Welcome To Wembley

Excuse the Stephen Colbert reference above (I wish he would return to UK TV screens!). Saturday signals a great day for football with the Champions League final taking place, but before that there is a game that is worth even more money to the victor. The Championship playoff final takes place at Wembley in a traditional 3pm kick off, and unlike previous seasons which has seen each football league play off final played one day after the other (usually on what is  a bank holiday weekend for the UK – next weekend), the Championship final is up first and has the whole weekend to itself. Blackpool, a team with an average attendance of just over 8,000 this season, find themselves in dream land and have credited Ian Holloway with much of the credit for helping them get a chance at entering the Premiership. Holloway himself has deflected praise back at the tangerine’s and the quotable manager has received much backing from many neutrals in England, although many would love to see Blackpool in the top flight for a various number of reasons. The famous seaside resort has a big opportunity to return to the top flight after a number of years of exile, and a club that is perhaps most recognisable for having Sir Stanley Matthews on their books has a chance to write more history into the books. Anyone with a lack of knowledge of Blackpool’s impact on the English game should look up the 1953 F.A Cup final, which is one of the greatest finals in history and often labelled as the ‘Matthews final’ after the above mentioned Stanley Matthews performance, despite the fact Stan Mortensen scored a hat-trick in the game (typical).

Blackpool’s opponent is the Welsh outfit of Cardiff, who almost need to win this game if they are to balance the books at the Welsh capital. Due to Blackpool’s prestige in the English game and their loveable manager, the fact that this is and England V Wales tie has been almost amplified in England, which is just one of the many talking points of this particular final. Whether Wales is united remains up for debate however, I remember watching the final episode of the BBC’s football league show this season, in which one Swansea fan (apparently) e-mailed in wishing Cardiff all the luck in the world as they were representing the nation of Wales. That’s probably a load of rubbish and I doubt any Swansea fan would like to see Cardiff doing better than their team who narrowly missed out on the playoffs themselves. Dave Jones has hailed his team’s spirit ahead of the tie, but will be sweating on the fitness of star player Peter Wittingham, who has bagged a number of vital goals for the Bluebirds this term. Cardiff have had a number of troubles this season, but promotion the top flight of the English Premier League would soften many of the problems off the field this seasons, and the side will probably go in as favourites.

The semi-finals were exciting, full of action, goals and attacking displays – so surely one must go with Holloway’s prediction that this will be an action packed affair? Not exactly, as five of the last six finals have ended 1-0, and we often see teams understandably playing with caution. People often cite the 90’s and the excitement the playoffs brought, at this time of year in England, you’re bound to see THAT playoff final between Charlton and Sunderland which ended 4-4 after extra time and was decided on penalties. The thing that makes these matches so great and amazing is that you feel like you are a fan of one of the teams for 90 minutes; the tension and atmosphere just takes you over and you can find yourself jumping up and down for a team you have no association with. Albeit, I believe this year’s playoff final could really shake things up and be exciting. Blackpool proved against Forest that they were not here to make up the numbers, and Cardiff showed plenty fighting spirit against a passionate Leicester side.

Many American viewers will be able to relate the playoff final, and the truth is that English people love it – yet they are resilient to extend it to the top flight. In England, there is a belief that you should be rewarded over the course of an entire season, and many see a playoff as pot luck. I am inclined to agree with this, mainly due to the culture of English football I have been brought up with, but no one can deny how amazing and tense the football league playoffs are. It’s a modern spectacle of English football and it draws massive viewers in every year because of the excitement it creates. When the Premiership proposed that the fourth Champions League spot could be decided via a playoff, I was all in favour of the motion, yet it appears to have been cut down, most likely by those who are worried they will lose out on the revenue the European game creates. It’s a lottery – sure – but how much excitement does it create for the fans? You have people who don’t watch a game outside the Premiership all season sitting down in front of their screen for the playoff final, and the fans really enjoy it. The Premiership could really learn from this, American football has the Superbowl which is the most watched live event in the world every year, and it’s an amazing concept to think that it all comes down to one game; everyone all of a sudden feels the excitement which I feel can sometimes be lost in a Premiership season despite Sky’s constant attempts to remind us of GRANDSLAMDECIDERJUDGEMENT whatever.

I can’t see a playoff ever deciding a Premiership champion in the near future, but I do believe that it should be put in place to some degree in the title – the proposal of the fourth Champions League spot being decided this way should not have been shot down so quickly. I do believe that eventually there will be one league in Europe that will adopt the playoff mentality to determine a champion, and I just wonder whether this will create so much commotion that it will shake the world of football. Look at how it has transformed the Championship and the football league. In truth, if you were and English football fan and you were told that you will be promoted via top spot in the Championship or the playoffs, you would chose the playoffs as it has so much excitement about it. If you need any more proof about how exciting this game is, think about this: it’s amazing that a game in England’s second tier could even be mentioned as important or placed on the same day as the Champions league final.