The prize for promotion to the Premier League becomes greater with each passing year. While Queen's Park Rangers and Norwich City can start thinking about how to spend the bonanza that will come their way as a result of earning automatic promotion, the four clubs involved in the play-offs might not dare to think about the riches that lie ahead.
At a conservative estimate, promotion to the Premier League is worth a minimum of £100m. Clubs can expect to earn at least £40m each next season from TV fees and payments according to finishing positions in the table. On top of that there is the extra off-the-field revenue that playing in the Premier League will generate and, if the worst happens, the £48m clubs will receive in parachute payments over the next four seasons following relegation.
If the players of Reading, Swansea City, Nottingham Forest and Cardiff City are feeling nervous at the prospect of the play-offs, imagine how their clubs' bankers and accountants feel.
At this stage it is hard to pick a winner from the four. All have hit good and bad patches during the season and all are good footballing teams with plenty of talent at their disposal. Billy Davies, whose Forest side lost in the play-offs 12 months ago, believes other factors are usually decisive at this stage. "It's a lottery, Lady Luck and refereeing decisions," he said. "If you get the breaks you can get there."
Finishing league positions count for nothing. Look at the winners of the play-offs in the last two years: Burnley won after finishing fifth in the table, Blackpool did so after scraping into the end-of-season finale in sixth place. Ian Holloway's team ended the regular season nine points behind third-placed Forest and six behind Cardiff and Leicester City.
Forest were the last team to secure their place in this season's play-offs, but Davies believes they have hit form at the right time. From the end of February Forest went nine matches without a victory, but they have won five of their last six matches and scored 14 goals in their last four.
"You are looking at a very confident Forest," Davies said. "It's a Forest that is scoring goals and one that is looking forward to the difficult challenge over the next two matches. Hopefully we will get those breaks."
Forest's semi-final opponents are third-placed Swansea, who have also finished with a flourish. Their achievement is a triumph for Brendan Rodgers, who arrived at the Liberty Stadium last summer after failing to stay in the manager's chair for more than six months at either Watford or Reading.
"It's a wonderful achievement for the club to finish third," Rodgers said after his team secured their final position with an emphatic victory at home to Sheffield United. "We have ended the season how we started, at home with a 4-0 win and a fantastic performance. I want to pay tribute to the players because they are the most important people at the club.
"We're looking forward to the play-offs. We will be the underdogs because Forest have been in the play-offs. They have been there last year and missed out. But we have great confidence and we will relish the two games."
Dropping two points at Burnley on the final day of the season cost Cardiff third place, but Dave Jones, their manager, insisted: "It's still a good achievement to get to the play-offs and I wish people would stop knocking us because we've not got automatic promotion. What about the other 20 clubs that haven't got it either?
"We've worked so hard this season," Jones added. "No one thought we'd be anywhere near it with the transfer embargo that was on us."
Cardiff, nevertheless, pushed QPR hard earlier in the season and their indifferent form of late may give confidence to Reading, their semi-final opponents.
Brian McDermott's men surged into the play-offs with a remarkable run from the beginning of March, winning nine out of 10 games, although Saturday's final-day victory over Derby County was their first win in four. "Over the past 17 games we are top of this league and over 28 games we are second, so our form is as good as anybody's," McDermott said.Reuse content