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Is it time to care about the English Football League yet? An EFL playoffs preview

Glenn Murray of Brighton and Hove Albion celebrates scoring his side's first goal during the Premier League match between Swansea City and Brighton and Hove Albion at Liberty Stadium on November 4, 2017 in Swansea, Wales. (Photo by Michael Steele/Getty Images)
Roar Guru
9th May, 2018
12

With another EPL season wrapping up and the confirmation of Stoke and West Bromwich Albion’s relegation to the Championship, the question does arise is it time to care about the English Football League yet?

For a season hardened Football League fanatic who has followed all of the three divisions, the question need not be asked, but for the many football fans who don’t support one of the 72 Football League teams, the lower divisions may not be a priority and so this is certainly the time to get on board.

If you haven’t already.

The reason to care about the Football League is that there is just one spot left for the cash cow that is the 2018/2019 EPL season to be decided between four teams and five games across the next few weeks. The big final playoff game at Wembley is worth 100’s of millions to the winner and the glory of being in one of the biggest leagues in the world.

The unsuccessful teams face another 46 game slog in the toughest league in Europe.

Wolverhampton Wanderers, with their new Chinese investments, a super squad of players and a few outright potential superstars in the EPL next season wrapped up promotion and the title a little while ago, and they were joined by Cardiff City on the last day of the season after a surprising season of overachievement.

So who is left to fight for the one place in the riches of the EPL? Four teams who have all been a part of the EPL at some stage, some very recently, some briefly, and all feeling like they deserve another go at the top flight. Thoughts on their chances are below.

Fulham (Finished third – W25 – D13 – L8 – GD +33)
Fulham have been described by many of their vanquished opponents this season as the best team they have played all season, and while they have excited in the second tier with their style of play and bright young stars and had a run of 23 unbeaten games heading into the final day, they weren’t quite able to get into the second automatic promotion position.

They lost to Birmingham City on the last weekend of the season to confirm their third placing and potential journey to the EPL through the playoffs.

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That loss was their first in 24 games, and the worry is whether missing out on the automatic place will have some effect on their confidence heading into sudden death. Against them also is that the team finishing third actually have a surprisingly average record of promotion through the playoffs.

Just four times in the last ten seasons the team that finishes third gets to go up. Next best is fifth with three promotions, fourth place has two, and one for sixth place. Fulham are the top goals scorers of the four teams in the playoffs, their 79 in 46 games only three behind top scorers Wolves. Manager Slavisa Jokanovic had previously got Watford promoted into the EPL in 2015. 

The Cottagers would be a welcome addition to the EPL and are possibly the neutral’s choice as the playoffs begin. However if they don’t make it, then they have a number of players who will no doubt pop up in many an EPL team’s shopping lists in the summer. Ryan Sessegnon, Tom Cairney, even Aleksandar Mitrovic who has scored 12 goals in 15 games since arriving on loan from Newcastle in January.

So the spirit of this season’s Fulham team may live on in the EPL next year after all.

Aston Villa (Finished fourth – W24 – D11 – L11 – GD +30)
The Championship has seen some big EPL clubs come down in the last few seasons. Newcastle, Sunderland, and Aston Villa are three big clubs who seemed destined to be a fixture in the top flight. Proving that size, supporters, prestige, and even a Royal fan makes no difference in the cutthroat world of EPL relegation, Aston Villa dropped down in 2016 after a few seasons in a row of just surviving in the top flight.

You could hardly call their first season in the division a great one either, finishing 13th and 18 points from the playoffs. Although, given the new low bar that Sunderland have set for relegated EPL sides this season, 13th isn’t too bad.

This season has seen improvements across the park, despite a slow start where they were languishing in 18th place in September, Aston Villa were as high as second at one point on the back of a run of seven straight victories. They couldn’t maintain that all season, however, as the unfashionable Cardiff managed to grind out the entire season to take the second automatic spot, and Villa had to settle for a solid fourth.

But they were a top six side for the second half of the season and playoffs at a minimum always seemed inevitable. And in manager Steve Bruce they have a boss who has seen four promotions to the Championship with Birmingham City and Hull City.

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It is a decent squad though, with some very good Championship players like Robert Snodgrass and Jack Grealish, and also saw big names John Terry and Australian skipper Mile Jedinak join. Bonus goals from Bournemouth loanee Lewis Grabban (8 in 15 since mid-season loan) helps too.

There is some experience of big games there which will no doubt prove invaluable if Aston Villa make it to Wembley. They have the best defensive record too of the playoff teams (42 goals in 46 games), a good stat in the playoffs, especially the final which are usually very tight, dour affairs.

Middlesbrough (Finished fifth – W22 – D10 – L14 – GD +22)
Middlesbrough are the only team relegated from last season’s EPL that have made it to the playoffs. The other two – Hull City and Sunderland finished 18th and last respectively.

Sunderland setting a new record of worst post EPL season. Every season since 2015 at least one EPL side have rebounded, a good stat for Middlesbrough given they are the only ones left capable of that.

This season has seen Middlesbrough hover around the lower playoff places, dropping as low as ninth in February, but picking up the pace as the season drew to a close. The secured a hat-trick of wins twice in the last 12 games to guarantee themselves playoffs football. 

As ever Tony Pulis may not be the most popular manager in terms of style, and their stats over the season are neither groundbreaking or terrible, better than average, but that might not cut it at this stage of the campaign.

