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.

Seatbelts on: Real football is back and project restart is go

So… it’s been a while. I know I’ve not posted in far too long and yeah, sorry about that. Since January it seems my life has been uni deadline after uni deadline and I’ve not really had any time to do anything else. So what’s gone on in my absence? Tyson Fury beat Deontay Wilder in the States to become WBC Heavyweight champion of the world, Kansas finally had a winning team under the guidance of Mahomes and co., Tom Brady kissed goodbye to New England joining the Tampa Bay Buccaneers taking his bestie Rob Gronkowski with him, Liverpool looked set to go invincible before Watford away but it’s still their year, Leeds were playing some incredible football and looked like they’d finally make it back to the top flight. What else? Oh yeah, just the small issue of a global coronavirus pandemic which put a halt to life as we know it across the world, a full scale lockdown in the UK and many other countries, the Olympics and Euro 2020 were postponed, multiple football leagues across Europe were either suspended indefinitely or, as were the cases in the cases of Scotland, France and The Netherlands, cancelled all together. But now it looks like things in the sporting world may be going back to normal… kind of.

At the time of writing, we’re only a few hours away from project restart kicking off with Premier League football coming back behind closed doors. There are adaptions obviously, some make a lot of sense such as up to 5 subs can be used and daily testing of players and staff whereas some not so much like socially distanced celebrations from players (because that’ll happen if Liverpool win the league at Goodison), fans voting on chants from an app and walk on music for substitutions? Makes sense in a weird way. But after weeks of hearsay and questions over whether it would start up again, the implementation of a points per game system or the dreaded (for some) null and void, the green light has gone ahead and we look forward to six o’clock this evening to some quality football in the shape of… Aston Villa v Sheffield United. But at least we’re getting Man City v Arsenal after that, so every cloud.

I’ll be honest, I was surprised when I heard that the season was going ahead. Once it was announced that League 2 and League 1 were going to use a points per game system to round up their seasons I thought that the Championship and Premier League were destined to follow suit. So when the announcement came that the Championship and Premier League were coming back, it was a surprise to be sure but a welcome one. I wasn’t expecting to be this excited for football to start back. Sure there’s been the Bundesliga for a while and La Liga for a bit of time now but it’s not really been the same. Lockdown hasn’t been fun in any way imaginable. The only thing that kept me sane for the most of it so far was the what seemed like endless mountain of University work I had to do, so this has come at an ideal time for me. We’ll still get to see the race for European places, promotion pushes, relegation battles, the FA Cup, champions league and my absolute favourite time of the football calendar, the playoffs.

It’s been far too long without football, and I like many other fans across the country and the world have missed it so much. We’re only a few hours away from the big moment now and the excitement is building. Weirdly I don’t usually get as excited as I have been in the last few days for the start of the season, I suppose absence makes the heart grow fonder. Maybe it’s because it was left in the unknown for so long as to when it would all start up again and it’s just a sigh of relief we get to watch our favourite sport after such an absence. From the outside in from a non fans perspective, this probably looks really strange. Why do people care so much about 22 men in shorts kicking a bit of leather about for 90 minutes? And to be honest, I really don’t know. I wish I had the answer, so then I could give one when friends of mine who aren’t fans ask me “why do you care so much about football?”. We don’t know, we just do. It’s not something you can really explain without experiencing it. It’s a community, almost a family in a weird way. It builds bridges between communities and people from all backgrounds and walks of life. A common interest and passion for your team. Bringing small towns or major cities together, the elation in seeing your team making you and your community proud. It brings hope, happiness and joy to millions, something we desperately need in these unprecedented times. The best way I feel like it can be described is in this quote from Franklin Foer who says football “isn’t the same as Bach or Buddhism. But it is often more deeply felt than religion, and just as much a part of the community’s fabric, a repository of traditions”.

What the future of football is in a pandemic world, I don’t know. Who knows when we’ll be able to go back to the stadium to watch our teams? It’s just too early to tell and I don’t want to start throwing predictions about. All we know is come 6 o’clock this evening, the sport we love is back (to quote Martin Tyler) AND IT’S LIVE!