Play-offs? Six of the best has got appeal
IT IS difficult to beat the play-offs for entertainment value, isn’t it? But are they really a fair way to decide a season’s work? When I’ve written about this subject before, I’ve likened the play-offs to running a marathon… and then straightaway being asked to run a 100m sprint.
There is something illogical about spending nine months having a league where everyone plays everyone home and away to decide who’s best, and then making some of the sides play each other again.
Yes, I know it keeps the drama alive. If there were, for example, three automatic promotion places in the Championship and no play-offs, you could end up with a host of teams having nothing to play for in the closing months of the season.
With the play-offs, you can come with a late surge, break into the top six and have a dart at glory.
There is also the excitement of those knockout semi-finals over two legs and, best of all, the chance to earn promotion at Wembley, the home of football. In fact, it’s probably the best way to go up.
But what sticks in the craw somewhat is when teams who finish miles behind others in the regular season then get the chance to turn them over in the play-offs.
It doesn’t seem fair that, for example, Fulham have to take on a Derby side who finished a hefty 13 points behind them, or Shrewsbury must face a Charlton team who came a whopping 16 points in arrears.
Yes, those are the rules and the clubs abide by them, but it does leave a slightly sour taste in the mouth.
But if you don’t like the current system, you have to come up with a better alternative.
For me, the National League may well have cracked it. Some thought they were crackers last year when they announced their playoffs would include six clubs instead of the tried and trusted four. But their innovative idea, for English football at least, has, in my opinion, a number of positives.
One is that there is a real advantage to finishing in a higher position. With the current four-team system in the EFL, there is little benefit in finishing third rather than sixth. Okay, the team that finishes higher gets home advantage in the second leg, but that is not a massive reward.
In the six-team set-up across the National League’s three divisions, the teams that finish second and third get a bye straight into the semi-finals, while the teams finishing fourth to seventh play off against each other in two eliminators (4th v 7th and 5th v 6th).
Another plus is that the second and third-placed sides get home advantage in the semifinals (all the play-off matches are over one leg). Therefore, a team that are runners-up just need to win one match at home to reach the final (as Tranmere did in the National League by beating Ebbsfleet 4-2 after extra-time last weekend). Some people will no doubt say the teams finishing sixth and seventh shouldn’t be in the play-offs, but the fact is that they will have to do it the hard way if they’re to win promotion. For example, Ebbsfleet, who finished sixth, went to Aldershot and won on penalties after a 1-1 draw in midweek. They then had to beat a well-rested Tranmere on the road again to reach the final.
If they had won away twice in quick succession and then been victorious at Wembley in the final, I would have felt as though they’d merited their success.
Alex Narey, the editor of our sister publication, The Non-League Paper, also suggested last week that the fact that playoff places had been extended down to seventh place had helped bring about ‘a tighter and more competitive National League this season’ because more clubs felt they had a chance to do something.
Another positive is that the ties are all over one leg. In this instant world we now live in, it’s hard to see much demand for two-leg matches. It should be allor-nothing on the day.
This summer, the National League will no doubt analyse the pros and cons of the changes they made a year ago. The EFL will surely have kept an eye on things, too.
The play-offs could do with a makeover and this could well be an idea they end up copying.
BIG MOMENT: Tranmere Rovers’ Josh Ginnelly scores their second equaliser en route to a dramatic 4-2 extra-time win against Ebbsfleet
PARTY TIME: Tranmere celebrate reaching Wembley