This is the most lucrative match in sport and yet the real prize is not this coming season but the following one. The present Premier League TV deal is generous, of course, but the next one – the one for which Sky Sports and BT Sport paid a combined £5.1bn – is on another level entirely.
These two teams would dearly love to win today and be part of the world’s most famous domestic competition for the 2015-16 season. But what is most important to them is to stay there and receive the hundreds of millions of pounds of TV money yet to come.
Each of the teams, though, looks well-equipped to stay up. This is one of the most even, hard to call play-off finals in recent years. It is third against fourth from the Championship, two teams who had strong, consistent seasons only to be blown away by the thrilling firepower of Bournemouth (98 goals) and Watford (91) in the final weeks of the season.
For much of spring, both Norwich and Middlesbrough looked plausible candidates for automatic promotion and when they met at Carrow Road on a Friday night in April it felt like one of the decisive games of the season. Middlesbrough eked out a 1-0 win but could not quite sustain their form over the final stretch.
The two teams are approaching this game from different angles. For Norwich, this is the first swing, their attempt to come straight back up and, in doing so, retain many of the players who were an important part of Paul Lambert and Chris Hughton’s sides in the Premier League.
Middlesbrough failed to make such a return under Gareth Southgate and have been stewing in the Championship for six years, only this season hitting on the right combination of players and coach.
What unites the sides, though, is that they have cohered since finding the right coach. It is the hardest thing to do in the Championship, finding a manager who can take on the 46-game slog, cajoling the right level of performance out of players who might have an eye on a move to the top flight.
Boro’s chairman, Steve Gibson, had been looking for the right man ever since Southgate presided over relegation from the Premier League in 2009. He tried Gordon Strachan and Tony Mowbray but it was only last year that he found him. Aitor Karanka has been a revelation on Teesside. One of Jose Mourinho’s many apprentices – he worked with the Chelsea manager during his three tempestuous years at Real Madrid – Karanka has instilled the Mourinho traits into this team: discipline, structure, cohesion and focus.
He has moulded a mix of Championship veterans, Spanish imports and, it must be said, generous loans from his mentor at Chelsea, into an impressive side. For years, “Championship experience” has been fetishised but Karanka has instantly grasped the rhythms and duties of one of the most competitive divisions in Europe.
“We have a tight-knit group,” said his captain, Grant Leadbitter, last week. “We have foreign players and sometimes that doesn’t work – but it works here. The lads the manager has brought in, the loan players, have bought into it. Sometimes you get loan players who are selfish but everyone who has come has pulled in the right direction. Aitor is a great manager and a great man-manager.”
This team has been built around the hard work of Leadbitter in midfield, the pace out wide of Albert Adomah, the craft of Lee Tomlin and the 17 Championship goals of Chelsea loanee Patrick Bamford.
If Middlesbrough win, it would be a triumph of management from Karanka but also of the vision of Gibson, for looking beyond the typical casting of the Championship coach.
Norwich have not had to wait as long as Middlesbrough to find their man. They hoped that Neil Adams, an admirable youth coach and football man, would guide them straight back to the top flight. But it was clear, in the first half of the season, that this was not the job for him, that he simply could not get the right results from the players. He left and Norwich took their own risk. As with Karanka, they did not pick a Championship veteran but, rather, a young, ambitious coach who knew exactly what he wanted from the game.
Alex Neil was only 33 when Norwich called – he is four years younger than Bournemouth’s Eddie Howe – and had done wonders as a player-manager at Hamilton in Scotland. He has been a revelation at Carrow Road, combining attacking enterprise with focus and discipline – and some of Lambert’s spikiness – and so transforming the fortunes of the team.
Norwich were waiting for a man like Neil. They have the best squad in the Championship, full of players of Premier League experience and quality: John Ruddy, Jonny Howson, Bradley Johnson, Wes Hoolahan, Nathan Redmond, Gary Hooper and Cameron Jerome. All of those players bar Jerome were with them in the top flight last season and they were naturally keen to get back there as quickly as possible. They just needed the right man – and that man was Neil.
Norwich will probably fly out of the blocks against Middlesbrough. In Mourinho-taught fashion, Boro will be happy to sit back, soak up the pressure and hit Norwich on the break. That approach worked in last year’s play-off final for Queen’s Park Rangers, who scored with practically their only effort on goal, in the dying seconds, after Derby County had thrown everything at them all afternoon.
One year on, QPR are back in the Championship and facing the prospect of a £50m fine under the financial fair play regulations for the pleasure of playing there next season. Which goes to show that winning this game is not a guaranteed route to success, profit and happiness. But it does help.
Final drama - memorable play-off moments
Charlton 4-4 Sunderland (1998)
Charlton forward Clive Mendonca – a boyhood Sunderland fan – scored the first hat-trick in a play-off final as his team went on to win 7-6 on penalties.
Bristol City 0-1 Hull (2008)
A final made memorable by Dean Windass’s stunning volley from 18 yards out as the 39-year-old sent Hull up to the top flight for first time in the club’s 104-year history.
Blackpool 3-2 Cardiff (2010)
Michael Chopra and Joe Ledley twice put Cardiff in front, but goals from Charlie Adam and Gary Taylor-Fletcher drew Blackpool level before Brett Ormerod hit the winner.
Blackpool 1-2 West Ham (2012)
Ricardo Vaz Te struck with three minutes remaining to send Sam Allardyce’s side up after Carlton Cole’s first-half opener had been cancelled out by Thomas Ince.Reuse content