The Sky Bet EFL Play-Off Finals are games which require little introduction. Under the famous arch of English football’s Wembley Stadium home, just 90 of the season’s most nail-bitingly exciting minutes separate the winners from glory, and the losers from despair.
Brentford v Swansea City
Saturday 29 May
Brentford came agonisingly close to going all the way at Wembley just nine months ago, losing out in extra-time to local rivals Fulham, in what was just the second-ever all-London Championship Play-Off Final. On Saturday, they’re back, with a not-so-secret weapon on the pitch and the thousands of fans who were unable to cheer them on last August due to COVID-19 restrictions, in the stands.
The Bees love a goalscorer, and have replaced the prolific Ollie Watkins with Ivan Toney, a man who hasn’t just filled his predecessor’s shoes, but is now wearing the next size up. The division’s top marksman with a record-breaking tally of 31 goals, there can be no doubt that he’ll be one to watch at Wembley.
But the West London side are far from a one-man team. Thomas Frank has built a group that have proven their collective worth, finishing the regular season just four points shy of automatic promotion following four successive wins. It’s form they carried into their Semi-Final, where they overturned a 1-0 first-leg deficit against AFC Bournemouth in spectacular fashion.
In this, Brentford’s tenth Play-Off campaign, those associated with the club will have fingers and toes crossed that this is finally their time.
Standing in their way, just as they did at the Play-Off Semi-Final stage last season, are Swansea City who, like Bournemouth in 2020/21, would have fancied their chances after taking a narrow lead to the English capital for the second leg.
And although they would fall short at the penultimate hurdle last time around, the Swans have gone again under manager Steve Cooper, overcoming injuries, setbacks and a busy schedule to finish fourth in the regular-season standings. Like their opponents, the Welsh side have a potent goal-getter in Andre Ayew as well as a fantastic blend of youth and experience, and it’s their young defence that has really caught the eye.
Led by Golden Glove winner, Freddie Woodman, the Swans back-line has been formidable, and deservedly earned praise for the pair of chins-up, chests-out displays produced over two legs against Barnsley. This weekend represents a different kind of test for Cooper’s men and, backed by the ever-vocal Jack Army, it would be a mistake to write them off.
Theirs is a squad that knows what it takes to compete at the highest level and, if they can overcome one final challenge, they’ll have a chance to do just that once again.
Blackpool v Lincoln City
Sunday 30 May
As has been the case across the UK, both Blackpool and Lincoln City had to play most of the season without supporters in the stands. However, at Bloomfield Road and LNER Stadium respectively, fans lucky enough to get tickets were reunited with the players they have watched through screens for so long. Those who follow the Tangerines will be hoping for more of the same in the Play-Offs, while fans of the Imps can hope their current crop break new ground.
The Tangerines have proven formidable opponents when it comes to the Play-Offs. Before this term, not only had they appeared in more finals than any other club, they’ve also recorded the most victories, with five. In addition, Huddersfield Town are the only other club to have won promotion this way in each EFL division. The latest of Blackpool’s victories came against Exeter City to secure their return to League One in 2017.
Blackpool’s Neil Critchley is in his first full season as a Head Coach, but he is looking to continue that illustrious history. His well-organised side came third in League One with the best defensive record in the entire league. That history of dominance continued in their Play-Off Semi-Final against Oxford United. The Tangerines completely blew Karl Robinson’s side away in the first leg, before sealing their place in the Final on home soil.
Lincoln have historically had a very different experience at this stage of the season. The Imps have previously taken part in the Play-Offs six times – all in League Two - reaching the Final just twice and failing to win any of them. Making this record even harder to take, five of those appearances came in consecutive seasons.
Michael Appleton will be looking to change that record against one of his former Clubs, after guiding the Imps to fifth in League One this term - securing a Play-Off place with two games to spare. The manager proved how influential he can be in the second leg of the Semi-Final against Sunderland AFC.
Having got back into League One through the Play-Offs, stabilised in the division and now reached its upper echelons, Blackpool are now one game away from returning to the Championship for the first time since being relegated from it in 2015, continuing their impressive Play-Off record in the process.
Meanwhile, Lincoln are aiming to break their Play-Off habit of recent years. If they manage that, the Imps will make it an incredible three promotions in five years, while also reaching England’s second tier for the first time since 1960/61.
Morecambe v Newport County
Monday 31 May
Neither Morecambe nor Newport County made it into the top half of League Two last term, yet they have both risen to reach the Play-Off final this time around.
Supporters may not have been in stadiums for the majority of this season, but fans of the Shrimps and the Exiles will have enjoyed what they saw from their heroes. Morecambe finished 22nd last season, while Newport were 14th, but they came fourth and fifth respectively this campaign before going on to win their own thrilling Semi-Final ties. Now, these two Clubs are one game away from reaching League One.
Morecambe still had a chance of earning automatic promotion going into the final day of the League Two regular season. However, Cambridge United and Bolton Wanderers both securing victories meant the Shrimps needed the Play-Offs – despite having won their own game against Bradford City 2-0. Earning promotion to the third tier would mean breaking new ground for Morecambe, as they have never reached that point of the football pyramid in their history. Their manager, Derek Adams, has experience of getting there, though, having done so by guiding Plymouth Argyle to second in the table in 2016/17.
As Newport aimed to reach the third tier for the first time since they were relegated in 1986/87, they had their own flirtations with the top of the table. Automatic promotion was dreamed of in January, and the Exiles have remained in League Two’s top seven since the end of gameweek three. Michael Flynn - who has led Newport to some historic results in cup competitions - has been here in the Play-Offs before, after leading Newport to the final in 2019, though they lost 1-0 to Tranmere Rovers on that occasion.
Despite his experience, even Flynn surely didn’t see what was to come in the Exiles’ Semi-Final against Forest Green Rovers, as it will likely go down as one of this competition’s classics.
Both of the sides had to battle their way to the Final, and they will need to repeat that if they are to win at Wembley. It’s the north of England against South Wales, fourth against fifth, Adams against Flynn. Most importantly of all, this game sees two teams facing off as they hope to continue their rise this season. For either club, there would be no better way to do this than winning the League Two Play-Off Final, earning promotion and lifting that trophy aloft.