For both Nottingham Forest and Sunderland the 2022 Play-Offs finally provided two clubs recently starved of success with a reason to celebrate as they gained promotion after many years in the wilderness. However, the most heart-warming story of this year’s Play-Offs came in the League Two Final. Port Vale’s 3-0 triumph over Mansfield Town was particularly poignant for their manager Darrell Clarke. Clarke’s daughter’s tragic death earlier in the year led to the manager taking extended compassionate leave. In the eighth minute of the match there was applause from both sets of fans at Wembley for the Mansfield-born Clarke, who started his playing career for his hometown club.
An understandably emotional Clarke paid tribute to his daughter in his post-match press conference. “I think she was up there kicking every ball there for me today. It is special for my eldest daughter, who I lost this year, and my family who have gone through tough times. I worked so hard the last few days to control those emotions, and they all come out.” A couple of days before the Final Clarke was given a five-year contract by the Valiants and so after such a difficult time personally, Port Vale’s triumph provided Clarke with something positive to look forward to.
As for Forest and Sunderland, the pair had equally dismal Play-Offs records, between them racking up ten appearances without a single Final victory. This year was Forest’s first Play-Offs Final, having fallen at the first hurdle four times. While Sunderland had at least made it to three Finals but lost all of them as well as three semi-final failures, so their success at Wembley two weekends ago came at the seventh time of asking.
Despite the Black Cats’ woeful record their supporters never lost faith as can be exemplified by the crowd of 44,742 at the Stadium of Light for the first leg of their semi against Sheffield Wednesday. This was not only the highest attendance for a third tier semi but also for any of the 432 Play-Offs semi-final matches that have taken place since they began back in 1987. With over 46,000 Sunderland fans in boisterous mood for their victory over Wycombe, the crowd of over 72,000 at Wembley for the League One Final was the fifth highest for a third tier Final.
Boosted by this impressive Sunderland support the aggregate crowds for this year’s Play-Offs across the fifteen matches reached 422,868, a figure which pips 2019 as the highest overall attendance. By comparison, the 1990 Play-Offs attracted a total of just over 291,000, an increase of 45% over the 32 years.
Forest’s victory over Huddersfield saw them return to the Premier League after a 23-year absence, by far the longest spell in between Premier League seasons, the previous longest gap was a mere 16 years that Leeds suffered until their promotion two years ago. The mixture of relief and elation amongst the Forest fans was palpable. As has become the norm in Championship Finals the winning margin was tight, indeed of the last ten second-tier Finals six have been decided by a single goal.
This pattern of narrow victories is true of all three divisions as 56 of the 99 Finals have been decided by a single goal margins since 1990 when one-off Finals replaced two-legged ones. With a dozen Play-Off Finals decided on penalties, less than a third of those Finals have featured a goal margin of more than one goal and of those only ten have been by a margin of more than two goal.
The only goal of the match came via a deflection off the unfortunate Chelsea loanee Levi Colwill. This was the twelfth own goal in a Play-Offs Final, but the only one to be the solitary goal of the match. His fellow defender Naby Sarr had suffered the same misfortune three years before when playing for Charlton against Sunderland but at least the Frenchman had the consolation of eventually winning that match. Even though it was at the wrong end, this is the only goal that a Huddersfield player has scored in their last five Play-Offs Finals. Three of those Finals have been goalless – the only 0-0 draws in Play-Offs history with the Terriers winning all three penalty shoot-outs in 2004, 2012 and 2017.
Forest’s long-awaited success was primarily down to the change in manager back in September when Steve Cooper replaced Chris Hughton. Under Hughton they had not won any of their opening seven matches and were languishing in 24th position with just a single point. Forest did manage to win their next match after Hughton left and before Cooper joined under the temporary charge of Steven Reid, ironically it was a 2-0 victory at Huddersfield.
The team were completely transformed under the Welshman, winning 22 of their remaining 38 league matches, averaging exactly two points per match and outperforming every other Championship club over that period. They were even in with a chance of automatic promotion until losing at Bournemouth in the penultimate match. This was manager Cooper’s third consecutive Play-Offs appearance, having lost a semi-final in 2020 and a Final in 2021 both to Brentford with his former club Swansea, so completing his own road to redemption as well as that of a club whose former glories were many decades ago.