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Thursday, 03 May 2012

Birmingham, Blackpool, Cardiff or West Ham: Who will win the lottery of the play-offs?


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It is squeaky bum time for four Championship clubs this week. Fans of West Ham United, Cardiff City, Birmingham City and Blackpool are about to board the end of season rollercoaster.
 
The heat is on at Upton Park where Sam Allardyce is still struggling to win over the natives. The unlikely union of northern manager and East London fans always
had rocky foundations, but the differences stretch way beyond geography. Few clubs value artistic impression like West Ham. Style is as important as substance for the Hammers' faithful. Legions have been schooled in the silky skills of Brooking, Devonshire and Di Canio. Winning is not the be all and end all for those in claret and blue.
 
Despite this admirable commitment to the beautiful game West Ham suffered relegation last term. After a period of reflection the Irons top brass turned to Allardyce. The ex-Bolton boss cherishes a different set of ideals. It is a results game for Big Sam. 
 
This philosophy certainly bore fruit on the road. West Ham won 13 games away from home during the regular season. Unfortunately the Hammers have not enjoyed their home comforts. A plague of Upton Park draws derailed their bid for automatic promotion.  
 
Their opponents tonight and on Bank Holiday Monday will have to conquer their own demons in the quest for the promised land. This is Cardiff City's third successive tilt at the play-offs. The Welsh giants also came up short in the 2008 FA Cup Final and this season's Carling Cup final. It is hard to dispute the footballing credentials of Malky Mackey's side. The Bluebirds' attractive style may prosper at the highest level. Neighbours Swansea City have shown what can be acheived.
You suspect Cardiff will have to banish memories of past failures to prevail in the end of season lottery. If these mental obstacles can be overcome City stand a great chance of glory.
 
Birmingham City have most positive memories of knock out football. The glow of last season's Carling Cup triumph still burns bright. Their subsequent relegation was a bolt from the blue. St Andrews was not a happy place last summer. The loss of Premier League status was swiftly followed by the loss of a manager. Alex McLeish jumped ship to join fierce rivals Aston Villa. The exodus extended to the playing staff. Eight of the victorious Wembley side departed for pastures new.
The admirable Chris Hughton was handed the role of firefighter. Hughton was no stranger to clubs in crisis. He took the Newcastle United job in similar circumstances. In both incidents the former Spurs defender has conquered adversity.
 
Blackpool will be looking to repeat the heroics of 2010. Unlike two years ago the Seasiders are a known quality. Most informed judges expected a challenge from Ian Holloway's outfit. One thing hasn't changed, the Tangerines still score a bagful of goals. The entertainers scored 79 to secure a play-off berth. The signing of Kevin Phillips may be the catalyst for another play-off success. KP has helped himself to 17 goals this term. Why Birmingham City sold him remains a mystery.
Few would be surprised if the Sunderland legend came back to haunt his former employers.

Young starlets Matty Phillips and Thomas Ince are further threats to the Brummie rearguard. With Barry Ferguson pulling the strings Blackpool can never be discounted. Like Phillips, Fergie also enjoyed a successful stint in Birmiingham blue. He will be relishing a return to his old stamping ground.

But who will make it through to the play-off final and find themselves possibly just 90 minutes from a place in the Premier League? We'd love to hear from you.

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Colin Illingworth

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