While I was writing this post, Charlton and Sunderland were just battling it out in the second of three play-off finals within three days. On the Saturday Newport County and Tranmere Rovers met in the League Two-play-off final with the Rovers earning a spot in League One thanks to a last-gasp extra-time winner, and now the League One-play-off final was to decide which club would win promotion to the Championship next season.
And being the climax of this sequence of play-off games, on Monday the Championship play-off final, this year not being played on a Saturday afternoon but on a bank holiday at 3 p.m., will decide which outfit will be the third club to be promoted to the Premier League for the 2019-20 season. The venue of all these finals, of course, is the same as every year, after the play-off finals have returned in 2007 from their temporary exile in Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium to New Wembley.
An English export hit
The play-offs and the extra excitement which they add to the end of the season have been some kind of an English “export product“ to other countries in recent years, though not only to decide promotion and relegation (e.g. like in Germany where this year the “Irons” from east Berlin, 1. FC Union, are a contender for promotion to the Bundesliga), but also in order to gain the winner a spot in the Europa League. This is the case in Austria for the first time this season.
The Austrian Bundesliga have got a completely new league format in 2018-19, with the twelve clubs being divided into two groups after 22 games and their points tally cut in half (which seems quite unfair, but should make a premature decision of the title race less likely; that didn’t prevent FC Red Bull Salzburg from winning the league for the sixth time in a row though!). Within the top group, after ten more games, the Austrian champion and three or four European spots (dependent on the cup winner’s place in the table) were to be decided according to the league ranking, but then the fifth club to play in Europe is going to be selected via the new Europa League qualification play-off.
From lower tier to Europe
This play-off has added incentive and extra excitement to the “relegation group” of the Bundesliga: whereas the club finishing sixth in the table of the lower tier faced straight relegation (there was no play-off to save Wacker Innsbruck, the lowest ranked team, from the drop, like in Germany where a relegation play-off is played), now a play-off semifinal and a two-legged play-off final is going to decide if the club I support in my home town will play in the Europa League or not next term.
Rapid Vienna unexpectedly could not finish in the top half of the Bundesliga after 22 rounds, and – less surprisingly – could not win the Austrian cup final, losing out 0-2 to Red Bull Salzburg on the 1st of May in Klagenfurt . Therefore the last opportunity to qualify for Europe now is to win the Europa League play-off semifinal (which consists of only one game played out by winner vs. runner-up of the relegation group) and then to claim victory in the two-legged play-off final against the club finishing fifth in the “championship group”.
Rapid’s opponent in the first game on Tuesday will be SV Mattersburg from the eastern part of Austria (Burgenland), and if they proceed to the final they will play on Thursday and Sunday against Sturm Graz (dependent on the results of the last round of the Bundesliga top tier).
A fixture list in the English style
This is going to be a sequence of games which really can be called an “English week” for Rapid: two mid-week-games, providing only one day of rest between the first and the second game, reminding us of the packed fixture list of the English Premier League at Christmas time and New Year. Especially as these games are played at the very end of the season, we can expect a whole bunch of players suffering from cramp in all the upcoming games, not only in the Austrian matches …
I’ve watched live in the stadium a “domestic play-off” only once so far, this game being the Championship-play-off between West Ham and Blackpool in 2012 . What a joy that was when Ricardo Vaz Te scored the 2-1 in front of the claret and blue part of the Wembley terraces! I had flown over to London just for that game and returned home the next morning and, having booked very short-term, I had not informed any friends that I would be in London that day. But, as it often happens “by chance”, I bumped into Sam Haseltine who ran the football blogger platform “Football United” by then after the game.
Now I very much hope that also my second play-off, this time at home in Austria, will be a success! Rapid Vienna did very well last season in the Europa League. They beat Steven Gerrard’s Glasgow Rangers FC in the group stages (pic), providing me with some late revenge for Gerrard’s goal in the 2006 FA Cup Final.
Now, while I’m finishing this post, Charlton have scored the 2-1 at Wembley, the clock showing the 94th minute. Heartbreak for Sunderland and pure ecstasy for Charlton that are sent back to the Championship. I feel sorry for the Black Cats, but this is football, and this is the magic of the play-offs!
The manager who’s celebrating his club’s return to the Championship now, is a former West Ham player, and it was West Ham-loanee Josh Cullen who knocked off a very quick free kick which lead to Charlton’s last-minute winner! Manager Lee Bowyer, who once played for the Hammers in midfield in 2003 and from 2006-2009, has guided the Addicks, which have been his first professional club as a player, back to the Championship in his first full season as manager. And Charlton have been the first team winning the third tier play-off final in seventeen years after having gone behind in this match. That’s an other beautiful story, but it’s also hard lines for Sunderland on the other hand! Clubs play roughly 4,500 minutes in a season and then to lose out on promotion in the last minute is absolutely brutal!
A festival of football
Yeah, anything can happen in football – especially if everything is determined by one odd game! That’s the magic of the play-offs and of the other upcoming finals.
On Monday in Germany, VfB Stuttgart and “Eisern Union”, the “Irons” from east Berlin for whom I keep my fingers crossed!, are going to play out the second leg in Berlin (first leg 2-2) which will decide upon promotion and relegation from the Bundesliga. On the same day Aston Villa and Derby County play each other in the Championship play-off. And just one day after Rapid Vienna’s first play-off game on the Tuesday, the European festival of English football will begin on Wednesday:
English clubs – regardless of Brexit – play out Champions League and Europa League between themselves on 29 May and 1 June respectively.
Let the finals continue!