The Football League. Encapsulating from the start of the season in the hazy days of August, right through the tricky winter months to the end of the season in Spring. 46 league games, in tough conditions, often playing two or three games per week, means that a huge amount of effort, concentration and talent is needed to finish near the top of the division.
For the cream of the crop, automatic promotion is secured and they can jet off on their holidays and begin to plan for life in the division above. For those who came close but just missed out, the season is far from over and the ultimate glory awaits.
The play-offs are unforgiving and often brutal. Teams that missed out on promotion by goal difference or just a single point now have to reset and go again as they are on a level playing field to a side that may have just scraped into the top six.
Take Brighton in 2015/16. The Seagulls, who finished level on points with second place Middlesbrough but just missed out on goal difference, had to take on Sheffield Wednesday who finished 15 points behind them. In classic play-off fashion, Wednesday beat them comfortably over two legs and that was the end of that. Brighton lost just six out of 48 games all season yet promotion still evaded them.
The games are what every fan dreads. A whole season’s work can be lost in an instant or thrown away due to a bad refereeing decision. Derby can feel aggrieved that a penalty decision in their first leg against Leeds was overturned by the referee, whilst Forest Green Rovers were handed two questionable red cards over two legs which spoilt their chances against Tranmere.
But that is all part of the drama of the play-offs. Nothing in football has stakes as high, or means as much to those involved in it. Once the tricky semi-finals have been dealt with - easier said than done - Wembley awaits. Relief rather than sheer joy greets the final whistle in the semis as nothing has been achieved yet.
Wait for Mike Dean's celebrations...😂
The big day at Wembley arrives. It is ALWAYS baking hot on play-off final weekend, that is a fact. The football is rarely high quality or thrilling compared to what we have watched throughout the season with both teams often prioritising pragmatism over attacking flair. Given what it at stake - the money, the glory, and the promotion - you can forgive the players for being slightly cautious.
This Wembley experience is anything but a day out. It is a day full of nerves, excitement and ‘what-ifs’. Nobody has enjoyed a play-off final until the final whistle has gone and your side has come out on top.
Wembley is no place for losers (didn’t you go there Si?) and they are quickly forgotten as all attention is turned to the promotion party happening at the other end of the pitch. Perhaps no image is as memorable as one end of Wembley packed to the rafters, joyous and celebratory whilst the other is completely empty, the fans long gone thinking about what could have been.
Perhaps one or two lonely souls will watch the trophy lift of the winning side as a matter of closure but honestly, what can more heartbreaking than a play-off final loss?
Football goes on and they can attempt to rebuild next season but in the Football League, often your best players are nabbed if you miss out on promotion. Aston Villa have proved you can bounce back from play-off despair but Notts County, play-off semi-finalists last season, relegated this season, have shown that a nightmare season can quickly follow a disappointing play-off campaign.
Nothing comes close to the drama of the play-offs. If you are a neutral, sit back and enjoy the chaos unfold. If your team is involved, good luck - you are going to need it.