By Alex Scott
I love the play offs. Since I can remember watching televised football, I’ve loved watching them. Every year they come around, and I forget how great they are, it’s almost ritualistic at this point. Watching teams and their respective sets of fans stare into the void of their own mortality for prolonged periods of time creates a level of tension above and beyond what you can normally get in a game. An entire season, nine months of effort, all coming down to one moment.
I remember being sat in my local watching that Forest Yeovil 2-5 game (aka The Arron Davies Game). I remember being stood inside the KC Stadium watching Hull run away to a 4-1 home victory over Watford, and subsequently packed into a pub on Princes’ Avenue seeing Dean Windass volley the Tigers into the Premier League. I remember The Clive Mendonca Game. The Nicky Weaver Game. Nick Wright’s overhead kick. The worst penalty of all time. The second worst penalty of all time. Watford 3 Leeds 0. Peterborough 3 Huddersfield 0. The list goes on and on.
Every year there are a few moments which are fantastic. Always. Last year, in League Two, Nick Powell confirmed everything everyone thought about him, storming the national stage, before heading off to Manchester United. The Simonsen penalty.
The play offs always give us something, and they keep on giving, as that two-hour YouTube rabbit hole I just embarked on can attest.
But I’ve never experienced a play off run from the inside before. Not really. I love it from the outside, every year I adore it, but I don’t really know what it’s like to be inside it. This is mostly unchartered territory for me. The Post-Season. Games 62 and 63. I’m excited, but far more apprehensive than I’d like.
Headed to Cheltenham, I had this sensation of freedom. An escape. Like the rooftop scene in the Shawshank Redemption, it felt like a reward. It wasn’t that it didn’t mean anything, the fact it existed at all meant a whole lot. It was a nice summer’s day watching a mostly inconsequential game, but without the self-gratifying futility of most season-enders. We could enjoy the freedom, acknowledging there was football still to come. Football is all about escapism, but that trip was about as pointed as it gets.
Not really caring about how a game ended is a weird feeling. It was energising in a way. All year long we’ve been sprinting along for one thing or another, and while it’s been fantastic, it’s been relentless. Exhaustingly so. Not that I want it to end. But after having this past week, I realise how useful it was. A week not really thinking about it, a week not absently running through scenarios on the train home from work, just enjoying this step on the mountain for what it is, before going again Thursday night.
If I felt that, it must have been a hundred-fold for the players. The play offs are great because everything around the games become so much more accentuated, and interesting. Phil Parkinson and his men knowing they had a week off, mentally as much as physically, as everyone else around them had to be on the top of their game must be a lifting thought. Especially as their reserves still matched one of the best teams in the division, desperate a win.
Before the game, I reached the conclusion that all things being equal, I wanted to face Burton. So on Saturday amidst the festivities at Whaddon Road, I was primarily supporting that. A decision which led to the situation where the outcome I desired was entirely dependent on a situations elsewhere.
Gillingham take the lead! Let’s go for the win! Burton take the lead! Shut up shop!
Then as the game wore on, and the looming conclusion came over me that I might have wanted Cheltenham all along. Rotherham were drawing for much of the day, and despite a couple of headed chances early, Cheltenham were poor, especially when factoring the eight City changes, and subsequently, the man advantage. City would have had such a psychological advantage over them headed into next week, it was an appetising thought.
Any goal in the final few minutes would have resulted in a Thursday rematch. An acknowledgement that left me with some weird feelings late on that I don’t necessarily want to revisit.
I suppose this is what the play offs do to you.
The easy conclusion to make would be that we just take care of business and whatever happens, happens. That’s what managers always preach. Not what over-thinkers like myself fall back upon, we always search for perceived optimal outcomes. It’s all about game theory at this point.
Football is a game which decides success by repetition. Cups can be won over relatively short periods of time, affording the opportunity for the odds to be beaten, by anyone… (cough), but league football is a different beast. The aim isn’t to find the best team on the day, it’s to find the team that can be best for longest. Winning one game means nothing if you can’t repeat it. The fact the play offs even exist is wholly counter-intuitive.
