League format gives rich playoff

This weekend, while a bunch of overpaid prima donnas fall over and wave cards at each other, some real football clubs with real fans and good old-fashioned honest players will contest the Football League play-offs, the most electrifying series of matches in sports entertainment. All the drama and shots of fat men crying one could possibly want will be on show during the three-day spectacular, coincidentally broadcast live on Sky Sports in HD and 3D.

Some non-believers cry that the system is ‘unfair’, that it ‘rewards average teams’ and is ‘a made-for-TV farce that nullifies a whole season’s worth of toil in favour of ninety minutes of theatre’. They point to the fact that, since 2003, six out of the eight teams promoted to the Premier League via the playoffs have gone straight back down, but the likes of Burnley and Blackpool maybe? did play some fantastic football and provided plenty of patronising breaths of fresh air. Of course, for every Hull 2008 there is a Derby 2007, but Leon Best’s semi-final sabotage of Southampton that year deprived the Premier League of the finest footballing side in the lower leagues. The fact that he is now an established Premier League striker is one of the biggest scandals in sport today.

The League Two final on the Saturday looks like a cracker. Inoffensive little Torquay come up against Stevenage, the proud home of some of the tallest streetlights in Britain. Managed by the odious Graham Westley, the Hertfordshire side have been accused of playing a brand of ‘anti-football’ that would make Sergio Busquets blush. Players go down for interminable periods with apparently life-threatening injuries while water and tactical instructions are rushed to their teammates, before springing back up and playing the bruising, physical football that may unfortunately lead to their promotion. Let’s hope Torquay stuff them.

In the League One equivalent, we have two useful outfits in Huddersfield, unbeaten in 27 games, and Peterborough, English football’s top scorers. Lee Clark’s Huddersfield are a strong side, with ‘where are they now?’ favourites Kevin Kilbane and Ian Bennett key figures. Peterborough will hope that the long-maned and long-named Craig Mackail-Smith, who is the Football League’s joint top scorer and widely tipped to leave the club in the summer, will do the job on Sunday.

The Championship play-off final is the biggie. Competing for what is billed, as we will no doubt hear ad infinitum on Monday, as the ‘biggest prize in world football’, Reading and Swansea will slug it out for £85 million and the chance to escape the punditry of Steve Claridge.

Swans gaffer Brendan Rodgers will face his former employers, whom he took to the brink of relegation before current Royals boss Brian McDermott, a cross between a supply teacher and an egg, turned the club around. On the pitch, there are some quality individuals to look out for. Scott Sinclair and handbag thief Nathan Dyer on the Swansea flanks will test the Reading defence with their pace, while Jobi McAnuff and Jimmy Kebe will look to supply in-form forward Shane Long for the Royals. Both teams have a lot to like about them, and it should be a thrilling game. The format might be ridiculous, but for sheer action, excitement and hyperbole the playoffs are unmatched. Give me Kebe over Messi any day.

George Colenutt