Championship Play-offs: Who will get the Premier League golden ticket?
The Championship Play-offs are always a highlight of the season. With so much at stake, including a cash windfall of at least £150m, the unpredictable can and does happen.
This year, four clubs with widely varying resources are vying for that golden ticket to the promised land of Premier League football.
Much has already been said about the disparity between the cost of Luton Town’s squad of just £1.5m and the £113.7m of their play-off rivals Sheffield United.
Brentford were promoted via the Play-offs last season… but who will follow them?
Nottingham Forest’s squad value is £30.8m and Huddersfield Town’s is £17.2m, so they also far exceed Luton. But they are also overshadowed by the Blades, who only descended from the top flight last season.
It’s a point hammered home by the fact that promotion side Fulham cost £158m and Bournemouth £125m, also the proceeds of recent Premier League visits and parachute payments.
It can create a two-tiered environment on the second level, but in the end, these riches are what everyone is looking for and dreams of.
As the Championship play-offs begin this weekend, we get a preview of both semi-finals.
LUTON TOWN v HUDDERSFIELD TOWN
First leg: Kenilworth Road, Friday 7:45 p.m. Second leg: John Smith Stadium, Monday 7:45 p.m.
Both live on Sky Sports Football
Luton form: LWWDLWW Huddersfield form: WDWWWW
You would have a good chance of it being a Play-off semi-final at the start of the season. Luton have been mobile upwards for several seasons but finished only 12th last season, while Huddersfield barely avoided relegation.
But both clubs have brilliantly exceeded all expectations and will happily take on the role of underdogs with more pressure on Forest and United.
Nathan Jones has done wonders at Kenilworth Road. Let’s not forget that Luton were a non-league team as recently as 2014 and have been slowly climbing the pyramid after financial disputes and point deductions took them down.
Luton Town exceeded all expectations to finish sixth on a shoestring budget
Working on a shoestring budget, Jones leans on the spirit of the collective in a team completely absent from flashy show-offs.
The Welsh manager set fire to the players’ table tennis table as the symbolic dawn of a new era of focus and professionalism. His recruitment was smart out of necessity, there’s no money to waste.
Jones said this week that Luton’s winning promotion would be “probably the greatest story in football” and he’s right.
They were relegated from the top division at the dawn of the Premier League era in 1992 and went all the way down and back again.
Luton manager Nathan Jones did wonders to put the Hatters in the top six
What is certain is that no Premier League star will appreciate the cramped dressing rooms and atmosphere opposite Kenilworth Road next season, with the Hatters also hoping to use this to their advantage against the Terriers.
Huddersfield has been revitalized by Carlos Corberan, a former member of Marcelo Bielsa’s behind-the-scenes team at Leeds. His first season was mediocre, but they’ve been in and around the top six all campaign.
They enter the Play-offs as a fit side, having beaten Middlesbrough, Barnsley, Coventry and Bristol City in their last four games and are seven unbeaten.
Huddersfield also don’t have a big budget and have relied heavily on free signings, with Corberan’s coaching skills ensuring he gets the most out of his squad.
Huddersfield celebrate a goal in their final game of the regular season last weekend
If the omens exist, Huddersfield have won promotion in their last two forays into the Play-offs. In 2012 they beat Sheffield United on penalties in the League One final and in 2017 they beat Reading on penalties to make the Premier League for the first time.
The Terriers only beat Luton 2-0 last month as part of their strong end to the season, but it could have been different had Elijah Adebayo converted a penalty for 1-1 with 20 minutes remaining.
The absence of Sorba Thomas, who has provided 14 assists this season, will hamper Huddersfield and a few very tight and hotly contested legs look likely.
Huddersfield boss Carlos Corberan could bring the Terriers back to the Premier League
SHEFFIELD UNITED v NOTTINGHAM FOREST
First leg: Bramall Lane, Saturday 3pm Second leg: The City Ground, Tuesday 7:45 p.m.
Both live on Sky Sports Football
Form of Sheffield United: DLDWWW Shape of Nottingham Forest: WWWWLD
Two clubs with big fanbases who think they deserve to be Premier League entities meet in the other semi-finals.
There’s plenty of longstanding rivalry between Sheffield United and Nottingham Forest, dating back to the miners’ strike of 1984, and the sold-out crowds will create an exciting atmosphere.
They met in an epic semi-final in 2003. After a 1-1 draw at the City Ground, Forest took a 2-0 lead at Bramall Lane only for Neil Warnock’s Blades to come back, force a extra time, then use their momentum to earn it.
Enda Stevens celebrates Sheffield United’s goal in their 4-0 win over Fulham last week
A repeat of this classic would be welcome and anything seems possible after the remarkable seasons the two have had.
Fresh from the Premier League, the Blades started the season inconsistently under Slavisa Jokanovic and he paid the price in late November.
Paul Heckingbottom arrived and lifted the side from mid-table mediocrity to a Play-off place, the season ending with three straight wins, including a 4-0 thrashing of champions Fulham.
Top scorer Billy Sharp, who has 15 this season, picked up a calf strain to add to existing absentees up front including Oli McBurnie, Rhian Brewster and David McGoldrick.
This may force the Blades to do without a recognized centre-forward and seek a containment policy for much of the game.
Billy Sharp, celebrating a goal against Derby, is a fitness doubt for the semi-final, first leg
The transformation of the forest during the season is even more spectacular. They looked doomed to a relegation-struggling season after losing six of their first seven league games.
But Steve Cooper proved an inspired appointment, lifting them from 24th and bottom just a hair’s breadth away from snatching automatic promotion at Bournemouth.
In the end, they finished fourth after a draw against Hull City, but Cooper did wonders not only to build a winning side, but to restore pride to a great club that underperformed for so long. .
Brennan Johnson (left) has been Nottingham Forest’s outstanding performer this season
Forest have not been in the Premier League since 1999 but come into these Play-offs as favorites with their outstanding academy graduate Brennan Johnson leading the way.
He will be even more key with Lewis Grabban ruled out with a hamstring problem and Keinan Davis also sidelined with a similar problem.
As in their last Play-off meeting 19 years ago, this meeting could well turn out to be epic.
Forest boss Cooper has turned Forest from relegation fodder into promotion hopefuls