“I hate the play-offs when my team finishes third,” said David Sheepshanks. The Ipswich Town chairperson and Football Association board member has always been one of the most progressive of football’s power brokers but, if he was being entirely selfish, he might advocate a return to the pre-war days of election to the top division. There would be no question of his team missing out on promotion then.
In terms of average league position, Ipswich have spent a decade as one of England’s top 25 clubs, but have broken into the Premiership only once.
After losing out automatically on the Â£25-million Premier League bonanza to Wigan on the Championship season’s final day, Ipswich must again go through the play-off mill.
“This is the sixth time we have been in the play-offs in 10 years,” said Sheepshanks. “It’s remarkable when you think we have had two seasons in the Premiership in that time — and in two seasons we were seventh, missing out on the play-offs by one place.
“The majority of football clubs favour the play-off system and I can’t say I haven’t felt the same when we’ve finished lower. I know the positive effects of the play-offs on the season, and we all knew what it would be at the start. So whatever we think about them, it is time for us to fall in love with the play-offs.”
The positive effects are that formerly meaningless end-of-season fixtures against mid-table sides who would have had nothing to play for are transformed into potential play-offs for a place in the play-offs. This has been at Ipswich’s expense — points dropped at Wolves and Leeds in April shaped their destiny — but there is still a sense of excitement that something good will come of this year.
“The last time we finished third was in 2000 and we won at the last competitive club game at Wembley to get into the Premiership,” added Sheepshanks, suddenly overcome with a superstition with which sensible moneymen are not normally associated.
People seeking positive portents and parallels could add that Ipswich could win the last play-off final to be staged in Cardiff. Nevertheless, they must get there first and it was at the first hurdle that they stumbled last season.
Finishing fifth, a point below West Ham, the two sides were pitted against each other in the 2004 play-off semifinal. Ipswich will meet last season’s nemesis again over the next eight days and there is a sense that wrongs must be righted.
“I couldn’t believe it last time against West Ham,” recalled Fabian Wilnis, about to become a veteran of three play-off campaigns with Ipswich.
“We absolutely battered them at Portman Road, but it was only 1-0 and they outplayed us and outpassed us at Upton Park. It was a hostile place to be with the reception we received. I remember the stands were shaking.
“We know what to expect now, though. We have a lot of experienced players: me, Jim Magilton, Kevin Horlock and others, even the youngsters like Darren Bent all have the experience of last season.”
That will certainly count in their favour, but nothing would be able to prepare the players for the pain of another so-near-yet-so-far season.
“Defeat ruined my summer,” said Wilnis. “We cannot afford to have that again after playing so well all season and just missing out on promotion on the last day. Going out in the play-offs would be heart-breaking.”
It may break more than hearts, with Sheepshanks all but admitting that players’ futures depend on the next three matches. Wilnis, Magilton, even the 21-goal striker Shefki Kuqi, are among nine Ipswich players whose contracts expire this summer and, with Premiership clubs eyeing Bent and the impressive goalkeeper Kelvin Davis, play-off disappointment could mean a number of departures.
It is not all misery, though, and everyone associated with the club can at least look back on one happy occasion. In 2000 Bolton were dispatched on the way to Wembley, where a 4-2 win over Barnsley secured promotion.
“There was a real determination that year that it’d be our year,” said Matt Holland, now at Charlton Athletic after impressing in the Premiership with Ipswich.
“If you can guarantee going up through the play-offs, it’s a brilliant system. There’s a short-term goal and that’s getting to the Millennium Stadium in front of 80 000 people — and we had a great day out at Wembley. But the Premier League is the ultimate goal.
“They’ve got the chance to be playing against the likes of Manchester United, Chelsea and Arsenal week in, week out, though ultimately the play-offs are a lottery.” — Â