Promised land on offer for four clubs
As the Championship play-offs begin in earnest, the most quoted figure in the days to come is not hard to predict. The eventual winner of promotion in the forthcoming four-team scrap stands to bank up to $100m in increased television rights share and associated commercial revenue for reaching the promised land of the Premier League.
The trick, when you’re standing this close to the summit, is to not look down. While the potential play-off bounty is frequently evoked, Cardiff City, West Ham United, Blackpool and Birmingham City will also be acutely aware of the implications of not making it.
With the regular 46-game season only done and dusted on Saturday, those that missed out on the play-offs are already sharply drawing in breath and looking forward. Tony Mowbray, the manager of seventh-placed Middlesbrough (who could potentially have snatched Cardiff’s play-off place on the final day), has already been forced to issue denials that player sales are required.
Meanwhile the supporters of Hull City, which finished eighth, are worrying about rumors that major backers Assem and Ehem Allam are considering selling up. The Allams have already fired director of football operations Adam Pearson and have refused to comment on reports that head coach and former England international Nick Barmby has been suspended.
Further down the table, the struggles of two-time European champion Nottingham Forest, which finished 19th, are even more acute. The relegation of 2008 FA Cup winner Portsmouth and erstwhile Premier League perennial Coventry City show how a downward spiral can become difficult to escape, lumbered with players on Premier League-sized contracts and hefty overheads. The Championship is not a league for an ambitious club to get stuck in.
It’s an inescapable subplot to Cardiff’s meeting with West Ham in the opening play-off semi-final first leg, though if one team can enter the bearpit with a limited appreciation of pressure, it’s the home side. Cardiff was last in English soccer’s top flight in 1962, and is the odd one out of the play-off contenders, and not just because it’s in Wales (like Swansea, Cardiff holds associate membership of the English FA, allowing it to compete in its competitions). The other three semi-finalists were relegated from the Premier League together at the end of 2010/11.
After years of drama and flirting with imminent financial disaster, there is a degree of calm around this passionately-supported club. There is a sense of optimism too under bright young manager Malky Mackay, who was only the Cardiff board’s second choice for the job last summer after former England star Alan Shearer rejected the post.
Shearer’s refusal has proved the Bluebirds’ gain. Mackay – who played 18 times for West Ham in its 2004/05 promotion season – has put his experience of succeeding on a restricted budget at Watford to good use in south Wales, presiding over a drastic personnel restructure. Big–name forwards Michael Chopra and Jay Bothroyd (along with star loanee Craig Bellamy) moved on, and 14 new players have been brought in, mostly on free transfers.
Now Mackay and Cardiff are aiming for a Wembley return, having come within a penalty shoot-out kick of beating Liverpool in February’s Carling Cup final. The club enters the fray in a positive mood. In order to seal the deal at Crystal Palace on Saturday, Mackay’s side broke its unusual sequence of never coming from behind at half-time to win this season, in front of traveling fans in a festive spirit, dressed as characters including Elvis and Cookie Monster.
Whether home advantage is that much of a help is open to debate; in seven league games at Cardiff City Stadium since West Ham won there in March, the Bluebirds have won one, lost one and drawn five. Both league games between the pair resulted in away wins.
West Ham might fret over longer-term omens. Since the play-offs have existed in their current format – a straight knockout fight between third and sixth place, beginning in 1989 – the highest-placed finisher in the regular league season has only come out on top in seven of the 23 finals. Manager Sam Allardyce did, however, lead Bolton to promotion in the 2001 play-off.
“I’ll do the worrying,” Allardyce told reporters after the win over Hull on Saturday lunchtime, announcing he was giving his players a few days off to recharge for the task ahead. Ah, worry – that most predictable of play-off emotions. Arguably, the implications of failure are greater for West Ham than for any of the other contenders.
The club’s financial situation is delicate; even more so when one takes into account the recruitment undertaken to try to secure an immediate return to the top flight. Captain Kevin Nolan was brought in last summer on a four-year deal worth a reported $90,000 each week; a significantly better contract than his previous employer Newcastle was prepared to offer.
If West Ham misses the cut, expect wholesale changes. England goalkeeper Robert Green is one of a number of players whose future is uncertain, with his contract almost up. Wide man Julien Faubert, formerly of Bordeaux and Real Madrid, told France Football last week that he "thinks a lot" of the club and would consider any forthcoming offer to extend his imminently expiring deal – should promotion be won. “I won’t continue playing in the Championship (next season), that’s for sure.”
For stability, Allardyce will look to the club’s Player Of The Year, England under-21 midfielder Mark Noble. As an 18-year-old, Noble was a late substitute when West Ham last won play-off promotion – two miles from the Cardiff City Stadium, at the city’s Millennium Stadium, against Preston. A cultured passer born minutes from West Ham’s Upton Park home, Allardyce hopes Noble will supply Ricardo Vaz Te and Carlton Cole with the chances to fire the team’s hopes.
Constance is the name of the game in the other semi-final too, where both competitors deserve a hat-tip for a season of Trojan efforts. When Birmingham arrives at Blackpool on Friday night for the match-up between last season’s other two relegated Premier League sides, it will tackle its 61st match of a marathon season.
Looking back now, it appears the club’s first European campaign in half-a-century has galvanized the troops, rather than wearying them. Adventures such as the injury-time win at Club Brugge in October helped to build morale, and have seen a gradual swell in form. Fringe players also got their chance in Europe, with promising winger Nathan Redmond (then 17) making a scoring full debut against Portuguese top-flight side Nacional in the Europa League play-off round.
Saturday’s win over already-promoted champion Reading shows Chris Hughton’s side is hitting its form at the right time. There are goals in this team, not just from strikers like Marlon King but also from wide; club Player Of The Year Chris Burke has 14 goals and 18 assists this season.
Blackpool can say the same, with its former Birmingham forward Kevin Phillips’ eye for goal showing at 38 years of age. Phillips has 16 goals already in this campaign, but his team is no one-trick pony. A total of 22 different players have scored its 79 league goals. Blackpool is also in good touch, only beaten once in ten games since mid-March - by Reading.
Phillips’ fellow Premier League veteran Robbie Fowler could have joined him at the English seaside resort, but the Liverpool legend rejected a contract in March reportedly worth a paltry $160-per-week (to be topped up with an $8,000 appearance bonus). This is Blackpool in a nutshell; quirky, individual and frugal.
Popular boss Ian Holloway is the personification of this approach, having led the team to Premier League promotion in 2009/10 with one of the Championship’s lowest payrolls, and there was no spending spree when promotion was achieved. ‘Ollie’ would be welcomed back to the Premier League by many entertained by his quick wit and genial nature. His side mirrors that joie de vivre, and it went down in a blaze of glory in its last Premier League game, a 4-2 defeat at Manchester United in which it led after an hour.
It will be interesting to see if that liberty of spirit prevails in such a high stakes situation. Perhaps the eventual play-off victor will be the team that has been the most daring. West Ham remains the favorite to clinch the remaining Premier League place, but the feeling remains it will be tested on nerve more than pure ability.