Do or Die

It is that time of year when the play-offs come around. While I am loving life in America and have taken a keen interest in American sport, I am not talking about the NBA or NHL playoffs, which have just started, but of course the English Football League Play-Offs, which kick off next week. Four teams from each division all vying for that one last promotion spot. It doesn’t matter if you finished sixth, twenty points behind the team in third place or squeaked in on the finald day. The teams involved will all have a one in four chance of achieving the objective they set for themselves all the way back in August. Over many years of watching and being involved as a player, the play-offs offer the ultimate in twists and turns and ups and downs. It really is the metaphorical roller coaster ride. In terms of unadulterated sporting excitement, it doesn’t get much better than the football league play-offs. If you are a fan or player of a team involved, I advise you buckle up as you could be in for one hell of a ride.

Quite often in football you hear the saying “the form book goes out the window” and that is certainly the case in the play-offs. Some sides will be disappointed they didn’t achieve automatic promotion, whilst some teams will be over the moon that they secured a spot in the play-offs, perhaps surpassing expectations. Once the semifinals kick off, it’s fair game and anything can happen. Every game is shown live on TV and anyone watching should always expect the unexpected. The tension of the winner-take-all scenario brings the best and worst out in the players and coaching staff involved. The atmosphere in the stands is also second to none. The fans come out in force, and, while some players freeze under the intensity of the play-off spotlight, the fans always provide an electric atmosphere. At Wolves, we went 2-1 ahead of deadly rivals West Brom during the first leg of the semifinal back in 2007 and Molineux was absolutely rocking. The atmosphere was phenomenal and the noise was deafening. Just thinking about it makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. In my opinion, the play-offs highlight all the best aspects of the English Football League. Great goals, ferocious tackles, controversial decisions, emotional celebrations and last minute heartbreak. You name it, the play-offs have it.

Over the years, I have seen some unbelievable games and played in some pretty entertaining ones too. There have been amazing comebacks and disastrous collapses. A game that sums up the unpredictability of the play-offs perfectly involved my friend Mark Lynch who was at Yeovil at the time. Nottingham Forest won 2-0 at Huish Park and looked odds-on to reach the League One final with only a home game at the City Ground to negotiate. I sat down to watch the game, and as Forest took a 1-0 lead, 3-0 on aggregate, I decided it was tie over and headed out. Imagine my disbelief when I received a text from Lynchy later saying, “Get in.” At first I wondered what he was on about, but after checking the final score I was gobsmacked. Yeovil had pulled it back and won the game 5-2 sending them to Wembley and Forest into deep despair. I have watched it since on Sky Sports Classics and it quite simply encapsulates everything that is great about the play-offs. Goals do more than change the game — they can shatter a whole teams’ mindset and ruin their whole season. A play-off tie is never over until the final whistle blows. I have seen teams cruising to victory only to lose a goal and quickly descend into panic. I learned a valuable lesson myself after this game. Don’t switch off till the very end as a fan or as a player.

Yeovil celebrate pulling off one of the greatest ever Play-Off comebacks.

I guarantee for anyone watching the upcoming play-offs that you will hear a commentator or pundit during one of the play-off finals explain that “winning in a play-off final is the best way to get promoted.” It is one sentiment I simply can’t agree with. Having failed on three separate occasions at the play-off stage, you might not find that surprising, but for me, winning the league title is the ultimate. Teams that win the title have proven themselves to be the best in the league over a 46-game marathon and they get to lift the league title with a gold title winners’ medal around their neck. I have had the great fortune of winning the Championship on two occasions and look back on both experiences with great pride. It is widely considered one of the toughest leagues in Europe to get out of, so to come out on top on two separate occasions with Sunderland and Wolves gives me a great sense of achievement. Don’t forget as well that the players have went through a very long season with the play-offs adding a further three weeks. Ask any player and they would all rather be summing themselves on a beach with a league winners’ medal tucked away than putting themselves through the uncertainty of the play-offs.

Lifting the League title is a hard feeling to beat.

I really think what the commentators and pundits mean when they say winning the play-off is the best way to get promoted is that winning in that format gives you the most unbelievable adrenaline rush and feeling of pure and utter ecstasy. It is a different feeling to winning the league, but not necessarily a better one. The play-offs dredge up so many different emotions that when you finally win, the emotional release will be second to none. All season long you are aware there are 46 games, win, lose or draw and then on to the next one. There’s no time to think with the games coming thick and fast one after another. In the play-offs, every second counts. It puts you through the emotional wringer. As a player traveling to the ground for the play-offs, there is a distinct feeling of tension. The butterflies start long before the referee’s whistle is blown. I was always acutely aware that this was it. It’s “win or go home” as they like to say in the USA. There’s absolutely no room for an off night or your season is over. Winning or losing can be the difference between playing against Manchester United next season or Burton Albion. The stakes are so high. The Championship play-off final is described as the most lucrative in sport due to the riches on offer from the Premiership for the victor. Imagine the pressure that can create. Winning that game can change a player’s life. As I mentioned earlier, I have fallen short during the play-offs on three separate occasions. Twice I’ve come unstuck at the semifinal stage, but the one final I played in, we got so close I could literally sense the impending outburst of jubilation only to have it ruthlessly snatched away.

In the 2011/2012 season at Sheffield United, we finished third in League One with 90 points and became only the second team in Football League history not to be promoted with that points tally. Take a look at League One this year and we would have been promoted with three games to spare. Our points tally would have been more had it not been for the well-documented loss of our star striker Ched Evans with only three games to go. Without our talisman, we only achieved two points in our last three games and headed in to the play-offs not only without someone who had netted 35 times, but his strike partner Richard Cresswell, who had a serious eye infection and James Beattie, who got sent off during the last league game and had to serve a three-game ban. Our strike force was decimated. When it rains it pours.

