Yet Another Championship Playoff Preview

“It’s the most wonderful time of the year!” I can only assume Andy Williams was talking about the Championship Playoffs when he wrote that. Yes, after a (very) long season and 6 weeks of football more or less on everyday we’re down to my favourite part of the footballing calendar, the playoffs. There promises to be celebration, heartbreak, drama and some dodgy refereeing all leading to a spot in the Barclays Premier League. Going into the final day, it looked like a Brentford–Cardiff/Fulham–Nottingham Forest playoff bracket would take place. However this is the Championship and not everything always goes to plan. With the most mental last day imaginable the playoff picture ended up as South Wales vs West London in both brackets setting up the possibility of a Cardiff–Swansea playoff final. As a Cardiff fan that is the most horrible thing I can possibly imagine and I would ideally want to avoid at all costs. I don’t care if it would be an amazing advert for Welsh football or not, I’m sure Swansea fans would agree when I say playing a rival that big in the final would have far too much riding on it. Goes well and it’s the best day of your life (probably), goes badly and you’ll never hear the end of it for as long as you live. With all this being said, I’m going to take a look at all the teams in the playoffs this year and give a little preview as to how I see it going.

Brentford

Oh Brentford, what happened? Seems a little harsh saying that considering they’ve been in unbelievable form since the turn of 2020 but you can’t help but feel that they should’ve gone up automatically. They win two fairly winnable games against Stoke and Barnsley and they’re a Premier League club for the first time in their snazzy new stadium. However football is a cruel game and it wasn’t meant to be. Finishing third they (on paper) have the best shot at getting to Wembley and you’d be a fool to bet against them. They have quality in every area on the pitch and are incredibly dangerous going forward. Ollie Watkins and Saïd Benrhama have been different gravy this season and even on a slight off day are two of the best players in the league. Pontus Jansson is exactly the kind of player you’d want as captain. His passion for the team is unmatched and he’s exactly who you’d want to motivate you in the dressing room before a massive game. Brentford have been the surprise of the season for me. Apart from Brentford fans, nobody really expected much from them this year but how wrong we were. Thomas Frank has done a brilliant job and the players have stepped up to the plate on more than several occasions when called upon. They’re currently the favourites with the bookies and rightly so. However you’d be justified to have some reservations. To put it kindly their playoff record is fairly grim and their reliance to keep playing attractive football even if it isn’t working makes them a bit easier to play against. But there’s something magical about the playoffs, and if Frank’s men can produce the magic they have all season then it’s not too unlikely that West London’s red and white will be lifting the playoff trophy under the Wembley arch on the 4th of August.

Fulham

Arguably the biggest threat in the playoffs this year. Fulham are a strong all round Championship team. Solid at the back, control the midfield well and lethal up front. They have this season’s top scorer in Aleksandar Mitrovic who is a nightmare for defenders. Strong, holds the game up well, lethal finisher, just absolutely everything you’d want in a striker. Their football is fun to watch. Much like Brentford they keep control of the ball and attack a lot. Scott Parker has been perfect for Fulham and I’ll be honest, I didn’t think he’d do well. I thought it was Shearer at Newcastle 2.0 but I was very wrong. It was always going to be difficult for Parker after relegation however he’s coped incredibly well and has been one of the best managers in the Championship this year. The way the bookies have it at the moment, we’re heading to a Brentford-Fulham final which would be a fun watch for the neutral. Two quality teams with similar styles which would make for an entertaining game and difficult to pick a winner out of the two. However that could be their downfall. Like Leeds last year, they might suffer from overconfidence and assume they’ve made the final already. Cardiff are still a very strong team who can get good results in games where they’re the underdogs. Games this season such as Leeds at home and Nottingham Forest away prove that they can step up to the occasion against great teams when we need to. If Cardiff can get in their faces early and show they’re up for the fight and not intimidated by them then it could be a tricky few games for Fulham and not the easy route to the final many people are expecting.

