We knew the final day of the season in the Championship would prove to be an exciting and nail-biting affair for fans of Crystal Palace and Sheffield Wednesday, but few could have predicted just how tight a finish it would be. The situation was simple – Wednesday had to win to survive and a draw would be sufficient to see Palace retain their Championship status.
A packed Hillsborough bore witness to one of the most nerve-wracking fixtures our domestic game has seen for many years. Palace fans travelled in their droves, many in hope, and many in expectation. Owls supporters made their presence known too, turning our in their thousands to cheer on their side. Ultimately, only one set of fans would be heading home happy, looking forward to next season with optimism. For the victors, the ecstasy of survival, the moments that we live for as football fans and for the losers, only a horrendous sinking feeling and the prospect of life in the third tier of English football.
With so much riding on just one fixture, Sunday afternoon at Hillsborough was not for the faint-hearted. In a tight and evenly contested affair, it was Paul Hart’s Crystal Palace toasting survival, despite a late onslaught on their goal from Wednesday. An 87th minute Darren Purse goal had levelled proceedings at 2-2 and despite throwing everything and everyone forward, a third Wednesday goal was to prove elusive. An emotional day in South Yorkshire ended in jubilation for the travelling side. Many will argue that Palace should have been punished more severely upon entering administration, this being the second time that the club has done so. However, this writer has made his feelings on points deductions clear on several occasions here and although one can feel an enormous amount of sympathy towards Sheffield Wednesday, it is fantastic to see the Eagles survive.
Just a few months ago, Palace looked a surprise candidate for a playoff finish. Following seasons of mid to lower table finishes, Neil Warnock appeared to have galvanised a squad on a small budget and were well placed to push on. Unfortunately, the club’s finances caught up with them and the season has been a downward spiral for the Eagles ever since. With the very existence of the club in doubt, the story of their dramatic survival in the Championship on the final day could not have been scripted better. Of course Sunday was a day of celebration for the South London club, but in truth this was just the first battle in a long war. A new buyer is imperative and unless this happens soon, there is still the chance that there will be no club next year. If a buyer is to emerge, the sooner the better as far as Palace are concerned, since a summer of uncertainty can have a profound effect on the following season. Palace will not be able to prepare properly for the August kick-off until their immediate future has been secured. Here’s hoping that the club’s new buyer materialises over the summer.
It was not just Hillsborough that saw the exciting end of season action however, as there was still one final playoff position to be decided. Swansea needed to overhaul Blackpool in order to book their top six finish, however, with both sides earning draws, it was the Tangerines celebrating, and they will now take on Nottingham Forest over two legs. It’s hard to remember when the playoffs in the Championship last looked so intriguing and finely poised. Forest have looked strong all season and until recently appeared a good bet for an automatic promotion place. Blackpool have perhaps exceeded expectations in finishing sixth, but their form is very strong and they will not fear any of their potential opponents. The other tie sees the clash of Cardiff and Leicester. The Foxes have certainly surprised many this campaign, having returned to the Championship just last season as League One champions. You have to look quite far down the table to see how their fellow promoted sides faired this year. Cardiff are also well worth their playoff finish and having missed out on the end of season finale last campaign at the death, they will be out to make the most of their opportunity.
Finally, this writer would like to offer an apology. Just a few weeks ago, when analysing the battle for survival in League Two, Grimsby were all but written off in this column, seemingly dead and buried. However, a remarkable run of results, including Saturday’s victory over nearest rivals Barnet has seen the Mariners with a fighting chance on the final day. Should Barnet suffer defeat at home to already promoted Rochdale, victory away to Burton would seal what seemed an unlikely survival for Grimsby. There is also the slim chance of Cheltenham suffering the drop, although this would require a 6 goal turnaround for the Mariners to survive on goal difference. It seems we’re in for a nerve-wracking finale to League Two once again.