I give a lot of credit to our manager Danny Wilson, who, prior to the play-off semifinal games made some tactical changes to adjust for the loss in personnel. We had been the highest scorers in the Football League but now had to change our game plan. We went to Stevenage on a Friday night for the first leg and were set up to make sure we did not concede. Anything else was a bonus. The task was completed with minimal fuss as we drew 0-0 and produced a very comfortable away performance. We were confident we could beat anyone at Bramall Lane and fancied ourselves to reach the final.

It is in the second leg where you really start to experience the heightened nerves and anxiousness. There are no second chances if you get it wrong at this stage. Everything is on the line and the sense of anticipation around the ground is always palpable. We completely dominated the game from minute one but on eighty minutes the score was still tied. I distinctly remember feeling so focused and aware that one wrong move at this stage in the game and our season would be down the drain. Thankfully, a fantastic cross from Matt Lowton was nodded in by Chris Porter during the closing moments to send us to Wembley. The final whistle was met with a mixture of joy and relief as we knew were only halfway to completing our mission.

Anyone that supports Sheffield United will have you convinced that the Blades are cursed in the play-offs, and, after six seasons there, I won’t disagree. While Cressy was back fit for the final, our influential and most creative midfielder, Kevin McDonald, was now out. With the players we had at our disposal, Wilson set the team up expertly and we kept our third-consecutive clean sheet but could not find a breakthrough at the other end against a very strong Huddersfield team that included predator Jordan Rhodes. After 120 minutes couldn’t separate the teams, it came down to penalties. I offered to take the first one but settled for the second. Huddersfield missed their first two and we missed our first. It looked like no one was destined to score. I remember the walk up to the 18-yard box like it was yesterday. The emotions running through my body were indescribable, coupled with the hundreds of different thoughts running through my head. It is almost like an out-of-body experience. Should I go left or right? Power or placement? I went through my usual routine and stroked my penalty in, sending Smithies the wrong way to get us off the mark. Years of practice standing me in good stead.

Watching as our dreams quickly become a nightmare.

Huddersfield contrived to miss their next penalty. That’s three. Yes, three missed penalties in a row. As I stood at the halfway line, arms linked with the rest of my teammates, I really started to let myself believe for the first time it was going to be our day. We had two of best penalty takers up next in Matt Lowton and Andy Taylor, who had been brought on in the last minute specifically to take a penalty. I was starting to picture what the scenes would be like at the opposite end of the ground amongst the swaths of red and white Blades diehards. I couldn’t wait to celebrate with my teammates and fans. I was quickly brought crashing back to reality as we missed our next two penalties. Huddersfield never missed again as it went all the way down to the goalkeepers. After Alex Smithies scored for Huddersfield, Steve Simonsen blazed over and instead of the adrenaline rush I was expecting, I was hit with pure and utter deflation. It was the equivalent of being hit by an articulated lorry. We had it in the palm of our hand and had it snatched away. It was the story of our season.

It is the one game that regularly pops in to my mind and makes me think, “what if?” It wasn’t made any easier when, the following season, I was part of the Sky Sports advert promoting the play-offs where it showed me punching the ground in anger after the defeat. Just watching that brought back the gut-wrenching feelings I had experienced at that moment. All those games, I had played 54 that season overall, only to end in bitter disappointment. Nothing to show for our effort and another year in League One, traveling to likes of Crawley Town instead of Derby County or a Steel City derby. In some respects, it is what makes the play-offs great, as on the other side, there is a victor and in this case, it was Huddersfield Town having the time of their lives. When I watch these finals, I always spare a thought for my fellow professionals that lose this game, as I can relate not only with them but how their family will be feeling. It affects everyone associated with you. I remember going up to the players’ lounge afterward and my whole family was devastated. It was quite simply the biggest disappointment of my career.

The disapointment of falling at the final hurdle is hard to hide.

Watch the play-offs and you will see some fantastic goals and mesmerizing play, along with some equally cagey affairs filled with players desperate not to make a mistake. While tactics and team selections are vital in the play-offs, you need to carry a huge slice of luck. Sheffield United certainly didn’t carry much and neither did Wolves in our foray into the play-offs. Our young and hungry team had, in some respects, overachieved making the play-offs back in 2007, but now when we got there we fancied ourselves against anyone. We were matched against West Brom, who, only two months before, we had beaten 1-0 at home thanks to an heroic performance from our goalkeeper Matt Murray. Only the day before the first leg, Matty dislocated his shoulder in an innocuous training ground incident. While a young Wayne Hennessey came in and acquitted himself very well, I can’t help but think of the psychological advantage it gave West Brom before we had even kicked a ball. Matty was a man mountain and in our previous game they just could not find a way past him. He stopped shot after shot and had been voted Championship player of the season. Once you get to such a delicate stage of the season, you need every break you can get. On two occasions, my team has been deprived of the best player in the league. For anyone out there on a team that is about to embark on the play-offs, keep your fingers crossed everyone stays fit.

I will be following the Football League play-offs very closely from across the pond. For the first time in a long time, I can watch as a neutral. Well as close to a neutral as possible as I will be vociferously supporting who ever Sheffield Wednesday come up against as I look forward to watching a Sheffield derby next season in the Championship. A guaranteed six points for the Blades. Although I no longer play in England, I am still not finished with the play-offs format. In the USL, our league winner is decided by the play-offs. Even if we finish top of the tree, it won’t be time to head to the beach as we will have the play-offs to negotiate before we land some silverware. Hopefully I can put my experiences in England to good use and the USL play-offs will be much kinder to me and the Tampa Bay Rowdies.

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