West Ham United: Will the Hammers win the play-off lottery?
West Ham United's hopes of beating Southampton to an automatic promotion place died on Saturday afternoon. The Hammers beat Hull City, which they needed to do, but there was little chance of relegated Coventry City turning over the Saints at St Mary's. That sort of result is even rare on Fifa 2012!
So now Sam Allardyce's men have to go through the lottery of the play-offs and they should be confident. Over the course of the season they have proved that they are the third best team in the division. Unfortunately, football isn't as straight forward as that and finishing third means nothing in the play-offs.
Over the past 20 years only six teams who have finished third have gone on to clinch promotion through the play-offs. Fortunately for West Ham, the majority of those wins have come over the past six seasons.
Brendan Rodgers's Swansea City missed out on automatic promotion by four points last season and went on to beat Reading in an epic play-off final. Hull City were the last team before that to achieve success in 2008, thanks to a blistering volley from Dean Windass against Bristol City, which was preceded by wins for Derby County and Watford.
However, some huge clubs have fallen foul of the play-offs. Two seasons ago Nottingham Forest were on the brink of a return to the Promised Land when they were gunned down by Blackpool, and Sheffield United, who missed out on promotion by just three points in 2009, suffered heartache at Wembley - going down 1-0 to Burnley thanks to Wade Elliott.
But West Ham United know all about the play-offs themselves. In 2004 they lost out to Crystal Palace in the final having finished fourth, only to finally make it back to the top flight the following season by beating Preston 1-0 having finished sixth.
The play-offs ensure that almost every game up until the final match of the season has something riding on it and they provide great entertainment. They may be harsh on the team that finishes third, but everyone knows the rules before the season starts. Not forgetting that they produce some great occasions. In fact one of the best games the English game has ever produced came in the Championship play-off final in 1998 when Sunderland and Charlton Athletic clashed at Wembley. The game ebbed and flowed and eight goals couldn't separate them so promotion all boiled down to penalties. Charlton edged it 7-6 and it still sends shivers down my spine when I catch it on ESPN.
Portsmouth, who will now be playing in the third tier of English football after failing to avoid relegation, were the biggest victims of the play-offs in 1993. The Fratton Park club were denied promotion to the Premier League on goal difference. West Ham's six-goal advantage was enough to send them up at Pompey's expense. Portsmouth had to settle for the play-offs but Leicester City prevented the south coast club from even reaching the final.
Teams like Ipswich Town, Sunderland and Reading have all been denied promotion despite only finishing one point away from sealing an automatic place in the top flight. West Ham United ended the campaign just two points behind Southampton and they will be buoyed by the fact that only one team over the past 20 years has failed to go up having finished the season in such a strong position. That was Ipswich back in 2005 and who took their place in the top flight that season? Yeah, you've guessed it, the Irons.
Sam Allardyce has assembled the most talented and effective squad outside of the Premier League at the Boleyn Ground. The likes of Robert Green, Carlton Cole, Kevin Nolan and Mark Noble are all experienced pros who know how to get results. Allardyce himself prides himself on winning by any means possible. They have lost the fewest amount of games in the Championship and if it weren't for a real sticky patch recently, the Hammers would have sealed promotion a long time ago.
They visit Cardiff City on Thursday night and the Bluebirds will hold no fear for the Hammers, particularly as they left Wales with all three points back in March. In the final they will play either Birmingham or Blackpool. Out of those two I believe they will be praying to face Ian Holloway's Blackpool. The Hammers have put eight past the Seasiders home and away this season, while Birmingham have been a thorn in their side over the past few seasons.
West Ham know what is at stake and what they have to do. Sam Allardyce won the play-offs with Bolton in 2001 and is fully aware of what pressure the play-offs can put you under, but that is exactly why Allardyce was appointed by the two Daves.
Allardyce may have his critics at Upton Park and ruffled a few feathers in the stands, but if he can guide them back to the Premier League he will have delivered on his promises and you can't ask for more than that. But will the Hammers be happy playing the likes of Arsenal and Chelsea next season or will they be off to places like Hull City and Barnsley again?
Calling all West Ham United fans. How confident are you of sealing promotion through the play-offs? How tricky will it be to beat Cardiff City? Who would you prefer to face in the final? What are your views on the play-offs? If Allardyce fails to gain promotion this season, do you think you should stick by him or give him the boot? Whatever your views we'd love to hear from you.