Three steps to heaven?
By Gavin Mapstone
For all but Watford fans itís been an exciting season with none of the other three teams particularly fancied to be challenging for the Premier League when we kicked off last August. The fact that Charlton and Sheffield United failed to even make the play-offs must give Hornets fans some comfort and either proves that the gap between the Championship & Premier League is narrowing or that when youíre crap itís quite hard to turn things round even in a lower league.
I was able to get views from fans of all the play-off teams even though one or two may already be planning their trips to Manchester & Liverpool next season. If only it was to play Stockport & Tranmere like in the good old daysÖ.
Thanks go to Nik Taylor www.crystalpalace-mad.co.uk
Dr Watford www.watford.vitalfootball.co.uk
and Paul Drant from oop North, a Hull fan.
What is the mood amongst fans going into the play-offs?
GM - Sunday saw a party atmosphere at Ashton Gate with fans happy to have made the play-offs with one game to spare. To miss out on automatic having led the table with a quarter of the season to go is disappointing. However most fans realise Gary Johnson has done a fantastic job with a team largely untested at this level and are happy to enjoy whatís been our most successful season for 25 years.
NT - This is one of those situations where cliches such as 'over the moon' are appropriate. It's been a great season. We were second from bottom in November and, although most fans recognised at the time that was a false position, for the manager and players to have turned it around so quickly is remarkable. The fans are buzzing and even if we don't go up this time around we'll have many positives to reflect upon.
Dr W - The Glory Hornet faithful will have a mixed reaction going into the play-offs. There are some who will be just plain happy for another chance at promotion after our quite awful form of late (1 win in 14 is more like relegation form) and there will be another set of fans who see it as failure that automatic promotion hasn't happened after being 9 points clear in November!
The football isn't pretty to watch and the goals have dried up but Dr Watford personally thinks calling for Boothroyd's head to roll is way too much at this stage. We are, at the moment, a victim of our own success and the fans expectation is sky high!
PD - I think it is split according to age. The younger ones are very confident and rightly so given recent form. The older cynical ones like me who have seen nothing but underachievement and failure for 104 years will believe it when we see it.
How do you rate your chances?
GM - City have returned to form in the last two games. They didnít deserve to lose to Sheffield United and comfortably saw off Preston on Sunday with one of our better performances this season. Trundle and Adebola seem to be forming a good partnership and the inclusion of Noble and Carle in the midfield seems to have settled a unit that had been underperforming since Lee Johnson got injured. Itís no coincidence that his injury saw our worst run of results this season. If we play somewhere approaching our best then we have as good a chance as any and one thing we wonít lack is spirit.
NT - I think I'm in the majority of Palace fans in feeling optimistic about our chances. We are one of two form teams going into the play-offs (the other being Hull) and to have signed off with such an emphatic win over Burnley gives us an added boost. We've lost just once in the past 12 matches, and that run of form has coincided with the most regularly settled line-up on the pitch. There's a feeling that Neil Warnock has decided on his best team and that those players are doing the business.
Dr W - Well, we avoided Palace - that's a start! And I am sure that there won't be a repeat of the 3-0 drubbing at the KC we saw only a matter of weeks ago. The Hornets have the experience and know-how of being there before (just 2 seasons ago) and Aidy keeps insisting that 'form means nothing', but it will be one big surprise if we win promotion.
PD - On recent form the final should be between us and Palace. However, as we all know it is now a cup competition and anything can happen. See Cardiff and Barnsley for details! I just hope we play to our full potential and have that little bit of luck when it is needed.
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What are your thoughts on the opposition?
GM - There is little affection for Neil Warnock amongst City fans, who is seen as a manager who will stop at nothing to get a result. The previous meeting between the two sides saw City draw thanks to a last gasp equaliser and the two games promise to be fiercely contested. Palaceís recent form speaks for itself and their can be no below-par performances if City are to go through. Scoring goals has been a problem for most of the season, so if City have a deficit to pull back in the second leg it may prove to be a step too far.
NT - Bearing in mind our matches against Bristol City earlier in the season, I think they will give us a tough test. Having said that, I was pleased to have avoided Hull at this stage. We're in form and City aren't - that counts for a huge amount in the play-offs. It's generally accepted that it's better to have the second leg at home. However, playing at Selhurst in the first leg gives us a great opportunity to establish a good lead. I think it's crucial we take that opportunity if we're to progress to Wembley.
