Old Trafford, not a happy place yesterday unless you were a Stevenage fan, has been pressed into action for the League One and League Two play off finals owing to a double booking at Wembley for the Champions League final but – in a way – the shifting down of this season’s promotion finals seems to fit in with the mood in football from half way down the leagues.
Wembley is the place to battle for a place in the Premier League – the suggestion is – and everyone is at some point on the road to that destination. Stevenage showed the power not of performance but of momentum, as have Norwich City and Leeds United in the Championship this year. While this morning’s newspapers are full of praise for Lionel Messi the difference between this Barcelona side and the one which contained similar talents but went unrewarded is the momentum with which it approaches games.
The winning habit seems to have become ingrained in Lee Clark’s Huddersfield Town and with thirty games without defeat it seems curious that the Terriers were not automatically promoted. Perhaps the truth lay within their play off semi-final results, two draws and a win on penalties.
Having switched managers reasonably seamlessly mid-stream Peterborough United’s season with the club arresting the downturn that started with a woeful year in The Championship that saw the now returned manager Darren Ferguson replaced and chairman Darragh MacAnthony lambasting the squad. Posh fans were glad that the likes of Craig Mackail-Smith, George Boyd and England call up keeper Joe Lewis were not able to exit the long term contracts that MacAnthony talked of them signing in his rant.
MacAnthony and his opposite number at Town Dean Hoyle have both kept expensively assembled squads together for this season after disappointing returns last time out. Mackail-Smith has scored 34 goals this season – not as many as Messi or Ross Hannah but a good return – while Lewis is hunted by Everton. Promotion is the reward today for the winner, the loser’s punishment could be the loss of momentum which has brought them to this point.
Huddersfield’s supporters outnumber the Peterborough fan but are left with hearts in mouths as Mackail-Smith hits the post within the opening minutes. Town are on the rack as George Boyd – playing in a free role behind Mackail-Smith – but have the out ball of Benik Afobe as constant and effective.
The tier three play-off final is the only one of the three which Bradford City have ever been to – the 2-0 win over Notts County being the first hurrah of the push that led to the Premier League – and while the game that day seemed to be fated the Bantams way from kick off this match is more in the balance despite the vocal and visual overpowering of the Town support.
Town’s first chance comes when Bolton loanee Daniel Ward does well to get the ball to Peter Clarke but Paul Jones saves well and hurls the ball to Mackail-Smith who hurtles away. This is a theme for the afternoon, hitting the striker quickly and seeing if the Town central defensive pair can handle the pace of the forward.
So the game is set with Town parrying the speedy attacks of the Posh and the Posh defenders – especially the excellent Ryan Bennett – trying to keep Town’s more physical force at bay. Blows are exchanged up to half time and perhaps there is a sense from both sides that there is more to lose than there is to gain.
That a season in the Championship is good, but that the pain of the lack of progression which defeat represents is too hard to swallow. In a way both teams represent different way to progress. Hoyle has looked at Huddersfield’s near peerless (in the lower leagues) off the field set up of Academies and Training facilities and asked how he could make it better. £5m of new pitches and set up are bolstering the Terriers next season.
MacAnthony backs his squad – despite the criticism – with lengthy contracts which protect the investment in the squad with the prospect of transfer fees should any exit and with a continuity which allows for stability despite manager movement. Both are excellent paths to follow for clubs looking for a competitive advantage and neither approach is discredited with defeat.
The worry though is that it might appear that it is. Talking to Mark Lawn this season the City chairman pointed out that Middlesborough were doing poorly in the Championship despite having spent money on youth development as if to suggest that youth development itself was discredited. Boro survived the season while Posh and Town climb above the morass of League One by having a plan for success and following it regardless of set backs.
Yet a set back for one is inevitable and and Daniel Ward looks like inflicting that set back on Peterborough coming out in the second half like a live wire but still Town struggle to cope with Mackail-Smith and the speed of his counter attacks – and the speed in which Posh get players alongside and past him – worries the West Yorkshire side.
It is not Mackail-Smith who provides that breakthrough ten minutes from time – that comes from Tommy Rowe heading in a Grant McCann cross – but the striker combines with George Boyd for a second goal two minutes after the first and the few are out singing the many, celebrating promotion with a swagger as McCann adds a third as the game ebbs away.
To the victors, the spoils and a quick return to the top half of professional football for a second go at what went so badly wrong last time. The big names enhanced reputations and values and should the Posh cash in to march into next season they are well positioned by virtue of adopting an approach of putting their faith in a playing squad which they believe has the quality and back with contracts that give security and stability.
For Huddersfield Town one would expect any self-respecting Bradford City organ to be gloating but I find it hard to celebrate another team in defeat and it gives me no joy. Town are a club with more money than most at this level for sure but more significantly they have a set of priorities off the field which allow I’d rather City learnt from than shake a fist at. Indeed despite the talk of City having to make do with the facilities we had David Baldwin announced that – at no cost to the club – the Bantams were going to have better facilities next season. Danny Cadamarteri – on the bench for Town in his second spell with them after being another one of those mystery under performers for City – might have faired differently at the new Apperley Bridge set up.
The nature of the play-offs – as with any final – is to create winners and losers and for a second year Lee Clark’s side are dubbed as losers. If sense reigns to the South West of Bradford then next season will be a same again for Huddersfield as they carry on carrying on. If they lose their bottle then they will make unnecessary changes.
Darren Ferguson – a former Manchester United player who celebrated victory at Old Trafford – and his chairman Darragh MacAnthony might reflect that three changes of manager following the sacking of Young Fergs it was going back to the original plan which took them forward.