'Underdogs can have day in play-offs,' says Johnson

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The Independent Football

Form and history do not favour Bristol City today as they begin their attempt to return to the top flight through the Championship play-offs against Crystal Palace. City have played in five play-offs and lost them all; they have not beaten their semi-final opponents since 1993 and not won at Selhurst Park since 1974.

Which is all fine by Gary Johnson, City's manager, who hopes such an unenviable record will take the pressure off his players. Both Johnson and Neil Warnock, Crystal Palace's manager, are claiming their team are the underdogs. City finished three points above Palace in the league, but won two of their last 11 matches. Palace have lost once in 12 and took four points off City during the regular season.

"All season people have been trying to write us off, expecting us to slip away, but here we are still in with a chance of promotion," Johnson said yesterday. "And people are still trying to write us off. Even though there are only four teams involved, we are still not mentioned until late on. Maybe that suits us. I am hoping it will wind the lads up a little to put that little bit extra effort in. We're happy to be the underdogs – our boys thrive on being underdogs. I know Neil's trying to make us the favourites and that's the way he does things, God bless him, but I would suggest what he feels inside is a bit different."

While Johnson is new to the play-offs, having won automatic promotion with Yeovil and City, Warnock has experienced five such matches, winning four. Palace have been promoted three times this way, but failed twice.

City have Marvin Elliott and Lee Johnson fit but Steve Brooker's status is uncertain. Palace should field Victor Moses, who has had a thigh injury, and may recall their captain, Matt Lawrence, after a hernia operation.

While Bristol City are seeking to return to the elite after a 28-year absence, Hull City are hoping to break new ground. After they missed out on automatic promotion on the final day of the regular season, Phil Brown needs to lift his players for tomorrow's first leg against Watford at Vicarage Road.

Again, one team has the momentum. Hull won eight of their last 12 matches while Watford won one in 14. Watford lost 3-0 at Hull six weeks ago but Tommy Smith, whose goal at Blackpool last week secured Watford's play-off place, said: "We didn't prove ourselves up there so it will be cathartic to put things right, and there won't be any bigger stage to do it on."

League Two's play-offs are also this weekend. Having won one Champions League and four Scottish Cup medals as a player, Wycombe's manager, Paul Lambert, has a history of getting the job done. The former Scotland international's side face Stockport County tomorrow.

Wycombe are the only team in the quartet to have succeeded in the play-offs previously, but that was 14 years ago. In today's match, Rochdale , who take on Darlington, will be looking to start their escape from the bottom tier for the first time since 1974 – the longest-ever residency in the Football League's basement. Their last promotion was in 1969.

Rochdale's manager, Keith Hill, said: "You are in the lap of the footballing gods in the play-offs."

Some of Darlington's preparation has been overseen by a man who has endured a difficult year, Steve McClaren. The former England manager was invited in by Dave Penny, Darlington's coach, in an attempt to address an end-of-season run of one win in nine matches.