By Aidan Elder | Chief sports writer
It all comes down to one game. You’ve battled through 48 matches, countless cold winter evening kick-offs and – worse still – at least a couple of trips to the West Midlands and you’ve one chance to turn a good season into a momentous season. It seems incredibly harsh.
The Championship Play-off final is one of those beautiful monstrosities. Hideous, but thoroughly absorbing. We tut-tut about how grossly unfair it is on the losers, but still watch transfixed as the drama unfolds. It’s the most valuable match in sport – both in terms of money and the standard of WAG the players will get to choose from next season.
With so much at stake, every little statistical indicator helps in picking a winner and the regular season league positions tell an interesting if somewhat inconclusive story. You’d think that having won more points over the course of 46 games, you’re the superior team. You very well might be, but over the three game burst that is the Play-offs, that doesn’t always pan out that way. Looking back over the last 20 seasons of the Play-offs, we see a slight advantage for the team that finished third, but the difference is minimal.
The stats provide evidence that both sides can use to justify their respective over-confidence. For Watford, they can point to the fact that finishing third in the regular season is the best position for your chances of going up. Seven of the last 20 Play-off winners have got the chance to milk the cash cow of the Premier League from that position. And the trend looks more encouraging in recent years because in five of the last seven seasons, the team finishing third in the regular season has gone up.
But reading too much into that is more dangerous than expecting your away dressing room to be poo free after Crystal Palace have been in there. Yes, seven third placed teams have gone up, but clearly that means there has been 13 occasions when they didn’t and five of those Play-off promotion spots have gone to the team finishing fifth overall. Maybe it’s because you’re more battle-hardened after fighting for your place in the Play-offs or maybe it’s down to opposition over-confidence, but the teams finishing fifth and sixth look to have a disproportionately high success rate in the Play-offs. The prospect of Ian Holloway’s mental quotes once again gracing the Premier League may be closer than we think.
For the Play-off Final itself, the odds have gone the way of the league placings. The Hornets are slight favourites to go up than the Eagles who flew five points lower than them in the Championship. That’s a nice little ego boost for Watford, but ultimately it doesn’t count for much. Having been great throughout the regular season, they need to be in a league of their own one more time to get the reward.