With the completion of the play-off finals at Wembley over the weekend, another highly memorable season in the Football League has drawn to a close. For some it will have been a season of disappointment, but for the victors in the traditional end of campaign finale, the summer will be a time to reflect on a job well done and to look forward with optimism to a season in a higher division.
Starting in the Championship, it was last weekend when Ian Holloway’s Blackpool fended off the challenge of Cardiff in an enthralling encounter. Dave Jones’ side were hoping to become the first Welsh side to compete in the Premier League, but the fairytale that has defined Blackpool over the last few seasons continues, and it is the Tangerines who will mix it with the likes of Chelsea and Manchester United in August. The rise of the club has been nothing short of phenomenal over the last few years and although purists will argue that the team who finishes third should be promoted, it would be cruel to suggest that Blackpool don’t deserve their crack at the top flight. Their promotion story started with a victory against a fancied Nottingham Forest side at Bloomfield Road, however, it was the second leg where Blackpool truly showed their credentials, with a near flawless attacking display, led by on-loan DJ Campbell saw them over the finishing line and book their place at Wembley.
The question is what now for Holloway’s side? First and foremost, (unfortunately) they will immediately be labelled as favourites for the drop. Fellow promoted sides West Brom and Newcastle both have bags of recent top flight experience and should be well equipped to be competitive and will be capable of mounting a season of mid-table safety. Think along the same lines as Wolves as opposed to Burnley. However, with the charismatic Holloway at the helm and a strong squad who play for each other as much as themselves, Blackpool can rightly look forward to the coming campaign with optimism. Coupled with this, there is also the legacy of promotion. Bloomfield Road will need to be brought up to scratch, with new media facilities an example of the necessities for beginning life in the top flight. Although it won’t be completed in time for the start of the new season, the east stand at the ground will finally be constructed, having been left as a temporary affair over recent years.
Moving down into League One, there was joy unbridled in south London as Millwall saw off the challenge of high scoring Swindon to book their place back in the Championship. Kenny Jackett’s men have built their promotion push around a solid home form, only losing once at the Den this season and although they didn’t run away with the final against the Robins, they seemed relatively untroubled during their play-off campaign. A goalless draw away to Huddersfield was followed by an unconvincing victory over their Yorkshire rivals, although in their defence it hardly seemed necessary to break into third gear for the Lions. And so to the final, where a solitary goal from captain Paul Robinson was enough to see the London side home and back into the Championship.
Promotion at Wembley this time around for Jackett’s side was all the sweeter for the fact that it ended an unwanted record for the club. Having previously made the end of season knock-out five times, the Lions had not once tasted promotion. Last season was the closest they came, making the final only to suffer defeat at the hands of Scunthorpe. And so it was a case of sixth time lucky, and as their fans sang and danced their way from the national stadium, this writer has a hunch that they should be alright next season. There are weaker sides in the Championship as things stand and with the summer to regroup and strengthen, the Lions should fair fine on their return to the second tier.
Completing our round up of the play-off competition is the story of another remarkable rise up the football ladder. Sunday’s fixture saw Dagenham & Redbridge defeat Ronnie Moore’s heavily tipped Rotherham side in a highly entertaining encounter. Before looking at their play-off journey, perhaps a quick glance at the history of the club is required.
The Daggers, as they are today, were only formed a mere 18 years ago, following the merger of Redbridge Forest (themselves a merger of other non-league names), and Dagenham. Promotion to the Football League was accomplished just three years ago and despite consistently being tipped for the drop, John Still’s side have continued to confound the critics and excel in League Two. Not just for their promotion, this season has been a landmark campaign for the club, completing a new away section to their home as well as a remarkable play-off campaign and all this despite losing a number of first team stars last summer when the vultures came circling. Their place at Wembley was all but guaranteed following a 6-0 thrashing of Morecambe in the first leg, but the Daggers completed a professional job in the return at Christie Park, despite losing 2-1. Promotion to League One means everything to a side who appear to be continuing to grow at an exciting rate, a joy and a refreshing site for the neutral to behold. Next season will see them entertain nearest rivals Leyton Orient but perhaps even better will be the prospects of trips to the big boys, Southampton and fellow London side Charlton.
Unfortunately, the Daggers will once again be tipped for a fight at the bottom of the table and yet there is every reason to suspect that they can compete. What is for sure is that even the prospect of an impending relegation slog won’t dampen the spirits of Daggers fans anytime soon.