Cardiff City

Cardiff. My beloved Bluebirds. When Warnock left and Harris took over we were in a terrible state. The team weren’t playing well and it looked like it would be a midtable finish a season after relegation. However something changed. Harris got the bluebirds flying and we managed to get ourselves into the playoffs. I was optimistic when Neil Harris was appointed, I’m a big fan of his work at Millwall and said how an absolute dream would be to finish in a playoff position (it’s true, I said it online and on the telly, it’s a matter of public record). Fans were somewhat divided at first but since we’ve found our feet in the lead up to and since the restart there’s a strong support for Don Harris as he’s called by fans on Twitter. Robert Glatzel has been unreal since the restart and the ability to get Lee Tomlin back from what was a season ending injury before the break due to coronavirus has been absolutely crucial. Whatever we’ve done over the break, it’s definitely worked and long may it continue. My biggest worry going into the playoffs is consistency. This season has basically been a rinse and repeat of do well for a few games, look like we’ll have a nice bit of form together, lose or draw a few games we should win or do better in, get a bit angsty, start the cycle again. If a game had to basically sum up our season it would be Brentford at home. 0-2 down after 20 minutes and playing awful, get 2 back before halftime having woken up a bit, playing well in the second half and should’ve probably ended up winning. Football eh. If we can nail our consistency over the next two legs then we can really cause a few shocks and maybe see ourselves through to the playoff final and the Premier League. Here’s to hoping.

Swansea City

To quote my favourite character from The Office, David Brent…. What are you doing here!! Yeah this is a surprise and I’ll be honest I didn’t see it coming at all. The script was supposed to be Brentford–Cardiff and Fulham–Forest. But as I’ve previously said, this is the Championship and the Championship couldn’t care less about any scripts so we got the craziest final day with Forest losing 1-4 and the Swans winning 1-4 therefore overtaking them on goal difference. In what was a similar capitulation to Yeovil Town in the 2007 League 1 playoffs (sorry to bring that up Forest fans, your team have a bit of a habit for this kind of thing), Forest missed out and Swansea took their place. Don’t really want to praise the Swans more than I really have to but I’ll give it a go and try my best (that’s a joke Swansea fans, please don’t hurt me). Swansea are a solid team with quality players such as Joe Rodon, Andre Ayew and on loan Liverpool star Rhian Brewster. They stand a decent chance against Brentford who, as previously noted, have a poor record in the playoffs. Swansea have been here before and won at Wembley, and although it was 9 years ago and it was a completely different squad, it may give them that slight mental edge. As previously touched upon, Brewster has been incredible since joining on loan and could easily make the difference for them. He’s the kind of player who can turn draws into wins or losses into draws. However you can’t overlook the fact they’re playing the best team in the playoffs. I didn’t really want to play Brentford and think Cardiff have a better chance against Fulham. They’re the outsiders with the bookies which is hardly surprising but again, this is the playoffs and you never know what might happen.

One of Brentford, Fulham, Cardiff and Swansea are three games from the Premier League. We could have a West London Derby final as we could have a South Wales Derby final. Both exciting for the neutral, both a horrible thought for the fans of the teams involved. The Metropolitan Police must be thanking their lucky stars that a possible Cardiff-Swansea final would be played behind closed doors. I feel Cardiff and Swansea meeting in the final would be a bit like that meme of Paul Rudd on Hot Ones (“look as us, hey look at us”, “who would’ve thought?”, “not me!”)… Yeah I’m not sure what that tangent was about either, anyway. Every year the playoffs are full of passion and drama, although there will be no fans in the grounds this time around it will be just as exciting. The best time of the football calendar (yeah I said it, come at me Champions League final) where form and team quality all goes out the window. It’s all about who wants it the most, and I for one cannot wait for it to kick off.

How Cardiff City’s relegation this time is different

One thing about championship teams is that they’re resilient. No matter what is thrown at them, no matter how deep the hole, they find a way to bounce back and overcome adversity.