They do have prolific Championship goalscorer Britt Assombalonga, whose 15 goals may seem a little underwhelming as they came at a million pounds per goal after his offseason move and former Chelsea serial loanee Patrick Bamford, whose scoring feats are also in double figures.

Manager Tony Pulis could be forgiven if he had a quiet chuckle to himself if Boro went up given that the two previous teams he managed in the EPL – WBA and Stoke are both coming down to the Championship next season. Stoke’s demise sees off ten seasons of EPL which Pulis brought for their club following their promotion in 2008. 

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Derby County (Finished sixth – W20 – D 15 – L11 – GD +22)
Derby did what they seem to do every season in the Championship, get a very good squad together, start well, look like a genuine contender for promotion then all of a sudden fall into a hole. The key moment looked to be the 4-1 loss at home to Sunderland in late March.

But the Rams held it together and finished the season with two wins and a draw to nail the sixth spot, and final playoff place, beating Preston North End by two points. 

They have a decent squad. In particular, Tom Huddlestone, Tom Lawrence and Matej Vydra scored 21 goals this season, which is the highest individual scoring tally of the playoff teams from this season. And in Gary Rowett, they have one of the better younger English managers in the Football League, a man who could have taken a few vacant EPL jobs by now, but has stuck with Derby.

Perhaps he will get to manage in the EPL after all if he can guide Derby through the playoffs.

Championship playoff games (All games in AEST and broadcast on Bein Sports on Foxtel)
Sat 12 May 4:45 am – Derby versus Fulham

Sun 13 May 2:15 am- Middlesbrough versus Aston Villa

Tue 15 May 4:45 am – Fulham versus Derby

Wed 16 May 4:45am – Aston Villa versus Middlesbrough

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Sun May 27 2:00 am – Championship Playoff Final

Predictions
Fulham to get past Derby County over two legs with two wins.

Aston Villa to get past Middlesbrough over two legs with an away draw and home win.

Aston Villa to beat Fulham and return to the EPL at the second time of asking. 1-0 probably.

A quick look at League One
It would be rude if a Football League playoff guide didn’t include the third and fourth tier, so here goes…

With some unfamiliar names in the mix, it is a great chance for neutrals to jump on board and support a team, albeit temporarily, through the finals campaign.

Wigan and Blackburn are already promoted, so Rotherham could make it three promotions from the three teams relegated from last year’s Championship. They finished fourth and face Scunthorpe who finished the season off nicely with four wins from five games after a barren run of ten games without a win almost cost them playoffs. Rotherham are the highest scorers from the season of the remaining playoff sides.

Shrewsbury are the great story from this season in League One, having been among the favourites for relegation at the start of the season, they remained on top for a long time this season, and only just dropped off a little at the end of the season to settle for third. They were a good eight points clear of fourth in the end.

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And have the best defensive record of the playoff teams. Given the off-field dramas at Charlton with their owners, a sixth spot finish is not a bad result, and still brings a chance of Championship football next season. At least it looks like their unpopular owner may be selling up.

Schedule
Fri 11 May 4:45am – Charlton v Shrewsbury

Sat 12th May 9:00pm – Scunthorpe v Rotherham

Mon 14th May 2:15 pm – Shrewsbury v Charlton

Thu 17th May 4:45 am – Rotherham v Scunthorpe

Mon 28th May 0:00 am – League One Playoff Final

Prediction
Scunthorpe to hold on 0-0 in the second leg to proceed after 1-0 first leg win.

Shrewsbury to set up all S final over the two legs.

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For no particular reason other than a hunch, Scunthorpe will win the final.

A quicker look at League Two
With Football’s feelgood story in Accrington Stanley, comeback kids Luton Town, and the team (Wycombe) with The Beast aka Adebayo Akinfenwa (check out his fine work on Youtube) all promoted, that leaves teams fourth to seventh to fight out the remaining spot in League One.

Showing how quickly teams can fall in the Football League under questionable ownership and a little ignorance, one of these teams – Coventry City – were a regular fixture in the EPL up until 2002, their opponents Notts County were in the old first division the very last year before it became the EPL. It has been lower league football since. 

Some will remember Lincoln’s incredible run in last year’s FA Cup as a Non-League side, and the Imps are getting used to winning things. Having secured promotion and the National League Premier title last season, they have made a good fist of League Two, seventh being a very respectable finish in their first year back in the Football League.

Lincoln have also won at Wembley this year already, taking out the Checkatrade Trophy (for third, fourth Div teams, and EPL/Championship academy sides). This shows a winning mentality which is hard to beat.

Exeter now have the longest serving manager in all of the 92 professional teams in England when Arsene Wenger manages his final game. Paul Tisdale started managing the Grecians in June 2006 and still remains in charge.

He has previously taken Exeter into League One, where they finished a high of eighth before relegation back to League Two.

Schedule
Sun 13th May 0:00am – Lincoln City v Exeter

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Sun 13th May 5:30 am – Coventry v Notts County

Fri 18th May 4:45 am – Exeter v Lincoln City

Sat 19th May 4:45 am – Notts County v Coventry

Tues 29th May 0:00 am – League Two Playoff Final

Prediction
Lincoln to beat Exeter over two legs. Coventry to win both legs. Lincoln to win on penalties in the final.