Championship Play-Off Final Preview: Hammers and Seasiders seek immediate Premier League return
When you get relegated from the Premier League, it’s not easy to get back there quickly. And sometimes, it gets worse before it gets better. Just ask Southampton, who are headed back to the top flight after seven years away – and after being in League One only last year. Or Coventry City, who’ve never reached the Championship play-offs since being relegated in 2001 and are now headed to League One after a disastrous 2011-12 campaign.
And because the Championship is always fiercely competitive, with several teams capable of making a promotion run, you must take your chances when they come. Just ask Preston and Sheffield United, who were both in the play-offs just three years ago but are now in League One. Or Nottingham Forest, who were in the play-offs in consecutive seasons but were near the danger zone much of this season.
For West Ham and Blackpool, opportunity awaits a week from Saturday, as they will face off in the Championship play-off final at Wembley. One side will celebrate a lucrative, immediate return to the top flight. The other, meanwhile, will be left to hope that their wait doesn’t turn into a prolonged one.
In their quest to get back to the Premier League at the first time of asking, West Ham replaced the sacked Avram Grant with an experienced manager in Sam Allardyce.
Allardyce‘s tenure didn‘t start well, as the Hammers opened with a home defeat to Cardiff. But their form picked up, and they spent most of the season in or around the automatic promotion places. In fact, they topped the table in January and February.
During that time at the top, they embarked on an unbeaten run that reached 11 matches. Unfortunately, that run consisted of only four wins and seven draws, including five straight stalemates in March. And despite a good finish, the mass of draws would prove costly. Red-hot Reading flew past them late in the season on the way to the title, and Southampton, who were top much of the season, secured second with a last-day rout of relegated Coventry City.
So, despite finishing with 86 points and the league’s fewest defeats with 8, the Hammers were the odd man out. In four of the previous five seasons, their point total would have been enough for automatic promotion. But this season, that total saw them finish two points behind Southampton and three behind Reading. However, they quickly put aside any disappointment, dispatching perennial playoff losers Cardiff City 5-0 on aggregate to reach the play-off final.
Big Sam isn’t known for producing prolific teams, but including the play-offs, the Hammers have scored 86 goals this season. At the same time, they were one of the strongest defensive sides in a goal-friendly league, finishing fourth in goals allowed with 48 and in clean sheets with 17.
A number of players with extensive Premier League experience, both new faces and old, have contributed to their promotion push.
Carlton Cole, with 14 goals, is once again atop the club‘s scoring charts, while midfielder Mark Noble, a stalwart in the side for the last several seasons, has been a regular scorer and provider. Meanwhile, former Bolton star Kevin Nolan, who left Newcastle last summer to join up with his former boss, is the club’s second-leading scorer with 12 goals, and former Portsmouth and Bolton star Matt Taylor, another summer signing, has had a productive season despite missing significant time due to injuries.
Defensively, Allardyce has recently gone with the trio of James Tomkins, Winston Reid, and former HSV man Guy Demel, who’s now fit after being sidelined for much of the season. And the trio has worked, as the Hammers have allowed only four goals in their last four matches. Of course, that’s partly due to longtime #1 keeper Robert Green, who has had another solid season.
There were many post-relegation changes for Blackpool as well, but keeping continuity in the right areas has helped fuel their push for a quick Premier League return.
Ian Holloway took the Seasiders to the promised land two years ago, and he has been the guiding force once again. Blackpool have had an up and down season, but they’re rounding into form at just the right time, just as they did two years ago.
Blackpool were fourth in the table with a third of the season remaining, but a run of only two wins in eight games saw them drop to eighth in late March. But they rallied, going unbeaten in their final seven matches of the season to pip Cardiff City to fifth on goal difference.
Finishing fifth instead of sixth might have helped their cause, as they were paired with Birmingham City, who finished only one point ahead of them, instead of West Ham. And after picking up only a point in two meetings against Birmingham during the season, Blackpool got the results when it really counted, eking out a 3-2 aggregate win thanks to a narrow 1-0 win at Bloomfield Road and a 2-2 draw at St. Andrew’s.
Blackpool weren’t fancied going into the play-offs two years ago, and the same can be said now. But many of this season’s key players either were a part of last season’s Premier League side or have Premier League experience, so they know what’s at stake.
In the summer, Charlie Adam, DJ Campbell, and David Vaughan all left for Premier League sides, and Luke Varney, a starter for much of last season, left for Portsmouth. But a solid core remained, and several of last season’s key players have remained in key roles this season, like midfielder Gary Taylor-Fletcher, who‘s had a very productive season, versatile defender Alex Baptiste, who leads the side in appearances, and left back Stephen Crainey, who actually leads the club in assists. Others have stepped into significant roles this season, like winger Matty Phillips, who scored what would prove to be a decisive goal against Birmingham.
Holloway has also made some quality signings, with the two most notable both having come from Birmingham. Former Rangers star Barry Ferguson signed in July after two seasons at Birmingham, and Holloway entrusted him with the armband from the start of the season. His experience and leadership has been key, and so have the goals of the ageless Kevin Phillips, who‘s still banging them in like he has for nearly two decades. The 38-year-old leads Blackpool with 16 goals this season, and if Blackpool are promoted and Phillips’s present one-year deal is extended, he’ll represent a fifth different club in the Premier League, following his stints with Sunderland, Southampton, Aston Villa, and Birmingham.
There were high expectations on West Ham heading into the season, as they were considered favorites to win the Championship title this season. As they didn’t fulfill those expectations, despite a solid campaign, pressure and expectation for them to triumph at Wembley, are doubly high.
When it comes to consistency throughout the season, the Hammers were certainly the more consistent side, and their domination of Cardiff City in the semifinals was quite impressive. Also, when it comes to head-to-head results between the two finalists, the Hammers own two convincing wins in two matches against Blackpool this season, a 4-0 win at Upton Park in October and a 4-1 win at Bloomfield Road in February.
But previous meetings and form throughout the season don’t always matter in a match like this one, so even though the Hammers are clear favorites to win, Blackpool will fancy themselves to upset the odds in the play-off final once again.