There isn’t a real answer to the meritocratic argument that the play offs are by definition unfair. They are unfair. It’s ridiculous really. Is it fair the seventh best team can be promoted over the fourth? No it isn’t. Does a team deserve to lose out on a multi-million pound promotion because their goalkeeper is worse at taking penalties than his opposing number? Of course not. But deserves got nothing to do with it. This is the play offs!
I have no counter, but to Hell with that argument. The play offs are great. It is drama, distilled down to its basest level; an arbitrary distinction between all and nothing with the stakes raised to the highest possible level. Everything matters. Everything matters too much.
I find it easiest to not really view play offs as football at all. It isn’t really about that. The best team doesn’t necessarily win. That’s not even really the point. It’s about how people handle pressure. Put people in impossibly stressful situations and see what happens. We’re playing God. The same premise lies behind the majesty of penalty shootouts, uncoincidentally common in the play offs.
The play offs are really more like a play. The stage is limited, and defined. The script and narrative arcs are basically the same, only the actors and characters change. There are two mainstays. Firstly, the Form Team, who lurks ominously stage right with a self-confident smirk on their face, daring anyone to come near them. The other mainstay is the main character, the Team That Stumbled. They stand self-consciously front-and-centre anxiously stuttering through a monologue they want absolutely no part of. Sometimes they succeed, sometimes they crash, but you couldn’t have the show without them.
The other two characters come from a pool of ten or so and depend on the circumstances. The Difficult Team no one wants anything to do with. The Injured Team, the Suspended Team, the Old Heads, the Plucky Underdogs, the Young Guns, the Big Crowd, the Money Team, the Villains. The list goes on, we instinctively know them all, and know how to interpret each combination.
If there’s a common adage for the play offs, it’s the primacy of momentum.
Anecdotally, for academic/gambling purposes, I attempted to prove this a few of years ago, to absolutely no avail. It’s really more of a crap shoot than it is a vehicle for surging teams to fly.
The adage tends to realise itself with the away teams (lower teams) beginning at home, without the spectre of away goal-concession hanging over them. This is the best wrinkle of the entire thing by the way. The away goals rule is terrible and antiquated and more importantly, terrible. Not having this rule is one of the playing field-levellers that make the play offs so great. As a 3rd or 4th place team, knowing you haven’t got an away goal bonus makes going away first not much of an advantage at all. Sure, you get the potential extra-time and penalties at home, but the Form Team usually finishes toward the bottom of the group, and having to travel to them first is scary, and all the pressure is on you. It can undermine what should be a raucous home return leg, the pressure is too high, and the underdogs know that.
I’d class myself as battle-hardened when it comes to watching the play offs. But as I say, I’ve never experienced a playoff run from the inside before. Not really. I was a spectator through the 95/96 run where City delivered a majestic Form Team performance, but not actively. Like those cloudy memories filed away in the back of the mind, I remember that they happened; or rather, I remember being told that they happened after the fact. I know I went to the Blackpool home game as well as the Wembley final. I have a photo in my head of looking at my Dad, getting picked up at 2-0, but I don’t remember anything about the actual game.
Weirdly, the promotion run in 98/99 is similarly hazy. I was three years older, and at eleven, should have been old enough to remember. But I don’t. Again I’m left with dictatorial scripts, oft-recited toward me, sat enthusiastically nodding, pretending I know what they’re talking about.
I’ve no real comparator for this year. The adjective I keep coming back to is ‘weird’, I feel weird, but not in the literal sense, rather the unnerving sense in that I don’t know what I think. Or what I’m supposed to think.
I’m excited. Admittedly apprehensive, but genuinely excited. The play offs are just about the most fun thing in football and we made it. And not only did we make it, we get to be The Form Team. The team who came in on the rails. We have the momentum. This is definitely the most fun character to play.
The post-Wembley run I’m sure will be picked up upon as the catalyst for this City team, a signal of mental toughness instilled in the squad, peaking at the perfect time. Which is for the most part true, although with a huge assist from the crippled and crumbled Grecians, whose spectacular collapse initially opened the door, then removed it from the hinges altogether allowing the Bantams to stroll through.
