The end of season playoffs roll all the drive, grit, and ambition of a 46 game season into a two-legged duel. A dream of making that walk down back down Wembley Way, with the key to promotion. The key into the Premier League.
When the full time whistle sounded at Bramall Lane on Saturday evening it signified the half way point of the Championship playoffs, with just one more tie for all four teams to compete within, to extend their lofty ambitions and their season calendar by one extra game.
The ramifications for all four sides are huge, but what did we learn from the opening tie and what could promotion mean for these clubs prospects moving forward?
A plethora of well regarded pundits, as well as bookmakers and content creators saw Huddersfield facing a season of struggle – but that couldn’t be further from the truth, yielding a third place finish and with home advantage in leg two.
— Sky Bet Championship (@SkyBetChamp) May 13, 2022
Carlos Corberan plied his trade at Yorkshire rivals Leeds United under Marcelo Bielsa before taking the first team manager role at the Terriers in July 2020. Huddersfield have rose 17 positions this season and now stand a great chance of a Wembley date on May 29th after a 1-1 draw at Kenilworth Road.
Huddersfield have the lowest expected goals of anyone in the playoffs, but are efficient with their chances and play quick and intricate football on the floor to put their opponents under pressure.
A return to the top flight at the third time of asking following their relegation in May 2019 would not only provide a huge cash injection, but also retain their key assets roaming midfielder Lewis O’Brien, team of the season Goalkeeper Lee Nicholls, Sorba Thomas, and bolstering their chance of recapturing Chelsea loan star Levi Colwill.
The Terriers have had strength in depth this season due to their small injury list, and are now clear favourites to surpass a resilient but injury struck Luton Town side on home turf.
AWAY END SCENES‼️
Huddersfield Town take the lead over Luton Town in the Sky Bet Championship play-offs 💥 pic.twitter.com/BXSlDYcqmH
— Sky Sports Football (@SkyFootball) May 13, 2022
In recent years, teams have slipped down the English footballing pyramid, dropping through the divisions via a myriad of issues, from financial implications to poor ownership. On the other side of the coin, Luton have endured a meteoric rise through the football league
Just eight years ago, in 2014, the Hatters were promoted from the fifth tier of English football, and now stand a chance of promotion to the richest division in league football.
You've been with us all the way.
— Luton Town FC (@LutonTown) May 14, 2022
Nathan Jones’ return to Kenilworth Road spearheaded not only a survival in the Championship back at the tail end of the 2018-19 season, but a structure and approach that has seen Luton rise from Championship whipping boys to promotion candidates in just two seasons.
It will be one of English football’s greatest rises and achievements if Luton can get over the line on their shoestring budget, but the older generation will remember their glory days and that a place in the Premier League hasn’t always been frowned upon – with League Cup triumphs to their name, as late as 1988.
— SPORF (@Sporf) May 9, 2022
Elijah Adebayo has been cast some admiring glances for his performances this season, but his absence for the second leg will be a huge miss.
Only Nottingham Forest have yielded more points than Luton in the whole division since the turn of the year, and their promotion quest hinges on a result away from home at the John Smith’s.
Steve Cooper has spearheaded an incredible rise at Nottingham Forest, taking the Reds who were perilously perched at the bottom of the division with one point from seven games, into ruthless promotion favourites.
The city of Nottingham has been deprived of Premier League football since 1999, but the feeling around the city has never been so strong for a return.
The Reds have utilised the loan market perfectly, capturing Djed Spence, Philip Zinckernagel, Max Lowe, Keinan Davis and James Garner – who’ve all been ever present in Forest’s starting XI.
A clear and attacking style of play has helped Forest put teams to the sword, and they can be confident in their 10 game unbeaten run at home when heading back to the City Ground with a 2-1 buffer over rivals Sheffield United.
#NFFC fans have wanted the City Ground to be a fortress for years. Steve Cooper’s made it just that🏟
Unbeaten in the league at the City Ground in 2022!
One last time on Tuesday… but for Wembley this time Reds🌳 pic.twitter.com/FDMQO4eybZ
— Trent Hutson (@TrentHutsonFJ) May 15, 2022
Forest have the best defensive record in the league and have scored the second highest number of goals since Cooper’s arrival, but he’s also brought the club together after years of underachievement.
Promotion is required to keep hold of star academy graduate Brennan Johnson, and other key assets – but, with the hard yards done at Bramall Lane, it’s now expected that Forest will take that step to Wembley for the first time on May 29th.
⚽️ Brennan Johnson has scored his 18th goal of the season – only 3 players have scored more in a season for @NFFC this century, including his dad David Johnson (29 in 2002-03) pic.twitter.com/4fFzedC2PN
— Sky Sports Statto (@SkySportsStatto) May 14, 2022
Much like Cooper at Forest, Paul Heckingbottom created a huge upturn in form of his own in the steel city. Sheffield United were suffering a real hangover in the second tier following last season’s relegation, but Heckingbottom, who is formally of other Yorkshire outfits Leeds United and Barnsley arrived to steady the ship and install a fear factor behind the Blades once more.
Morgan Gibbs-White has been United’s greatest threat, terrorising teams in his natural number 10 role but also showing his versatility to slot into the front line as a striker, amidst the absence of four first-team strikers in recent months.
With Gibbs-White’s Wolves future uncertain, the Blades will sense that promotion is the minimum required in order to prize the creative midfielder away from Molineux.
Players with 10+ goals and 15+ big chances created in the Championship:
🏴 Harry Wilson
🏴 Morgan Gibbs-White pic.twitter.com/9WkeiRZFYZ
— Matchday365 (@Matchday365) April 23, 2022
The Blades have vast experience in their team, and that goes a long way in the playoffs. Jack Robinson netted a 90th minute goal in the first-leg against his former employers, and both himself and Ben Osborn will be keen to do that once more at their old stomping ground, to help a return to the top flight at the first time of asking.
United were far from their best at Bramall Lane on Saturday afternoon and allowed Forest to take too much control of the game, playing it in their hands down the right side. However, never count this side out and with a plethora of talented outlets throughout their squad, they’ll by no means throw in the towel ahead of their trip to the City Ground.