Peter Corrigan: The way to bring justice to the drama

As an exercise in wringing the final drops of emotion from the souls of clubs and their supporters, the Nationwide League play-offs are a huge success. For a white-knuckle ride they surpass anything on offer at Alton Towers.

While watching the play-off dramas unfold over the three days of last week's Bank Holiday, it wasn't necessary to have affection for any of the six teams to be conscious of the fearsome tension involved both on the pitch and up the steep slopes of the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff.

Especially, it was impossible to ignore the losing end of the stadium, which on each day exuded a pall of gloom dark enough to alert the League Against Cruel Sports.

Of course, it is the very essence of our big-time games that there have to be winners and losers, otherwise it will all end up like a modern school sports day. We accept that when we fall in lifelong love with a team, our passions are going to take a pummelling. Defeat hurts.

Nevertheless, there is a difference about the execution of the play-offs compared with the rest of the season's conflicts. The play-offs seem to carry a serrated edge that makes them the unkindest cut of all.

A week earlier in the same stadium the FA Cup final was surrounded by similar intensities, and there is no doubt that Southampton's large and colourful following would have been as sick as yellow parrots at losing to Arsenal.

But being beaten in a Cup final does not attract quite the same pain as losing in a play-off final. The Cup final is a great occasion in its own right, and losing does not carry a cruel penalty like missing out on promotion. Just being there is an achievement, and you could sense that the Southampton fans were consoled by that. Indeed, their demeanour at the end confirmed it.

Among the Millennium Stadium's many qualities is that it drains like a sink. Look at the triumphant fans for a few minutes, and by the time you look back the other end is deserted and the losers have taken their miseries with them.

The Southampton fans stayed put and soaked up Arsenal's celebrations. And they were sensible as well as sporting in doing so. It is too good an atmosphere to miss; perhaps even better than you might get at the new Wembley.

The play-offs, on the other hand, are strictly business. The only difference between them and reality TV is that these dramas are really real.

What about the teams who finish third in the normal season and do not even get to the final? I am glad that this is being addressed at the League's annual meeting on Thursday. The team who finish third should get a bigger edge, but the play-off scene as a whole needs readdressing.

I gather that it is also proposed to include more teams in the event, and that must be a good idea, as it would create more incentive among mid-table teams whose season is more or less over before February.

If the play-offs are here to stay - and there is too much revenue at stake for them not to be - a fresh format is needed. For a start, they must be given an identity of their own. It's the perception of them as just a way of tying up the last loose end of the season that gives the event its harsh feel.

When the normal season ends, you have a champion and a runner-up, who are promoted automatically. If the next six or eight teams then play among themselves for the divisional cup, you have created a new competition. How you would organise this depends on much advantage you give the higher-placed teams, but it would not involve any more games if they were played on a straight knockout basis, not over two legs, as they are now.

If they were playing, say, for the First Division Cup, complete with losers' medals, leftover clubs would at least feel that they had been in a cup final. It would not lessen the pain, but it would leave them with some sense of fulfilment by which to be cheered.

Even in their raw state, however, football's play-offs seem better ordered than what took place in rugby union's Zurich Premiership at Twickenham yesterday, when Gloucester, who finished the regular season 15 points ahead in first place, had to play for the championship against Wasps.

If there had been a title to recognise Gloucester's original achievement, a pennant perhaps, then you could see a point in them playing the winners of a match between the second and third teams to round off the season. But it is a nonsense as it is, and surely the powers that be will sort out something more suitable before next season.

One or two voices have been calling for them to stick to tradition. What tradition? They have only had the leagues for about six years.

As usual, rugby league is streets ahead in these matters. The sport has long recognised the advantages of adding a grand finale to the league season. The idea was first utilised back in the days when there were too many teams in the first division for them all to play each other home and away, so a play-off among the top eight was devised to make it fair and square.

When the league split into two divisions, they had a champion at the end of the season and then the top four, later eight, would play for the Premiership title. Now they have the Super League, and the top six play towards the Grand Final.

Deciding promotion is a little more complicated, but I trust that the Nationwide League will bring in some refinements to the play-offs that will make them a little less redolent of public hanging.

Original Ford popular

Elbows were not always the most controversial joints on the football field; it was once shoulders, and no one had a more feared pair than Trevor Ford, the great Welsh centre-forward who died last week aged 79.

I watched him as a boy, and later had the pleasure of writing about him and playing darts against him. He was a straight, uncompromising character, who put everything he had into his profession.

It is hard to imagine nowadays that the charging of goalkeepers was ever allowed - a pity they ever stopped it, some might say - but it did not seem untoward in those days. Both feet had to be on the ground, but Trevor was never sure where the ground was, and it is very difficult to catch a high ball when one of your eyes is looking for Fordy.

Crowds in his native Swansea, Aston Villa, Sunderland, Cardiff, Eindhoven and Newport loved him. He scored 23 goals in 38 games for Wales. Ian Rush scored more, but it took him 73 games to get 28.

He will be remembered for his shoulder work and for the revelation in an autobiography that he received illegal payments while at Sunderland - he was banned and it cost him a place in Wales's World Cup team in Sweden in 1958 - but he was an excellent centre-forward. He wasn't massive but strong, trim and athletic, and always very competitive. We used to play darts for ninepence a time at lunchtime in the office pub. I told Trevor about it, and he turned up regularly. I don't recall taking many ninepences off him.

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