Saturday’s Championship play-off final is looking like a classic local derby. There are plenty of Yorkshire grudge matches and East against South will be played out in the most public of arenas and in front of a world audience.
Sheffield Wednesday will play Hull City at Wembley for the right to join Burnley and Middlesbrough in the 2016/17 Premier League line up. Last season’s finale saw Norwich City edge out Middlesbrough in a battle of the two teams that finished just below the automatic places. The Tigers finished fourth in the final league table – the same position occupied at the end of the previous year by the Boro – but the Owls finished sixth, nine points behind their Humberside opponents and a full fifteen behind third-placed Brighton.
Having comfortably disposed of the Seagulls, a much tougher task lies ahead. Yet this match looks even more difficult to call than last year’s damp squib when Middlesbrough blinked first and simply failed to compete.
Hull City have had their fair share of internal turmoil to deal with. Fans protests at the ownership; the club up for sale at the right price; the chairman telling the fans they ‘can die as soon as they want’ as he looked to overturn more than a century of history by changing the club name, a move that divided a city more used to the divisions provided by having two rugby league teams.
Yet Steve Bruce has more or less kept his squad intact. At times, Hull looked like odds on certainties to make a swift return to the Premier League. But despite two homes wins against the teams that ended up first and second, some less than favourable scores saw a potential gap at the top fail to materialise. The clubs at the top swapped places more often than a haemorrhoids support group playing musical chairs.
It was said at the time that the March meeting at the Riverside could determine promotion for both teams. In the end, it probably did to a point. Had the Tigers headed back down the A19 with a point, they would have retained momentum and in all probability Bruce would already be lying on a beach planning his Premier League spending. David Nugent’s injury time header did more than hand the home team three points. It handed Boro the upper hand and a morale boost the type of which only a big cup tie win usually brings. They went from strength to strength whilst the Tigers suddenly saw their promotion charge falter and their season suddenly become a fight to finish fourth to gain home advantage for the second leg of the play-off semi-final.
Sheffield Wednesday have had a strange season. Carlos Carvalhal saw his team remain fairly consistent throughout the campaign and felt justifiably miffed to say the least as his team failed to capitalise on a strong performance at the Riverside. The match against Boro was also pivotal in their season. Since the turn of the year, they have climbed back up the table, first into contention for a possible play-off spot and latterly almost certainties to provide a strong challenge to the other three teams vying for the final promotion slot.
The two-legged performance against Brighton was nothing less than a masterclass of how to overturn the odds. Despite Brighton’s superior performance over the season as a whole, like any cup tie it is all about the team that turns up. Just like the play-off final last year, Brighton appeared to want it less than their opponents. They appeared to suffer a post-Riverside hangover similar to Hull City. Only this time, the full english breakfast and paracetamol didn’t kick in in time. The Owls deservedly reached Wembley with room to spare.
It is that last sentence that means this match is simply too close to call. Derby shocked Hull at the KC Stadium, scoring two early goals and forcing their hosts to hang on for all they were worth to clinch a 3-2 victory. Sheffield Wednesday never really looked challenged by a Brighton side demoralised by their final day disappointment.
Watching on Saturday, the neutral should be in for a treat. Providing both sets of fans reach Wembley down the M1 without incident, they too should see a minimum of 90 minutes passionately contested football.
Who is going to win?