of late, we enter the final week of the season knowing only Wolves are guaranteed Premier League football next season.

Promotion would generate an estimated cash injection of £30million plus to each of the successful teams, depending on what one chooses to utilize as their source of information.

This Championship season boasts a number of low, medium & high profile clubs namely  Sheffield United, Birmingham & Reading jostling for the one remaining automatic promotion spot, with Cardiff, Burnley & Preston battling to make up the remaining play-off places.

The play-offs were introduced in 1986/87, so there have been 21 previous years of reasons for supporters to shed tears & joy or despair at some point since the late 1980’s. Martin Lange was the man responsible for the end-of-season extravaganza. Lange saw promotion play-offs as a means of rekindling supporter interest in the lower divisions, thereby bringing the clubs much-needed extra income.

The play-offs remain with us today because they have met, and arguably exceeded their expectations. Since their introduction attendances across the lower three divisions have more than doubled. It is hard to argue that Lange’s innovation has been at least partly responsible for such a dramatic increase. Supporters have accepted the play-offs with a mixture of enthusiasm & interpretation.

The matches themselves invariably produce extraordinary levels of drama, incredible scorelines & the reason for this has in part been due to an astonishing number of crucial late goals! Of course, a sudden-death contest determining a club’s fate for the whole of the season inevitably leads to heightened emotions, the fall-out from which has given plenty of ammunition to opponents of the system.

In the Championship play-offs the disappointment has been greatest for Preston & Ipswich, with a record six unsuccessful attempts each. No other clubs have tackled the play-offs so often, so unsuccessfully!

Crystal Palace though, are the undisputed play-off masters. Palace have one of the best overall records in the play-offs, with three victories, a losing final and two losing semi-finals. And all of them were for a place in the top division.

In the first two seasons the play-offs were introduced, the third to fifth sides from what was then the ‘old’ Division 2 competed with the fourth from bottom side in the ‘old’ Division 1.

In most other seasons the play-offs were for the third to sixth placed sides, but in both 1990/91 and 1994/95 this was different due to League restructuring. In the first of those years the fourth to seventh sides took part whilst in 1994/95 it was the second to fifth sides. Ignoring those first two seasons when the format was significantly different, the winners of the play-off final in the other 19 seasons have been:

Highest placed club – 6 times.

Second highest placed club – 4 times.

Third highest placed club – 5 times.

Lowest placed club – 4 times.

 These statistics simply emphasise the fact that there is no real benefit in finishing in a higher League position. Of the six teams in total that have finished third in the league and were promoted via the play-offs to the top flight, three of those teams have been in the last three consecutive seasons, namely Watford, Derby & Hull.

For the record in 1989/90 the winners at Wembley were not actually promoted. Although Swindon Town beat Sunderland in the final, it was the losing side who were eventually promoted after Swindon were punished for financial irregularities.

This season’s Play-Off dates:

Play-off semi-finals to be played between 8th & 17th May 2009.
League 2 Final – Saturday 23rd May 2009.
League 1 Final – Sunday 24th May 2009.
Championship Final – Monday 25th May 2009.