They’ve arguably got the strongest squad in the division, but if Sam Allardyce’s West Ham side are to make an immediate return to the Premier League, it will have to be via the often tortuous play-off route.
The Hammers stuttered to a 2-1 win over Hull on Saturday but as their rather subdued fans made for the exits at the final whistle, the contrasting scenes at St Mary’s – where thousands of delighted fans flooded the pitch – showed that the result meant little as a swashbuckling Southampton confirmed second place with a fine 4-0 victory over relegated Coventry.
Allardyce’s side spent six consecutive months in the top two this season, but an unstoppable Reading side overtook them in March and didn’t look back. It’s not all bad news for West Ham though – four out of the last eight seasons have seen the side finishing third in the Championship have enough left in the tank to lift the play-off trophy.
That fact, coupled with Allardyce’s vital previous experience of the play-offs (he’s been involved with Blackpool, and twice with Bolton – winning in 2001) and West Ham’s unbeaten April run, explains why they are seen as favourites to join Reading and Southampton, priced at 13/8 to win promotion.
Malky Mackay’s Cardiff side (4/1 to win play-offs) stand in the way of bubble blowing at Wembley, but with the first leg in Wales, Allardyce will only need to remind his team of their impressive 2-0 win at the Cardiff City Stadium just a few weeks ago. Goals from Kevin Nolan and George McCartney continued an impressive run in Cardiff, where they are unbeaten on eight of their last nine visits.
Many see Birmingham, second favourites at 13/5, as the real team to fear coming in to the season finale. Chris Hughton’s side leapfrogged Blackpool with a win over champions Reading on the final day of the season, meaning they’ll have the luxury of a crucial home tie in the second leg. Having lost only twice in their last 14 games, the Blues are on a high and scoring goals – their 15 notched in April saw them average more than two goals a game.
Their early season European excursions may yet come to haunt them, however, as, should they overcome Blackpool (11/4 to win play-offs), the play-off final would represent their 63rd game of the season. By comparison it would be West Ham’s 43rd. Chris Hughton may well not wish to inform his players of a bizarre quirk, too – Birmingham will have to become the first side since Charlton in 1998 to win the play-offs after finishing fourth.
Full play-offs schedule
Semi-finals, first leg
3 May: Cardiff v West Ham
4 May: Blackpool v Birmingham
Semi-finals, second leg
7 May: West Ham v Cardiff
9 May: Birmingham v Blackpool