If any evidence of the popularity of the Football League Play-Offs was needed, it was provided this week by the Sunderland Sheffield Wednesday tie. On Friday night the record for the highest attendance of a semi-final was broken by over 4,000 as 44,724 gathered at the Stadium of Light for the first leg. An impressive figure that was larger than seven Premier League matches last weekend; indeed there are currently thirteen clubs in the top-flight with grounds that have lower capacities than this. It is worth bearing in mind that this was for a League One match, and serves as a timely reminder amidst the continuous chuntering around a Super League or its equivalent, about the importance of fans to the underlying health of English football.
With the second leg at Hillsborough attracting a crowd of 32,798, the overall aggregate for the semi-final was just under 78,000, by far the largest of any division in 36 years of the Play-Offs. The fact that this was for a third tier semi-final can be put into perspective by comparing the figure to the crowd for the 2018 World Cup Final, which was only marginally higher at 78,o11. The football may not have been of the highest quality and the tie only truly sparked into life in the last fifteen minutes of the second leg but the magnitude of the game cannot be overstated.
Waiting for Sunderland in the Final will be a club that has none of the fanbase of the Black Cats nor a smidgen of their illustrious history. Before Wycombe Wanderers were founded, Sunderland had already won the First Division title three times, and all their six titles came pre-Second World War. Wycombe Wanderers only entered the Football League in 1993, having spent 100 years as a non-league club, so they have a bit of catching up to do.
By contrast the two clubs’ Play-Offs fortunes are diametrically opposed. Sunderland have been in three Play-Offs Finals but have never won one, although they were still promoted in 1990 after Swindon’s punishment for financial irregularities was to have their promotion rescinded. This will be the Chairboys’ third Final and having won both, including the most recent success in 2020, they will be hoping to emulate Gillingham and Peterborough as the only clubs with 100% records in their three Finals.
When Wycombe beat MK Dons in their semi-final, the losing side set a record of failing in all five attempts to reach a Play-Offs final. This would also be the fate of Nottingham Forest if they do no get past Sheffield United in the Championship semis, a team who they lost to in 2003. Of Forest’s four failures by far the most excruciating was in 2007 when having beaten Yeovil Town 2-0 away in the first leg they capitulated at the City Ground, losing 5-2. Having never won a home leg in any of their semi-finals Forest desperately need to cure their home sickness.
The Blades have their own Play-Offs demons, having had nine swings at it without success and they have yet to score a goal in any of their four Finals, so if they do get to Wembley it would help their cause to break their duck. Unless they go down the road of another Championship contender, Huddersfield Town who remarkably have been involved in the only three goalless matches in over 100 Finals, going on to win each of them on penalties. On top of that The Terriers have won three semis via shoot-outs, so boast a 100% record in penalty shoot-outs. Luton Town must be wary of going to the wire and will not want to be level after the two legs as they would have to take on the penalty kings to keep alive their dreams of a debut season in the Premier League.
In League Two Northampton Town will have to recover from the shattering disappointment of losing out on automatic promotion to Bristol Rovers on goals scored after the drama of the final day when Rovers’ 7-0 win over already-relegated Scunthorpe consigned Northampton to the Play-Offs. At least the Cobblers have tasted Play-Offs victory winning them twice while semi-final opponents Mansfield Town have not won in their previous two appearances. Of the other two semi-finalists, Swindon Town have the Play-Offs pedigree as they are potentially facing their sixth final, having won three of them. The Robins have a wealth of Play-Offs experience compared to Port Vale who have only appeared twice, winning one.
Whatever transpires more than 150,000 will be back at Wembley over two weekends in late May and after the last two years of either no fans or a limited number, this is an opportunity to relish the end-of-season climax. So whether it is finally some redemption for Forest, Sheffield United or Sunderland, continued success for Huddersfield, Wycombe or Swindon, or even a new dawn for Luton, the Play-Offs are back where they belong, on the biggest stage.