— Nick Saban

Relegation really is a kick in the teeth. To be sent packing from the Premier League to the Championship is never fun, for lack of a better term, it sucks. This is the fate my team, Cardiff City, face after relegation from the Premier League with a battle that went right down to the wire and as a result get to enjoy a season in the Championship, oh what fun I cannot wait *holds back the tears*. The Championship however is far from a walk in the park with many quality teams competing in a packed fixture schedule with 46 games in a season with the ever exciting race for automatic promotion, the playoffs and relegation battles full of drama. The difficulty of the league is obvious with only 16 different teams managing to bounce straight back the season after relegation. The last time Cardiff were relegated we weren’t so lucky finishing 11th in our first season after relegation, 28 points behind champions, Bournemouth. However this time it feels a lot different, there’s optimism among fans and players that we can give the league a serious go this upcoming season gaining promotion again first time of asking. The odds are in our favour too with oddschecker currently having us third favourites overall to go up as champions. This post will outline some key differences to relegation last time around and how City fans can look forward to the upcoming season.

One of the key differences is the better quality of players we have. Players all over the pitch such as Neil Etheridge, Josh Murphy, Junior Hoilett, Bobby Decordova–Reid, Sean Morrison, Nathaniel Mendez–Laing and so on have already performed at a high level in the Championship (as well as last season) and no doubt in my mind they will do so again. Obviously the main thing will be keeping everyone at the club. Last time around saw a mass exodus of players such as captain Steven Caulker, Gary Medel and Craig Noone which damaged us badly. However if we manage to keep the majority of our stars then next season everything could be coming up Milhouse. Arguably one of our weaker areas on the pitch is midfield following some key exits at the end of last season however that’s being attended to. Signing Will Vaulks from Rotherham to bolster our midfield after the loans of Harry Arter and Victor Camarasa ended and Aron Gunnarsson joining Qatari team Al-Arabi (still not completely over that one 😞) it is an area that needs depth and improvement. Another midfielder or two through the door to go with the likes of Joe Ralls, Leandro Bacuna and Callum Paterson (who can play just about anywhere mind, don’t be too surprised if he plays a few games in goal before the end of the season) to partner a strong attack, a sturdy defence and quality keeper in Etheridge then we’ve got all we need for a promotion push.

Another key difference is the man in charge, Neil Warnock. Warnock is a veteran of the English Football League and is far more experienced than Ole Gunnar Solskjaer who was in charge last time around with relegation. Ole was trusted with the job following the sacking of Malky Mackay starting the punderful #RevOLEution. Less than nine months, a relegation and some very questionable signings later, Solskjaer left City and the supposed revolution was over. Magnus Wolff Eikrem anyone? How about Jo Inge Berget? What about everybody’s favourite Federico Macheda? Jokes aside Solskjaer was there at completely the wrong time. He was hugely inexperienced and was his first time managing in the English Football League where he was given a seriously difficult task of trying to keep Cardiff up then the job of kick starting a promotion push, it just wasn’t meant to be. Neil Warnock however is the polar opposite. He has experience of the championship and English football overall, knows how it feels to be relegated and certainly knows how to push for promotion. Warnock holds the record of most promotions in English football with eight. Warnock has hinted that Cardiff could be his last job in football management and with this being the last year on his contract at City this could well be his retirement year. If so then he’ll want to go out with a bang, and no bang would be bigger than a ninth promotion.

Lastly, and arguably most importantly, there’s much more of a feeling of unity within the club compared to 5 years ago. There’s a closer fans/players relationship and a strong bond between fans and the manager. Fans are optimistic for the upcoming season and there is a belief among many that we can have a positive season and the players will believe it too. Last time there was divide between some of the board and fans as we were rebranded and playing in a red instead of the famous city blue. I still wake up in cold sweats at night thinking of the 0-2 loss at home to Brighton in the first promotion year when red scarves were given out to fans for free, dark times. However that is all in the past with the board and fans now on the same side looking forward to what the new season brings. There’s a strong feeling of togetherness and spirit at the club and it will show on the pitch. There’s a saying in boxing that ‘a happy fighter is a dangerous fighter’ meaning that a young fighter who’s happy and their morale is high is more proficient and dangerous in the ring, and Cardiff are definitely a happy fighter. Keeping morale and spirits high from the team and the fans will make City a force to be reckoned with in the Championship.

How the season will pan out nobody actually has a clue, unsurprisingly I can’t see into the future. I could read this back in six months’ time and cringe at how wrong I’ve got this or surprise myself of how accurate my predictions have been. Regardless it will be an exciting season filled with hopefully many ups, probably some downs and definitely a lot of questionable refereeing.