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Play on with the Play offs… by Donald C Stewart

Date: 24th April 2019

Play on with the Play offs…

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a league in possession of a lack of good competition, must be in want of a play off.

So that may not have been the quote used at the beginning of the General Purposes Committee – or whatever it was – that decided there needed to be play offs but there is a universal truth in there somewhere.

Widely acknowledged as “the right thing to do”, play offs have been a fantastic addition to the football season; with one exception. You see they may be universally a “good thing” but they are not universally the same.

I should know as I look over the edge of yet another play off option – another play off possibility – another possible play off disappointment? As an Ayr United fan, I have been there and done that with the club I have supported since a boy – clichés done with now, I hope…

We got into the First Division by beating Airdrie in 2008-09; local hero Stevo with the only goal of the game. We ended up that year 2nd in the Second Division, by goal difference, thus qualifying for the playoffs; I danced on the centre circle with my daughter.

The following year, our anniversary, we missed out on the playoffs by 2 points – and were automatically relegated… The final day was serious yo-yo time. We were relegated on the final day, at Morton. My daughter and I did not dance back to the car…Cowdenbeath who ended up 3rd got promoted, they had been 6 points behind 2nd placed Alloa.

2010 – 11 we were back in the playoffs as we got back into the First Division thanks to beating Brechin City over two legs – we ended up 2nd again in the league, this by more than goal difference; it included gifting them a goal, equalising and then winning thanks to new hero Michael Moffat who led the emptying of the stands after the winner. Me and my daughter graced the turf as I was working for Kicktalk and had to retain some dignity… (Some…)

That dignity deserted us in 2011 -12 when we ended up 9th and back in… the playoffs… We were dumped out through Airdrie United in a two leg horror show that ended with us losing 3-1 at home – I spared all my children that evening out… I did not spare my daughter the Hampden Semi Final when Kilmarnock massacred us 1-0 and Kenny Shiels claimed that he would have played expansive football against Barcelona and we had parked the proverbial… (Sorry I promised no more clichés…)

It was the year that Rangers fell through the divisions and both 3rd and 4th placed teams – Dumbarton and Airdrie United, despite being at least 5 points Arbroath who were in 2nd got promoted.

2012-13 was not a great year – playoff success came to 2nd placed Alloa Athletic – but by 2013-14 we were back in those playoffs when we ended up 4th in the new dawn of League One. Facing the mighty Blue Brazil who ended up 9th in the Championship we lost in the semi final; “promoted” through the playoffs were 9th placed Cowdenbeath.

2014 – 15 and we were nearly in the playoffs again… Wrong end this time and Ian McCall managed a 3-0 win against Forfar Athletic which saved our blushes. Up at the top of the league we saw the 9th placed team from the Championship once again retain their place in the league above us.

It had been a roller coaster; it had been fun and it was about to get truly exciting.

Over the next three years we got promotion through the play offs on penalties against Stranraer – I took a different daughter – she was not that impressed. We then fell out the Championship after the miraculous St Mirren revival that year that saw Jack Ross pronounced as a genius; 4th placed Brechin City were lucky in the playoffs.

And then the league was won. On the final day. We got a helicopter, had to put up with Neil Doncaster on the turf but it was worth it. It was McCall’s first championship; it was an incredible day; 3rd placed Alloa made it upstairs with us.

This year is a wee bit more exciting. Rather than the yo-yo between League One – for that is what the Second Division is called these days – and the Championship – for that was once the First Division – we are confirmed as folk in the big boy’s league play off – for the Premier League (Or is it the Premiership? Does it actually matter?)

We do not have all four teams in the playoffs from the beginning. 3rd and 4th placed will have to face off against each other, then the winner plays 2nd placed and then they play the 11th placed Premiership side in the final.

Now we know that if you are lucky enough to squeeze into 4th place in the Championship, no matter the gap between you and 3rd, if you beat them you face two more games for promotion. Previously we all had the same number of games and people thought it was fair; but was it?

Getting a decent start, a slump in the middle of your season and then a big run in towards the end hitting form set you up.

Beating 3rd was not an unlikely scenario.

In the previous playoffs there was simply, absolutely, and utterly no advantage to coming in 2nd or 3rd; you still have the same number of games to get through as the rest to gain promotion…

We looked above us in wonder and envy. If you finished 2nd in the Championship, beat the quarter finalists, then take on the 11th placed Premier team and… wait a minute… What’s all this keyboard warrior and Sportsound stuff about an advantage being with the Premiership club? Don’t they realise that the inherent fairness of getting to take on the clubs below us after they knock each other about and have to play 2 more games than us means that we have a reason for finishing second; for striving for the final points that gives us the first two games “off”.

This year it means that we have to get rid of Inverness Caledonian Thistle, then dispose of Dundee United before we get to the “big boys”.

Dundee United get a week to prepare. They have an advantage. They will finish second – should they not have an advantage? If it were up to me though it would be 11th v 4th first and then v 3rd and then v 2nd… But I have not got the blazer to qualify for an opinion.

Getting from the playoffs INTO the Premier League is THE most difficult to do, according to the perceived wisdom. Well actually of 5 playoffs thus far – the Premiership took a while to see the value of them playoff things – Livingston and Hamilton Academical have managed to gain promotion from the Championship so … not that difficult then if 40% of the evidence shows an adverse finding… Should a Championship Club do it this year… we are all even…

Statistically though, THE most difficult play off to get through is not the one INTO the Premier League but into the very Scottish Professional Football League itself. The League Two play off has happened 4 times. It has been won twice by Cowdenbeath, once by Montrose and only once by a team from the lower league pyramid structure. Their champions from the Lowland and Highland Leagues have to play off first and the only team to make into the SPFL has been Edinburgh City.

The Highland League teams have not got beyond the final. This year, for the third time, Cove Rangers are going to give it a go.

No matter what goes on though, it’s going to be exciting – that much is unequivocally acknowledged by those fans who experience them, teams that get through them and a product that now needs them and THAT is universally acknowledged…

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