AND so there we have it; six teams competing in next season’s play-offs across the first and second tiers of Non-League football.
Second to seventh face the turmoil and toil of the post-season scrap for promotion. All of a sudden, those sides merely chugging along in the land of mid-table mediocrity will be sniffing an opportunity to snatch a spot in the top seven and from there, who knows. It’s little wonder this has ruffled a few feathers…
Let’s face it, the member clubs of the National League were never going to vote against it. A few will have voiced concerns; a few less may have been up in arms. But gaining the 75 per cent majority needed to push it through was unlikely to have been something that was keeping the league’s chief executive, Michael Tattersall, up at night.
When The NLP ran and broke this story last Sunday, we put out a tweet to promote the news. The backlash from fans was unanimous: a terrible idea that offers an unwelcome and undeserving opportunity for success. One of those tweets condemning the idea came from BT Sport’s Adam Virgo.
But what’s brought this into such sharp focus is the fact that we still don’t have a second automatic promotion spot. For many, that has to be the primary objective. Sadly, we are flogging a dead horse there and I see no prospect of the Football League buckling to the idea.
The play-offs are a requirement in football now. Without them, a league would become drastically disjointed, and they deliver the excitement we all crave. They are not fair, but they are not built to be fair.
When I spoke to Tattersall last week at the National League’s AGM – a good bloke by the way who I believe is taking the league in the right direction – he was quick to point to League Two and the fact the top seven are involved in the promotion battle there. But you can’t really compare the two. Three get promoted, making the play-offs from the fourth to the seventh-placed teams a much easier pill to swallow. If three could go up to League Two from the National League – top two automatic, and then the next six in the play-offs – there would likely be much less carping about a lack of justice.
The notion of a side finishing in seventh place and still getting promoted doesn’t sit particularly well with me, but I can see benefits to the structure. When teams hit the ‘switch-off’ button with nothing left to play for, it has a bearing on results elsewhere. With more teams in with a puncher’s chance of breaking into that top-seven, you’ll see less of this.
It will make the league more competitive running through to the final week, with less dead rubbers, so to speak. Those teams finishing in second and third will benefit from their bye to the semi-final, along with the home advantage they will enjoy. It will be asking an awful lot for a team finishing down in seventh and sixth to pull off two away wins and a Wembley victory against much better opposition.
But it does happen. Upsets make the sporting world go round…
I’m showing my age here, but 30 years ago I used to watch a lot of American Football. In the 1985-86 season, the New England Patriots became the first ‘Wildcard’ team to reach the Superbowl, winning three games on the road at the New York Jets, LA Raiders and the much-heralded Miami Dolphins.
The play-off system in the NFL back then worked with six teams across six conferences progressing to the last eight (quarter-finals if you like), with four teams – wildcards – having to play a conference play-off match to join them.
The Patriots, with an inferior conference (divisional) record than the Jets, had to travel to New York as the away team. They prospered, winning 26-14. Back on the road, a trip to the Raiders and the intimidating Coliseum was next on the menu and an unexpected 27-20 victory ensured yet another away tie for the AFC Championship at Miami. Offered odds as short as 1-6, the Dolphins were expected to dismantle the Patriots in their own back yard. But they stumbled, and one of America’s greatest sporting fairytales was completed with a 31-14 victory.
The play-offs gave the Patriots an opportunity, just like the National League will be giving an opportunity to a lesser side next season. For the neutral it will liven up the contest; but I believe the better sides will deliver in the long run.
The Patriots lost that Superbowl, by the way. Soundly thrashed 46-10 by the Chicago Bears, it was a game too far for even the biggest of dreamers. Fairytales, they don’t always guarantee a happy ending…