It surprised me the extent to which I got caught up in the recent Championship play-off semi-final between Leeds and Derby. Of course, given the circumstances and some of the key personnel, I was always expecting to have some kind of emotional involvement. I just hadn’t realised the emotional involvement that I had was going to be quite so… well… emotional.
They’re a complete boon at this time of the year, the play-offs, aren’t they? Whoever is involved. You’re sitting around, at a loose end, drumming your fingers and waiting for the Europa League final to happen. And here to help pass the time – nightly for a while – come a sequence of ultimate-stakes, death-or-glory football matches with unthinkably huge consequences.
Now, obviously the play-off system is cumbersome, artificial, absurd and runs against pretty much every sporting value that the notion of league football was designed to uphold. By incorporating play-offs into the promotion phase, the Football League effectively says: ‘You know what: despite what everyone has fondly said for more than a hundred years, the table does lie, in fact. And just to illustrate how much it lies, we’re going to contrive a situation in which the team which has led the way for large parts of the season, only to fall away to third in the final stretch, can now get wiped out of the promotion equation entirely by a team that just sneaked into sixth place by a whisker at the death.’
The system is also unnecessarily cruel and – on the grounds that, by crushing dreams to powder in the harshest possible way, it leaves thousands of innocent people in a state of entirely avoidable distress – could even be labelled barbaric.
But as television? By the time you get to the second legs of the semi-finals, it’s pretty much faultless – the entertainment gift that keeps on giving. Big Brother? The Apprentice? I’m A Celebrity? The play-offs are as good a television format as any of them, but with the added bonus that they bear seemingly endless annual repetition. Here clubs put their entire season at stake (and their entire next season) in one, or, if they’re lucky, two head-to-head, do-or-die encounters. To the winners, the spoils; to the losers, absolutely nothing, at the end of a 48- or 49-game season. If the sheer awfulness of this prospect doesn’t set something inside you fluttering, then I put it to you that you are not particularly interested in watching television.
Then, of course, in the case of Leeds v Derby, there was the Frank Lampard factor. And, on top of that, the Leeds factor. Now, whose heart didn’t warm to the sight of Frank and Jody Morris putting their heads together on the touchline that night? And whose heart didn’t turn cold at the thought of the Lampard/Morris plans being upset by… Leeds.
Tense? I couldn’t even watch. I actually spent the five minutes of time-added-on in the kitchen, ‘tidying up.’ I couldn’t bear the thought of seeing it go wrong.
I know. Ancient stuff. An entire generation of Chelsea fans has come of age since Leeds were last anything we had to think about on a regular basis, let alone needed to resent. Indeed, as far as my own offspring are concerned, Leeds are an entirely historic entity, a feature of football’s distant and barely recognisable past, like the original Accrington Stanley. Frankly, if you’re a Chelsea fan under 25, Leeds are basically an old football annual that your dad keeps in a dusty box in the attic and occasionally burbles on about inconsequentially.
Yet it still matters. So, what double-joy in the scenes from Elland Road, then: Frank going forward, and, just as importantly, Leeds not. And now it’s Derby v Aston Villa in the final – Frank v JT. And where are we meant to look during that?
The play-offs: they spoil us, they really do.
And still to come: Azerbaijan. Now, I absolutely hear the complaints that people have been making about the location for our Europa League final against Arsenal: the cost and complications of the travel, the stingy ticket allocations to the finalists, the comically late local kick-off time (11pm!). I also completely agree that it might be better to stage these finals somewhere that doesn’t automatically make entry difficult for Armenians.
At the same time, is there not a positive to be gleaned from this largely negative situation? We all know that it’s slightly disappointing to have reached a European final only to find Arsenal at the other end of the pitch, rather than someone a bit more unusual. At the same time, responding to that outcome by bringing the match back to England, as some people suggested, would only have underscored the low-horizon aspects of the event, and what is supposed to be a great European occasion would have become a purely domestic squabble. This is a game that needs something to make it feel properly exotic. And so, yes, all of the disadvantages are duly noted. But, at the same time, short of staging it somewhere in the Himalayas, or at Water World in Orlando, maybe pinning this particular final to a remote point on the map by the Caspian Sea is the next best thing. I don’t know, but in due course we may look back and be glad we had Baku.
As for next week’s other European final, the one that happens a couple of days later… well, it’s a problem, isn’t it? Perhaps, like me, you have been exploring the possibility, post-Europa, of going off to live somewhere without electricity for a while – somewhere to which television pictures, and indeed news, cannot penetrate. Possibly even forever.
My own researches have thrown up a couple of hut-dwelling communities, living off-grid in the woods in remote parts of North America, which are certainly promising in terms of potentially providing the required seclusion, although, to be frank, I would be a bit worried about the company and I probably wouldn’t be able to grow the necessary beard. Elsewhere, North Korea would seem to tick most of the necessary boxes, although I understand getting a visa at short notice can be complicated. Surely, though, in a case where the applicant could claim urgent personal need, such as this one, the rules could be slightly relaxed and the paperwork could be fast-tracked? If not, it seems parts of sub-Saharan Africa might capably lend themselves to anybody in need of a number of years of total isolation from western media.
Expensive, though. So soon after Chelsea fans have been asked to fund a 3000-mile trip to the borders of Asia for the Europa League final, calling upon them to shell out for yet more long-distance travel in order to avoid seeing either Tottenham or Liverpool lift the Champions League trophy seems like a very big ask indeed. There will be question marks, again, over UEFA’s priorities and the debates will no doubt resume about whether the governing body truly has the interests of the fans in mind.