The Last Word: For ecstasy and agony, pick the Championship

Forget the Champions' League, the second tier's enthralling finale is Europe's purest form of theatre

How do you like your footballing excitement? With a main course of ecstasy and a side salad of agony? Or vice versa?

Of course, the majority of us like both on our plates, one emotion tossed in with the other until the final morsel is left to have last say on the palate.

Nothing titillates the competitive taste buds more than the prospect of the winner taking away the glutton's portion of everything and the loser heading home with nowt else than the utterly worthless consolation of a run for their money. This all or bugger-all realisation is the very life-force of sporting tension and it is why the Championship with its enthralling finale is quite easily the purest form of football theatre within the English and indeed the European pyramid.

"But what of the Champions' League?" screams the armchair intelligentsia, a cry that switches traditionally to "what of the Premier League?" when the midweek dramas are so quickly buried under the weekend welter. Will we not get to experience every emotion known to Jeremy Kyle without having to resort to the lesser divisions? In the forthcoming weeks won't the pain of Liverpool, of Chelsea, of whomever, contrast all so starkly and, yes, all so magnificently with the joy of Manchester United, of Arsenal, of whomever?

Well, in an illusory sense it most surely will and that will probably be enough for those who turn on and off like the part-time adrenalin junkies they are. But what, in the cold light of the next day, will really have changed for the victors and the vanquished? Granted, glory in Rome, and Arsenal and Chelsea would claim fairly the finest achievement in their history and the club's direction may well follow an ever more golden path.

But the flipside of this most precious sovereign would not see any expulsion from the exclusive set (the whim of any Russian owner notwithstanding). They will have lost pre-cisely nothing and neither would Liverpool, if their title ambition ultimately falls short. Champions' League entry would still be confirmed, as would their Big Four standing. It is a win or tread water situation. Hardly the fare of the Colosseum, now is it?

No, if there is any of the hit-or-bust element to be found within the Premier League, it is down there where the lions roam. Newcastle and Middlesbrough are this season's clubs too big to drop, yet too bad to do much about it and, if those Twin Impostors are in evidence on the Premier League's last day, then they are bound to be seen in the glassy eyes of the bare-chested on the Tyne or Teesside.

But again, what will they have gained if they do survive and if those tears are of rapture instead of torture? Only what they had anyway. Their battle cry at the start of the campaign was not "to remain as we are and then throw a huge party". The jail escapee's pleasure is no doubt genuine, yet it ultimately only masks the regret of landing in there in the first place. In contrast, the delight felt by one of Birmingham, Reading or Sheffield United this evening will be unsullied, as will the desperation of those who fall in the play-offs. If it's triumph or disaster you want, look no further.

It has been said many times that the play-off final is the richest game in football (and what we blessedly have today, at the Madejski, where Reading face the promotion favourites Birmingham, and at Selhurst Park, where the Blades prepare to capitalise on any bloodletting in that shootout up the M4, is the jackpot draw come early). But what has not been said many times is just how the outrageous numbers are distorted.

Last week, David Gold put the "at all costs" philosophy into perspective. "Everyone says getting promoted is a £40m match," said the Birmingham co-owner and chairman. "But sometimes it is a £19m match as you owe £21m because of promotion. You do tend to sell your future. That's why a lot of clubs who do get promoted then struggle because they don't have the funds even though they have received all this extra income. It's already been committed so it becomes extremely difficult to compete in that division."

But this is not a simple case of careful what you wish for; far from it. The club whose wishes are not granted will inevitably continue to operate on a downward curve with edges so serrated that the propensity to slash at their own throats is, alas, all too commonplace nowadays. Southampton, three years out of the Premier League, are the barely living, barely breathing embodiment of this self-mutilation.

It is the grotesque face of failure, but it makes the success much more urgent. Hence the tension is wracked up to levels where, on afternoons such as this, it can seem unbearable. At least the two sides who miss out today have the play-offs on which to focus and they are an alluring proposition, what with Wembley and the most magical sidedoor entry since CS Lewis dreamt up his wardrobe.

One of the daftest descriptions in the football vernacular is to refer to the play-offs as "a lottery". Show me a lottery which sells four tickets for a £40m prize – and then show me a registered outlet. Quickly. It is all part of the Championship's unique pulling power and a footballing journey that invariably proves more enjoyable than the destination.

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