Football: Sheer agony of the cruellest cut

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The Independent Online
IT USED to be said that there was no greater pain in football than that experienced by the losers of the FA Cup semi-finals. To have gone so far only to stumble in sight of the Twin Towers was reckoned to be the cruellest cut of all.

Yet after the drama of this past week that particular theory can be laid to rest. Surely there can be no worse sensation than that felt by Ipswich and Birmingham, who were both beaten in the First Division play-off semi-finals and yet in neither case because they had scored fewer goals than the opposition.

At least if you taste defeat in the play-off final you have the memory of a special day out at Wembley to look back on. Lose in the game before and your hopes have been dashed at a stroke and at the double - no promotion and no Wembley as a consolation prize.

For George Burley and Trevor Francis desolation ran deep, as it did for Wigan's Ray Mathias when his First Division dream was ended by Manchester City. Yet that upset was as nothing compared to the shock of learning on Friday that he had lost his job. Wigan had lifted the Auto Windscreens Shield, finished sixth in the Second Division but play-off failure meant the manager had to go.

The fall-out from two nights of sudden-death football may not end with Mathias. Ipswich are reported to be lining up Bobby Robson as replacement for the "nearly man" Burley, while Francis is in discussion with a Birmingham board who fear he may be unwilling to begin the long promotion process all over again.

The way things are going it might be better for teams to miss the play- offs completely rather than run the risk of crushing disappointment. Had Ipswich finished seventh would the sense of despair have been so bad as the agony twice visited upon Portman Road in quick succession, firstly when Bradford nicked second spot behind Sunderland and then by losing to Bolton on the away goals rule having won the second leg 4-3?

It was their third play-off near miss in a row and Burley was left distraught. "I can't ask any more from the players," he said. "They have done exactly what has been asked of them all season and yet we have nothing to show for it."

His team would have benefited from a change being mooted in some quarters - that third place should gain a seeding to the promotion final. The Ipswich chairman, David Sheepshanks, is also putting forward a proposal that the losers there should pocket all Wembley's receipts to soften the blow.

For Birmingham, Thursday's ordeal went all the way to penalties before a brave effort from their remaining 10 men (David Holdsworth had been sent off) finally perished through Chris Holland's miss from the 14th spot-kick attempt after the aggregate score with Watford had been tied at 1-1. For Francis, so close to realising the dream of taking his first club to a status more in keeping with their financial clout and impressive stadium, it was a shattering blow.

"It's a terrible disappointment and I feel for the players," he said. "Everything that could have gone wrong for us tonight did so. Apart from Holdsworth we lost Dele Adebola and our captain Martin O'Connor through injury. If there was any justice tonight we would have won."

It is awfully hard not to sympathise. For both Birmingham and Ipswich, for Wigan, Preston, Rotherham and Swansea as well, the summer break is nowhere near long enough to disperse all the hurt.