John Brewin: The Championship Play-Off final is football’s cruellest test

With places in the Premier League coveted by supporters and bean-counters alike, Monday’s final is more than a game to Aston Villa and Derby County.


Euromillions-esque amounts are never far away when the Championship play-off final is being discussed.

The figure spirals ever upwards, with £170m being the commonly quoted figure that awaits one of Aston Villa or Derby County. Stay up next season and it becomes a minimum of £300m, according to the football finance gurus at Deloitte, and that only accounts for the cash that comes through TV and the Premier League. There are also increased ticket sales and sponsorship deals to be added into the pot.

No pressure, then. It cannot be a coincidence that as the pot of gold has increased in size, the stakes has got higher, the quality of matches in the play-off final has decreased.

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It has been a long time since those halcyon 1990s Bank Holiday Mondays when Swindon beat Leicester 4-3 in 1993, Bolton beat Reading 4-3 two years later and then Charlton and Sunderland fought out a 4-4 draw and a penalty shoot-out in 1998 for one of the finest matches in living memory.

The match itself is played with jelly legs and unbearable tension, with every mistake or chance seeing hopes of a top-of-the-range car, an indoor swimming pool and being able to send the kids to a private school flash before players’ eyes.

Up in the Royal Box, execs and owners are running constant mental calculations of how much this might either win or cost them, and managers are going through personal hells on the sidelines in the North London sun. A 46-game season, the most attritional of all in European football, has been extended to a three-game jeopardy and now comes this 90 nightmarish minutes, plus the extra-time and penalties the neutral public actually craves.

It is little wonder that the TV commentators use the hushed, pained tones of those reporting from a theatre of war. This one means more, there is no two ways about it, and the two clubs making their way down from the Midlands for Monday are the latest contestants of this sudden-death show.

This has been a week in which the problems of life in the EFL have come to the fore, with Bolton continuing to be on the point of meltdown, Bury’s players revealing they have been unpaid for 12 weeks amid a number of other clubs’ cash concerns going public.

Even at the top of the lower echelons, desperation is taking hold. Both Derby and Villa could really do with returning to the rarefied air of the Premier League. It has been 11 long years since County crashed down with a record points low of 11 points, and since then the club has gained the reputation of being the nearly man of the second tier.

After Nigel Clough failed to bring the good times of his father Brian’s tenure back and departed in 2013, the club has chewed up and spat out a series of managers who have failed to land promotion, either perishing in the play-offs, or falling short of the play-offs when the promised land looked within reach.

Frank Lampard is the latest in the firing line.

Mel Morris, the businessman whose portfolio includes the company who gave the world Angry Birds, has ploughed in serious money, including buying up Pride Park to balance the club’s books. The £80m that brought in meant Derby declared £14.6m of profit, as opposed to what would have been a disastrous loss. It was an unrepeatable, one-shot deal.

Aston Villa have been away from the top for three years now, and the former European champions have been living out a soap opera, including two changes of ownership amid financial brinksmanship.

They could barely afford to lose last season’s play-off final, surrendered meekly to Fulham. Only recently, once Dean Smith, a boyhood Villan, settled in, has there been any sense of calm and progression, excitement in a team that has disappointed the club’s support for so long.

The make-up of both clubs’ squads shows the transience of the Championship. In recent years, the division has become a nursery for the elite, a place for young diamonds to be polished before they make the full step up.

Among Aston Villa’s leading men are Tammy Abraham and Tyrone Mings, on loan from Chelsea and Bournemouth respectively, and Mings is partnered by Axel Tuanzebe, on loan from Manchester United. Anwar El Ghazi, meanwhile, mans the wing while on loan from Lille.

Derby owe almost as much to their manager’s contacts in the game. Harry Wilson, on loan from Liverpool, was a goalscorer in that amazing play-off semi-final with Leeds United, as was Mason Mount, on loan from Chelsea. Were Derby to stay down, then Wilson would surely be part of Jurgen Klopp’s plans next season, and with Chelsea served with a transfer ban, Mount might well be part of the plans of whoever is in charge next season at Stamford Bridge.

One person linked with a potential vacancy at Chelsea is Lampard himself, after just a single season as a manager in which he has undoubtedly impressed.

“Frank Lampard’s Derby County” has been the name attached to the club ever since he arrived, a sprinkling of stardust but one that may not linger long.

Derby hope not to suffer the same fate as peers like Nottingham Forest and Sheffield Wednesday, whose absences from the Premier League are now counted in decades and not years.

That John Terry will be in the opposing dug-out adds a further Chelsea tinge to the occasion. One of the pair who accompanied each other through the Abramovich gold rush will have to lose while the other celebrates, which will be a novel sight, and perhaps the enduring image of post-match.

It is in those immediate moments after the final whistle that the size of the occasion is best shown.

Last year, Jack Grealish, surely playing his last Villa game if they do not get promoted, collapsed to the turf in floods of tears. The cruelty of the play-offs means there is always one set of players needing to be scraped up off the ground while the other finds a new lease of life as dreams of new riches become reality.

Well, either that, or the realisation that other players will come in, and places will become at a premium in the Premier League.

All those strands of the narrative make the Championship Play-Off final an unmissable proposition, even when the football on show now betrays that the match means far too much.

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