Sport · Word of the week

Word of the week: play-offs

For several months during this football season I have been reflecting regularly on the progress of Leeds United FC, the team that I have supported since childhood. The most recent of these pieces is here, and it contains links to every other Leeds-related post since December 2018. Today, Bank Holiday Monday, was the final day of the domestic football season here in England. In the Championship play-off final at Wembley Aston Villa beat Derby County 2-1 to win promotion to the Premier League.

Earlier this month Derby beat Leeds over two legs to reach Wembley, in a way that served as a summary of the whole season: Leeds, on top for most of the tie, fell apart at the end. Leading 2-0 on aggregate, with around 50 minutes left in the home game, Leeds conceded four goals and lost 4-3 overall. My most recent Leeds-related piece reflected on precedents and omens in football. As in the final weeks of the League campaign, the precedents that favoured my team counted for nothing. Leeds won 1-0 at Derby in the first leg. No team had ever come back from a home defeat to win a play-off semi-final in the Championship. But now Derby have done it. Until Good Friday Leeds had won every game in which they scored first this season, 20 out of 20. From Good Friday onwards they scored first in four further games, and only won one of them, that 1-0 victory at Derby. In all of the team’s last three home games (including that play-off second leg) Leeds took the lead, and failed to win.

Would it have been worse to make it to Wembley and lose to Aston Villa? Probably. I had no intention of watching today’s game, or even following it closely. My son and I went to a “Foodies Festival” in Syon Park, far away from any screens showing the game, but old habits die hard. From halfway through the first half I was checking for updates from Wembley on my phone, frequently. I know more Villa fans than Derby fans, so on balance I wanted Villa to win. I figured that, the way the season had ended, that would probably give Derby the edge. I even considered putting a few bob on them, but didn’t. By the time we returned home the game was over.

Yesterday, in the League One play-off final, Charlton beat Sunderland 2-1 to reach the Championship. I favoured Sunderland, just. On Saturday Tranmere Rovers beat Newport County 1-0 in the League Two play-off final. I realized, while that game was on, that Tranmere were the only team out of the six playing this weekend that had not inflicted a significant league, cup or play-off defeat on Leeds. Newport County knocked them out of the FA Cup last year. Sunderland beat them 1-0 in the 1973 FA Cup Final. Charlton won in the 1987 play-offs. Derby won the semi-final this year (and also won the League in 1972 when Leeds lost to Wolves in the final game, two days after the FA Cup Final). And Aston Villa beat them in the 1996 League Cup Final. I can’t decide whether that was a more miserable afternoon at Wembley than the 1-0 defeat to Doncaster Rovers (a League One play-off final) 12 years later.

These days no mention of the play-offs is complete without a reference to how much it’s worth for the team promoted to the Premier League. This year the figure being quoted is 170 million pounds. It goes up by at least 10 million a year. No other single game in any sport is worth so much to the winner. After this year’s play-offs there are three significant numbers for Leeds United fans: 5 (the number of play-off campaigns the team has been involved with, in 1987, 2006, 2008, 2009 and 2019); 0 (the number of times the team has been promoted via the play-offs); and 16. That’s the number of seasons that Leeds will have spent outside the top flight when things kick off again in August.




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