And then there were six. With the semi-finals done and dusted, the weekend's Finals are now fast approaching.After a long, tortuous season, the Play-Off finalists have to gird their loins once more for the big occasion but before looking in depth at the clubs who are going to battle it out at Wembley this weekend, let's reflect on a record-breaking series of semi-finals.
With a tally of 43 goals, averaging an impressive 3.6 per match, the 2015 semi-finals have been the second highest scoring in the history of the Play-Offs, just one behind the record of 44 set in 2007 and comfortably beating the 37 notched in 2000.
If the three Finals keep up the existing average this will also mean that the 1988 record of 50 for total number of goals scored - when there were four more Play-Offs matches, because of two-legged Finals and one replay - will be under threat.
Yet again this proves that despite the heightened pressure and the heavy burden of tension imbued in these crucial matches, they continue to generate amazing, thrilling football and none more so than the Swindon versus Sheffield United League 1 encounter.
This year’s semi-finals will forever be remembered for that ridiculous, insane second leg at the County Ground where the goals piled in and the game swung with a ferocity that was threatening any grip on reality. It almost goes without saying that this was the highest scoring match in Play-Offs history and that the aggregate of 13 goals also was the most in any Play-Off tie, pipping a few that had amassed a mere dozen goals since 1987.
The fact that it was Sheffield United who fell so valiantly after being 3-0 down in less than 20 minutes and 4-1 down after an hour, makes it doubly hard for Blades fans. With a record of eight attempts and no promotions, the Play-Offs have been cruel in the extreme.
At least they now have the symmetry of four semi-final and four Final failures and they are joined by another one of this year’s casualties, Brentford, on competing in eight Play-Offs without success. Both clubs must feel that they must have upset the Play-Off gods to be so blighted.
For Mick McCarthy it was a case of fourth time unlucky as Ipswich came up short against their East Anglian rivals, Norwich, and McCarthy suffered his fourth semi-final defeat after previously losing with Millwall, Sunderland and Wolves. At least Ipswich can console themselves with the fact that they have that one solitary success in 2000 amidst the seven semi-final defeats.
So much for the agony of these semi-final heartaches, now is the time to consider the prospects for the three upcoming Finals, which will be contested by the highest-placed teams in each division for only the third time in Play-Offs history.
Sky Bet League 2: Southend United v Wycombe Wanderers
Wycombe disposed of Plymouth despite Argyle’s determined fight backs in both legs and are looking to repeat their solitary success from 1994, when current boss Gareth Ainsworth was playing for Preston North End in the Final.
Considering they only secured their League status with a dramatic final day win last season, Ainsworth has performed a mini-miracle getting Wanderers to the verge of League 1. But their fallibility in allowing Plymouth back into both legs of the semis is a concern ahead of Saturday's League 2 Play-Off Final.
Southend have marginally more experience of the Play-Offs as this is their fifth attempt but, like Wycombe, they only have one success so far - back in 2005 - and were knocked out by Burton Albion last year.
Phil Brown has already tasted success in the Play-Offs when he was manager of Hull City in the Championship Final in 2008, which he described as 'the best day of my life, without a shadow of a doubt'.
The Blues eventually got past Stevenage in the second leg of their semi-final despite Barry Corr missing a 96th-minute penalty and it was fitting that the indefatigable Michael Timlin scored the third and final goal at Roots Hall after he suffered a nasty head injury in the first leg.
Sky Bet League 1: Preston North End v Swindon Town
Preston are in their 10th Play-Off campaign and, as their fans are painfully aware, are yet to achieve promotion.
They showed no signs of apprehension when comfortably beating Chesterfield 4-0 on aggregate in the semis, though, buoyed by three Jermaine Beckford goals, including his amazing strike from near the halfway line in the last few minutes of the second leg.
Manager Simon Grayson has experienced winning the Play-Offs as a player with Leicester twice, whilst as a manager he lost with Leeds but is looking for his own hat-trick of wins on Sunday after success with Blackpool and Huddersfield.
Swindon have a better Play-Off record than Preston, which is not that difficult, and will be looking to win their fourth Final out of eight attempts.
Assuming they have recovered from their breathless semi-final second leg, Mark Cooper’s men will be keen to make up for the disappointment of their 2013 loss in the semi-finals. In contrast to his opposite number, this is Cooper’s first experience of the Play-Offs.
Sky Bet Championship: Middlesbrough v Norwich City
Norwich eased past Ipswich to set up their second ever Play-Off Final. The Canaries’ only previous campaign ended in a penalty shout-out loss to Birmingham in 2002.
Manager Alex Neil enjoyed success in the Scottish Championship Play-Offs last season with Hamilton and could make it a unique Anglo-Scots double if his side can overcome Middlesbrough in Monday's final.
Boro are facing their first Play-Off Final since 1988 when they beat Chelsea over two legs. Their only other appearance ended at the semi-final stage in 1991.
In only his second season in charge, their manager Aitor Karanka is facing the Play-Offs for the first time but, by the ruthless way they disposed of Brentford 5-1 on aggregate in the semis, he seems to have acclimatised pretty well to the special rigours and pressures associated with the Play-Offs.
About the author
Richard Foster is a freelance writer and author, who is a regular contributor to a variety of football websites and blogs, including The Eagles Element and Sabotage Times. Richard’s book, The Agony & The Ecstasy – A History of the Football League Play-Offs will be published by Ockley Books later this month. Details of availability to be published shortly via www.ockleybooks.co.uk.
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