The plays-offs have their critics: there are those who prefer the old straightforward promotion system, and there are some who claim that allowing so many lesser clubs to play at Wembley devalues the national stadium. So, the scenes of celebration on Saturday, after Plymouth Argyle's first visit to the twin towers saw the Devon club win the Third Division promotion play-off final, provided a timely reminder of the appeal of the play-offs.
Unlike such irrelevant events as the Auto Windsreens Shield and the Anglo- Italian Cup, promotion is, of course, a prize worth winning. The relief and joy shared by Plymouth's players and fans, who provided the vast majority of a record crowd for this final, would have been little greater if Argyle had won the FA Cup itself. One 70-year-old veteran of the "green army" said that Plymouth's winning goal had given him "the best moment of his life". That, surely, is what football is all about.
The right side won. As their manager, Jim Platt, had admitted before the game, the town of Darlington had been in party mood not because of the prospect of promotion, but because of Wembley. In contrast, Argyle's manager, Neil Warnock, made sure his players remembered that they were only here because they had failed to finish in the top three and go up automatically.
Argyle seemed to want to win more than their opponents and, in Warnock, they have a manager with a perfect pedigree. His Wembley play-offs record is now played four, won four. "It can't be a hindrance, having been here before," he said, "but it doesn't make it any less tense. It makes it a very long season. I had booked a holiday starting today - I suppose I should have known better."
Plymouth did not possess the best player on the pitch - that distinction was claimed by Darlington's Matt Appleby, a former Newcastle defender who has the class and composure to return to a higher level - but they were a more effective unit, with Ronnie Mauge and Chris Leadbitter winning the crucial midfield battle. It was Mauge who settled things with the game's only on-target effort, in the 65th minute. Leadbitter played a corner short to Mark Patterson, whose first-time cross was headed in by Mauge. Darlington's defence had lost concentration for the only time all afternoon, and they paid the price.
Goal: Mauge (65) 0-1.
Darlington (3-5-2): Newell; Gregan, Crosby, Appleby; Brumwell, Gaughan (Carmichael, 85), Bannister, Carss, Barnard; Painter, Blake. Substitutes not used: Twynham, Mattison.
Plymouth Argyle (3-5-2): Cherry; Curran, Heathcote, Logan; Patterson, Barlow, Mauge, Leadbitter, Williams; Littlejohn, Evans. Substitutes not used: Billy, Baird, Corazzin.
Referee: W Burns (Scarborough).
Bookings: Darlington: Appleby. Plymouth: Mauge.
Man of the match: Appleby.
Attendance: 43,431.Reuse content