Up, Up and Away – the 2021 Play-Offs

This year’s Play-Off finals started with a penalty and they ended with a penalty. The first was stroked home with consummate confidence by the Championship’s top scorer Ivan Toney, his 33rd goal of the season, which set Brentford on their way to finally ending the curse of clubs that traditionally wear red-and-white striped shirts with black shorts. After Sunderland’s failure in this year’s League One semi-finals the successive failures to win promotion had reached thirty-three. Between those cursed clubs Brentford’s victory on Saturday was the 88th Play-Offs match they had played. It was high time that this remarkable streak of disappointment was put to bed once and for all.  

It was apt that the 34th attempt should end in a long-awaited victory as it is 34 years since the advent of the Football League Play-Offs. And it is especially poignant that Brentford should be the club to do it as their former chairman, the late Martin Lange was the man behind their introduction into English football. This was the Bees’ tenth attempt to win the Play-Offs and no other club had suffered so much Play-Offs heartache. 

Like Preston, who also snapped their losing run at the tenth time of asking in 2015, Brentford’s Final victory was largely untroubled after Emiliano Marcondes had added a second to Toney’s opener inside twenty minutes. Steve Cooper’s Swansea City barely raised a ripple of resistance and Jay Fulton’s dismissal after 65 minutes pretty much ensured Brentford’s smooth passage to promotion and a return to the top flight after 74 years. Brentford’s engaging manager Thomas Frank spoke with refreshing honesty in the aftermath of the victory.

When asked how soon he would start planning for the Premier League he replied – “Not yet. Right now I want to get drunk and then worry about the Premier League tomorrow!” The emotion of the post-match scenes was encapsulated by the sheer delight of Peter ‘Mr. Brentford’ Gilham, who has been at the club as the matchday announcer since 1969, four years before Frank was born, and also now fulfils the role as the player care manager. His jigs of joy on the pitch afterwards were a sight to behold and with ‘Hey Jude’ being blasted out over the stadium PA he conducted the players’ celebrations in the same way as he has been conducting the fans for over fifty years. 

Brentford celebrate their Play-Offs victory

And so Brentford became the twenty-fourth club to win the second tier Play-Offs and will be the fiftieth club to participate in the Premier League. If Brentford were understandably unaccustomed to such joy then Blackpool could be excused for being almost blasé as they added yet another triumph to their impressively long list of achievements. Their Play-Offs record is exceptional and by beating Lincoln City in the League One final they notched up their sixth win out of eight finals. No other club has recorded more than four final wins.

Even the calamitous concession of an own goal in the very first minute of their final against Lincoln could not derail them. In the words of their manager Neil Critchley – “How not to start a Play-Off final – we did it.” Thankfully for Blackpool they have developed the uncanny knack of bouncing back from going behind early. Twenty years ago they let in the earliest goal in Play-Off finals history when Leyton Orient’s Chris Tate netted after a mere 27 seconds and still went on to win 4-2. In the 2010 Championship Final they also conceded an early goal to Cardiff but fought back to a 3-2 victory. 

Blackpool have now managed to recover from conceding the first goal in a final three times, with only a couple of other clubs managing the feat more than once. They maintained their impressive Finals record when Kenny Dougall became the first Australian to score in a club game at Wembley, and then repeated the trick 20 minutes later to secure another comeback win for the Seasiders. For Lincoln it was their seventh appearance  in the Play-Offs without success and they must hope that now Brentford have broken the curse, that they are not embarking on a new cycle of failure.

Compared to the finalists in the other two divisions the League Two Play-Offs combatants were raw novices. Both Morecambe and Newport were only in their second campaign, with the Welsh club having lost the 2019 final to Tranmere to the only goal of the game late in extra time. Unfortunately for Newport history repeated itself this year as there was just one goal in the game, coming in extra time, this time a penalty by Morecambe’s Carlos Mendes Gomes. Even though the Shrimps reached League One, the highest status in their history, this was clearly not enough for manager Derek Adams, who only a few days after their Wembley triumph announced he was leaving the club for pastures new. Clearly he wasn’t drinking from the same cup as Thomas Frank. 

Morecambe’s victory on Monday meant that all three clubs gaining promotion via the Play-Offs were the highest placed of the dozen Play-Offs contenders. That this has only happened once before back in 2008 when Hull, Doncaster and Stockport were promoted which emphasises the unpredictable nature of the Play-Offs. There is no set formula to winning them, and now the kit curse is over there is no set way of losing them either. Finally, a note of caution for the three winners, last year’s three Play-Offs winners – Fulham, Wycombe and Northampton – were all relegated this season, so best to enjoy the ups of the rollercoaster ride while you can.    

Published by richardfoster60

Author, broadcaster, historian, journalist. A regular contributor to the Guardian, Sky Sports and talkSPORT, my latest book is highly acclaimed Premier League Nuggets - "brilliantly written" - Darren Fletcher, "I love Premier League Nuggets" - Guy Mowbray, "the book is a labour of love" - Peter Drury.

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