We aren’t just a standard Form Team though. With the Wembley run, the big crowd, the relatively big name players, there’s an aura beyond what comes with merely being The Form Team. We have shades of those doomed Forest League One play off teams, there to be shot at. This is something which undoubtedly goes both ways, dependent on how the players handle it.
To this end, despite finishing 7th City have been installed 5/2 favourites on the Betfair exchanges to win the League Two play offs. Part of this is no doubt down to the public money coming in on us which will be far and ahead of the competition, but there does seem to be an atypical blurring of lines regarding who should actually be favoured. Under normal circumstances City would be an outsider, playing a team who finished four places higher, but there’s a lot of noise here. Especially the D-word. Fans, pundits, even opposing managers all seem aware of the D-word draped all over this City team right now.
So far this year, all year really, things have been, and still are, umm… “falling in a certain manner”. If there is one of “these” teams this year, we would almost certainly be it: The Team of [REDACTED]. (There’s no way I’m saying it, but it’s true.) No one wants anything to do with us. That Mark Yates interview betrays a feeling about this play offs: City are the Team No-One Wants Any Part Of. Imagine we had the Super League Club Call system (a change I’d make by the way), would anyone pick City?
Parkinson’s men are emphatically the Form Team, they are also the Mini-League Winning Team, beating each team at home and only conceding one goal on the road, gaining 13 points from the six games against the play off opposition.
Northampton limped into the play offs with only one win in their final six games, and haven’t scored more than two goals in a game since the beginning of February. They have the look of the Good Bad Team about them, the one that dominates the mediocre, without the capacity to push on beyond that. But they are still the Difficult Team that if you can avoid, you’d probably want to.
Cheltenham stand as a tough one to call. They enter the post-season in iffy, if still sort of impressive form, notching wins over Chesterfield, Rotherham, Northampton, Gillingham and Exeter in the past six weeks. Then with promotion on the line in front of a sold out home crowd against a team who made eight changes, they couldn’t get the win. And frankly, never looked like doing so. Again, watch this interview and get back to me on their momentum, their confidence levels. They also have last year’s play off final defeat hanging over them. They are the team whose players I’m most worried about, but they looked listless on Saturday.
Burton are again difficult to pin. Before Saturday, if I had that Club Call, I’d have picked them, and I would have picked the Valley Parade home leg in the Thursday night slot as a first leg. Just like the Villa semis, this is exactly how I’d have drawn it up. Although again, that Cheltenham performance, and especially that post-match interview gives me pause. The Brewers are the best home team in the division, but for the second year in a row, have been terrible on the road, and will be missing talisman Lee Bell through suspension. How confidently they will walk into Valley Parade Thursday night in front of the national cameras is a question.
How the teams and managers fall into the roles of favourite and underdog will be a fascinating watch over the next few days. Whether Gary Rowett will attempt to play down Burton’s chances, potentially chipping away at the confidence built up after Saturday’s win, or attempt to ride it in to Thursday night. There’s no reason for Parkinson to move away from the underdog tag that has carried them through the back half of this season, ignoring its relevance. This is all going to play out this week.
Again, I really can’t emphasise this enough: the play offs are great.
An aspect of this year not to lose sight of in this final run is its historical and cultural context. I mentioned in my piece after the cup final, the odd feeling of being nostalgic for something before it even happened. The same feeling is true today. Is there a better team to be a fan of in the country right now?
That isn’t to say Bradford City are having the best season of anyone, six teams in our division got more points than us, before we even get to the Swanseas and Cardiffs of the world. But from a purely fan perspective, an enjoyment perspective, has it ever been this good? Has it ever been this good for anyone?
Again, the play offs are great. For over thinkers like myself, the accentuated focus, the game theory, is all just perfect. Ignore the spiel from the dugouts, it isn’t just another game. It’s way more fun than that. We know the basic parameters of how the story will unfold, but beyond that everything is up the air. The pressure is ratcheted, the lights are on, and the stage is set, waiting to be named.
I love the play offs. And I love this season. And I love that it isn’t over yet.