As the build-up to the Play-Offs weekend intensifies, a slight dampener was cast on proceedings. Unlike the FA Cup Final which was deemed ‘a test event’ with Chelsea and Leicester City receiving around 10,000 tickets each, only 4,000 tickets were made available to each of the Play-Offs finalists. Although an extra 2,000 tickets have now been made available for the Championship Final, it still means that thousands of loyal fans will be denied the opportunity of watching their club at Wembley. The fact that four of the clubs are aiming to reach their highest level for many decades compounds the fans’ misery.
League Two finalists Newport were last in the third tier in 1987 (the very first of year the Play-Offs), Lincoln are trying to reach the second tier for the first time in sixty years and Brentford have not played in the top flight since 1947. Meanwhile Morecambe have spent their entire Football League lifetime in League Two since gaining promotion to the Football League in 2007. For fans of these clubs, as well as Swansea and Blackpool, missing out on being at the national stadium for one of their club’s most important matches of recent times is little short of a disgrace.
Unsurprisingly the clubs asked for an increase in allocation. “We feel it is unjust that only a few days ago more than 20,000 fans were admitted to the FA Cup final,” said Brentford chief executive Jon Varney. “And advanced discussions were taking place for Wembley to host the Champions League final with a similar number of fans attending. We find it incredulous and unjustifiable that the Championship Play-Off final will be restricted to just half that number.”
Brentford’s opponents in the Championship Play-Offs final Swansea have expressed similar concerns over the miserly allocation. “The general admission number is approximately 4,000 for each team which seems unfair, considering the size and capacity of Wembley Stadium,” added Swansea City chief executive Julian Winter. “Supporters are the lifeblood of the game we all love, and it is such a shame that more of them cannot be at Wembley to cheer on their team in what will be a brilliant occasion for all those clubs involved in the Play-Off final weekend.”
Aside from supporters of the clubs, neutrals will also be disappointed by the dilution of the atmosphere. The matches themselves have all the hallmarks of being classic encounters with so much at stake and a rich seam of sub-plots. The semi-finals may have been slow burners, as they often are, but in the second legs the ties suddenly ignited from a smouldering start to produce explosive finales.
Brentford’s semi-final with Bournemouth was a case in point as their manager Thomas Frank summed it up neatly – “What a rollercoaster of emotions. I think only sport and especially football can do that.” He might have added that possibly only the Play-Offs can make the rollercoaster ride so giddy. It all started when an early Brentford corner was cleared, Bournemouth’s Arnaut Danjuma picked the ball up midway through his own half and with not one single Brentford outfield player in between him and the goal, the Dutchman duly raced away unimpeded to put the ball past the exposed Raya. It was a scene that you might have expected in the ninety-fifth minute when all is seemingly lost rather than the fifth minute when all was still up for grabs.
“I smashed my foot into the ice cooler after the 1-0 goal,” said Frank. “And then I thought, ‘No, keep your cool.’ And then five seconds later I smashed my foot into the bin next to it. And after that I thought, ‘OK, next moment.’” Fortunately for Frank that ‘next moment’ came within ten minutes when Brentford were awarded a penalty and the Championship’s top scorer Ivan Toney added his 32nd goal of the season. For some unknown reason Asmir Begovic took exception to Toney retrieving the ball and decided to try and wrestle the ball back, which ended up in a tug-of-war that would not have been out of place in a school playground.
The frenetic action continued apace as Chris Mepham took up where Toney and Begovic had left off by hauling Bryan Mbeumo to the ground when the forward was clear and the former Brentford man got the chance to check out the facilities at the new Community stadium before anyone else did having been sent off. All this took place in the first half hour and although the remaining hour was not as dramatic, Brentford scored two further goals to secure a second successive Play-Offs Final appearance and their fifth overall.
The burning question is, can the Bees not only break their own Wembley hoodoo, having lost there five times since winning the London War Cup Final of 1942, but also could they finally snap the curse of the red-and-white stripes with black shorts brigade? When Sunderland lost to Lincoln in the League One semi-finals it was the 33rd consecutive Play-Offs failure by clubs who traditionally wear those colours. So it is down to Brentford as well as Sunderland’s conquerors Lincoln, to break this remarkable losing streak.
While much of the focus is centred on the Championship Final, the League Two Final also has much to recommend it. Indeed the second leg of the semi-final between Forest Green Rovers and Newport County was the pick of the bunch with more plot twists than an Agatha Christie book. Newport’s 2-0 lead from their home tie was wiped out within the first eight minutes, with the second goal scored by Aaron Collins who was not only a former Newport player but whose brother Lewis was playing for the opposition.
When Forest Green scored their third early in the second half it seemed as though the tide had turned against Newport but Mike Flynn’s substitutions redressed the balance. When three of your subs score it has to be considered a managerial masterstroke but when those subs are the oldest players in the squad and one of them becomes the oldest ever goalscorer in a Play-Offs game, it suggests that there is something in the stars. Kevin Ellison belied his 42 years when curling in a sumptuous shot off the bar to start the revival, a revival that was completed when Nicky Maynard, a relative whippersnapper at 34 years-old, scored the winner in the 119th minute.
With a characteristically sharp twist of fate Ellison now faces Morecambe, the club that released him at the end of last season after over 350 games for the Shrimps, in the Final on Monday to round off a weekend that promises so much even though the fans will be sorely missed.