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West Ham favourites to go up in wide-open Playoffs

by Aidan Elder | May 3, 2012

Chris Hughton

The managerial-merry-go-round feels a little under-used this season. Belatedly, it looks like it’s whirring into action. With Roy Hodgson being handed the hiding to nothing with England, West Brom have put up the ‘We’re Hiring’ sign and compiled a list of possible replacements.

One of the names that will feature towards the top of that list should be Chris Hughton (2/1 to be next WBA manager). Such was the standard of the job he was doing steadying the notoriously volatile ship at Newcastle, there was dismay when Mike Ashley turfed him out of the Shiny Tracksuits And Pikey Runners Direct Arena.

Despite the disappointment, Hughton went about bouncing back and took the reins at St. Andrews. After a bad start, things improved domestically. In the Europa League, his team played with more style and interest than you’d expect from a team more concerned with getting back into the Premier League.

The attractiveness of the position at the Hawthorns will depend on how much heartache Birmingham will have to endure in the Playoffs. If they go up, it’ll take a large wedge of cash to stop him building on his work with Birmingham. If they don’t, the short hop up the A41 will be very tempting. At 13/5 to go up, their chances of promotion are good, but in the craziness of the playoffs, over-confidence isn’t recommended.

There was very little to separate the Blues and Blackpool during the regular season. There was a point between the two teams as the final whistle blew last Saturday. Birmingham finished the season by going nine games unbeaten, whilst only defeat away to league-winning Reading stopped the Seasiders amassing a similar record. Ian Holloway does seem to have the happy knack of inspiring his team to big performances, which adds to the ‘flip of a coin’ feel to this tie.

Sam optimism for the Hammers

West Ham are the sitting ducks with the potential to feel most aggrieved by the process if it doesn’t go well for them. They finished two points and some goal difference short of automatic promotion and just three points short of actually winning the Championship. Below them the gap was larger than Ravel Morrison’s strangely unfounded ego. The Hammers had 11 points to spare on 6th placed Cardiff, but the four teams go into the Playoffs on a much more level footing.

Sam Allardyce didn’t complain much, which was slightly out of character. From a few weeks back, he was readying his players for the playoffs, whilst urging them to maintain their efforts in case one of the leading two slumped. They responded with a string of good performances and although it wasn’t enough to go up automatically, they at least reach the playoffs in good form, something you can’t always say about four teams fighting it out for the one promotion place in the past.

Cardiff aren’t exactly the typical sixth place team who squeak their way into the playoffs. They haven’t lost since the middle of March and if they were slightly less crap at penalties than Liverpool, would have won the Carling Cup. The one major negative is they are by some distance the most goal-shy of the Playoff teams. One major and possibly intangible positive is the motivation of playing out their local hatred with Swansea in the top flight. Visiting Coventry is bad at the best of times, but doing it knowing your rivals are tearing it up in the Premier League makes it far worse.

Again, there’s not much conclusive evidence to go on from the regular season. The away teams prevailed on both occasions when the sides met. The Irons can probably take more confidence from their 2-0 win at the Cardiff City Stadium mainly because it was more recent and convincing than the Bluebirds 1-0 win at the Boleyn Ground in August.

The league form makes West Ham worthy favourites (7/4) to prevail and return to the top table. But the incentive of a large cash cow to be milked has thrown up some unexpected playoff results in the recent seasons. That’s the point the will be hammered home if West Ham don’t take their chance to go up.

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