As the regular season draws to a close the Football League playoffs are here to help us fill the gap until the European Championships in June. It makes for dramatic viewing and generates some of football’s most exciting moments, like Bobby Zamora taking 10-men QPR up with a last minute strike, Almunia’s last minute penalty save followed seconds later by a Deeney winner on the counter, and even a crazy 5-5 fixture between Sheffield United and Swindon last season.
When: Friday 13th May (19.45) and Monday 16th May (19.45)
Overview: Both teams will be delighted with unexpected top six finishes. However they come into playoffs in very different mind-sets; Brighton missed out on automatic promotion to Middlesbrough on the last day, drawing 1-1 at the Riverside in what was essentially a promotion playoff, and will have to recover from that psychological blow. Whereas Wednesday are just happy to be there, having sneaked into the last playoff spot.
Player to watch: Brighton’s main goalscoring threat comes in the form of Tomer Hemed, a powerful striker in the mould of former favourite Leonardo Ulloa. For Wednesday Fernando Forestieri has been the difference with 15 goals and 6 assists this term.
Unsung Heroes: Brighton’s transformation this season owes a lot summer signing Beram Kayal from Celtic. The Israeli won Player of the Season for the Seagulls and has been exceptional in central midfield. Meanwhile Tom Lees has quietly had an excellent year in defence for the owls.
Prediction: Despite missing out on promotion on the last day, Brighton have had a tremendous season and were a cut above the rest of the teams in the playoffs, whereas Wednesday have been inconsistent.
Hull City vs. Derby County
When: Saturday 14th May (12.30) and Tuesday 17th May (19.45)
Overview: Hull and Derby will both have considered a playoff appearance the minimum expectation before this season; these are two well-matched squads and it should be a close tie.
Player to watch: Hull’s record signing Abel Hernandez has been excellent this season after an indifferent stint in the top flight, picking up Hull’s player of season award and scoring 20 times. Tom Ince is a fantastic player at this level and his pace and directness will be crucial for the Rams.
Unsung Heroes: George Thorne is crucial part of Derby’s midfield; he suffered a devastating injury in a defeat to Ipswich on the final day and will be a huge miss. Tigers keeper Allen McGregor has had a decent season and could make a big difference.
Prediction: Steve Bruce is one of those manager’s that has a knack of getting teams up, a combination of his experience, Hull’s organised defence and Thorne’s absence should give them the edge.
When: Saturday 14th (17.30) and Thursday 20th May (19.45)
Overview: Walsall and Barnsley took very different paths to the playoffs. The saddlers got off to a quick start and have spent pretty much all season in the top three. The departure of manager Dean Smith to Brentford in December threatened to derail their season, especially given their struggles under his successor Sean O’Driscoll. However they rediscovered their form under caretaker boss John Whitney and come into the playoffs in decent form, winning their last 3 and scoring 10 in the process. Barnsley have had one of the craziest seasons imaginable, they were dreadful in the first of the season, with a run of only 1 win in 11 games and defeat to non-League Altrincham in the FA Cup. However they’ve been in great form since, claiming the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy and climbing into the top six. Even the departure of manager Lee Johnson to Bristol City in February made little impact with another interim boss Paul Heckingbottom doing a decent job.
Player to watch: Two of the division’s premier strikers go-head-to-head. Tom Bradshaw has had another terrific season for the Saddlers netting 17 times while Sam Winnall has 21 to his name.
Unsung Heroes: For Walsall the young trio of Rico Henry, Romaine Sawyers and Tom Bradshaw attract most of the hype but their third place position would have been unlikely without the consistency and experience of central midfielder and captain Adam Chambers. Likewise Barnsley’s captain Conor Haruinhane has been integral to their second half revival.
Prediction : Barnsley are used to the big occasion following their victory in the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy and their form in the second half of the season has been electric, emphasised by their 4-1 away win against champions Wigan on the last day. Walsall also have a bit of form heading into this but do not have a stellar record against the top six and lost 3-1 at home to the tykes back in March.
Millwall vs Bradford
When: Sunday 15th May (12.15) and Friday 20th May (19.45)
Overview: After slow starts to the season both teams kicked on after Christmas and have been hanging around the top six since March, both are in decent form and will be fairly confident coming into the tie.
Player to watch: Central defender Reece Burke has been exceptional for Bradford this season. The West Ham loannee has been an integral part of the sides’ stingy defence and collected seven end of season awards including Player of the Season. He will be up against Lion’s striker Lee Gregory who has had an impressive campaign of his own, scoring 18 goals, including a 98th minute winner at Gillingham on the last day to give the Lions home advantage.
Unsung Heroes: Following his release from Tottenham last summer Millwall goalkeeper Jordan Archer has established himself as one of the goalkeepers outside the Premier League. He also made the save of the season when he backpedalled to head a wayward backpass over the crossbar. Bradford have a useful keeper of their own in Ben Williams who has kept 21 clean sheets this season.
Prediction: I am forecasting an all-Yorkshire final with Bradford winning this one. I expect them to establish a led at Valley Parade – where the Bantams have won seven on the bounce – before their formidable defence sees it out at Den.
When: Saturday 14th May (19.30) and Wednesday 18th May (19.45)
Overview: Promotion for either of teams would be a tremendous achievement and a great story. Stanley are perhaps the leagues smallest team, they have the second lowest attendances and the lowest budget. They have been one of the division’s best teams this season too, cruelly missing out on automatic promotion on the last day. Promotion for the dons meanwhile would be the latest in instalment in their impressive revival. They will also relish the prospect of facing MK Dons should they go up, the franchise club that infamously replaced them in 2004.
Player to watch: Accrington’s brilliant season is largely due to the form of midfield duo Matt Crooks and Josh Windass (son of Dean), both have been excellent and both will depart for Rangers in the summer after agreeing pre-contract terms in January. Wimbledon’s main attacking threat comes from summer singing Lyle Taylor; he has 20 goals and 6 assists to his name.
Unsung Heroes: Not exactly unsung, but Reading Loanee Tarique Fosu-Henry is an exciting player for Stanley, scoring 5 times in just a handful of appearances. Likewise not exactly unsung but striker Ade Azeez has been an important option off the bench.
Prediction: Wimbledon has the momentum but Accrington are simply a better team and I expect them to win over two legs.
Plymouth Argyle vs. Portsmouth
When: Thursday 12th May (19.45) and Sunday 15th May (18.00)
Overview: Plymouth meet Portsmouth in a pretty massive dockyard derby. Both these sides should realistically be playing at a higher level than League Two and there should be a terrific atmosphere at both Fratton Park and Home Park, with each stadium accommodating around 20,000. However neither is in inspired form, they have been in the top seven most of the year but failed to push on and claim one of the three automatic promotion spots.
Player to watch: Attacking midfielder Graham Carey is the danger man for the pilgrims, with 11 goals this season. It is hard to pinpoint an outstanding player from a very balanced Pompey side but winger Gary Roberts is an important player creatively.
Unsung Heroes: Defensively Argyle’s young captain Curtis Nelson has been solid, earning himself a place in League Two team of the season. For Portsmouth veteran Ben Davies is an important player, he picked up fans plyer of the season and his experience will be crucial.
Prediction: These are two evenly matched sides but I fancy Plymouth to win this with home advantage in the second leg.