Dr W - Hull can go either of 2 ways - Brown hasn't helped himself by insisting that the Hull are 'favourites to progress' as they could go as flat as a East Yorkshire pudding after missing out on automatic promotion or be tigerish to prove the doubters wrong. Frasier Campbell has been the loan move of the season and Dean Marney has impressed in midfield whilst the defence looks sound with Michael Turner stepping up to the plate. It will be proper blood, guts and thunder and not for the faint-hearted, it's just up to the Tigers not to freeze against the play-off experience of Watford.
PD Ė Watford were terrible at our place when we beat them 3-0 and seem to have carried on in that vein, so we should win. However, thatís what Leeds thought two years ago when Watford hammered them in the final and look what happened to them next. That experience will give Watford an advantage to make up for their lack of form.
And the other two teams?
GM - Hull have been in good form lately, play some attractive football and have a forward line to be proud of and so will rightly fancy their chances. Watford on the other hand have limped into the play-offs and confidence must be low given their current run of results so itís hard to see them overcoming Hull. Like most fans, Iíd been hoping weíd get the Hornets!
NT - Every team has a chance, of course - but I'd be amazed if it was Watford who went up. They've been dropping down the table since Christmas and if the season had been two weeks longer would surely have finished outside the top six. Aidy Boothroyd doesn't seem to know what to do to change it. Hull are the complete opposite and they are the team that worry me the most. They're not packed with outstanding players, but they have great team spirit and bags of confidence. That can take you a long way at this stage of the season.
Dr W - Palace are rightly tipped for success by the tar stained bookies up and down the land, and rightly so, but hey didn't someone say "you win nothing with kids". Bags of pace in Moses and Sinclair, experienced heads of Derry and Morrison and a midfield packed with bite. I fancy the Eagles to outdo the Robins, but I'd never write off a Gary Johnson team with that self installed 'never say die' attitude. Oh and Darren Byfield up front always seems to have that knack of nicking a late goal or 2 when the chips are down.
PD Ė Bristol have done superbly well this season after coming up, but just appear to be running out of steam. They seem to be a good team unit and that spirit will help in the struggle ahead. Palace are the form team, have done this all before and Warnock will not take any prisoners.
Which players are likely to be central to victory?
GM - Adriano Basso has been in great form all season and with scoring goals an issue keeping them out becomes all important. A superb shot-stopper and with a good record at saving penalties heíll have his chance to be a hero. The other player who could be crucial is Lee Trundle. Magic Daps has struggled since his £1 million move from Swansea but is returning to form. Scoring one, hitting the bar and having one cleared off the line against Preston. For players like him and Adebola this could be their last chance to get to the big-time.
NT - Victor Moses has emerged as a player who can change matches. He's only 17, but he looks as though he can do anything. Moses is the sort of player who will run at players with the ball, looks like he's hit a dead-end, and then emerges with it at his feet and lays off a superb cross for someone to tap in. He's great to watch and has been key in some of our recent wins. Clinton Morrison will be desperate to get more goals and return to the Premier League. Julian Speroni has been immense in goal this season and must take a lot of the credit for Palace's defence, which has been the meanest in the Championship.
Dr W - The Hornets may have a mountain to climb form wise if they are to win the thing but in Danny Shittu they have a man mountain of massive proportion. The massif centre back has weighed in with 9 goals, is a threat from set-pieces and is the heartbeat of the Hornets defence with his aerial power. Unsung heroes could emerge in Richard Lee (has already proved himself a dab hand at penalty stops in cup competitions), John Eustace and Tommy Smith, who, with the Player of the Season under his arm, showed at Blackpool that he can still perform under pressure. It will be interesting to see if Aidy Boothroyd decides to draft young Theo Robinson into the first team squad after his loan spell at Hereford saw his 16 goals fire the Bulls to promotion.
PD Ė Fraizer Campbell has been our main difference this season and the ability to score a goal from nothing will be vital in these matches. Also the old warhorse Windass: lots of experience, local lad and canít stand Warnock! Barmby and JJ have not been involved much all season, whereas Pedersen has contributed well if fit and again his experience will be useful. At the back Turner and Brown are normally very solid and will need to carry on that way.