Saturday 2 May ~
Those who defend the play-off system are vindicated by the fate of the fixtures in today’s final Saturday of England’s third and fourth divisions. In effect, we have the pre-play-offs, with a brace of one-off “cup ties” deciding the final play-off spots. In League One, Scunthorpe play Tranmere in a direct battle for sixth position and it’s a similar scenario in League Two, where Dagenham & Redbridge entertain Shrewsbury Town for seventh. But the parallels don’t stop there.
In both cases, the home team are the theoretical favourite. Not just because they’re at home, but because Scunthorpe and Dag & Red both hold a two-point advantage over their visitors, and only need a point to progress to the post-season. The other similarity is that both sides are arguably punching above their weight in aiming for the division above. Scunthorpe made a rare foray into the second tier last year – their first in 45 years – and came straight back down. Their average home crowd this campaign has been around 4,500, although it was 2,000 or so higher in their Championship season. That’s been good enough to maintain a strong squad in League One, but Glanford Park wasn’t built for the big time, and the county of Lincolnshire has never been famous for a fervent love of the game – at the time of writing there were still tickets available in all parts of the ground for today’s match.
It’s unlikely, but it’s not unfeasible, that a team like Scunthorpe could follow Hull, Wigan, Bradford and Barnsley to the Premier League. That Scunthorpe might one day reach the Premier League is why we have the pyramid system, after all, even if it’s an open invite to reporters to torture us with florid, condescending prose when uncelebrated northern towns hit the big time. But would it do them any good in the long run if, say, they decided to build a bigger stadium they could one day no longer fill, and were saddled with the sort of debts that have haunted Barnsley ever since their top-flight year? It sounds wrong-headed to say that teams should know their place, and that certain clubs deserve success because they have more fans. But in economically perilous times, it may benefit a smaller team to confine itself to a comfort zone.
Tranmere, by contrast, although once a struggling contemporary of Scunthorpe’s in the old Division Four, have developed their ground and pedigree to be more obviously suited to the Championship over the past two decades. Although Rovers have only started drawing in crowds around or above the 6,000 mark in recent weeks as the play-off race has intensified, at least 16,500-capacity Prenton Park would, in the event of a double promotion, be ready to welcome Liverpool and Everton without too much upheaval. If teams were promoted based on crowd numbers and infrastructure, they would certainly edge Scunthorpe.
Moving down to League Two, Dagenham & Redbridge host Shrewsbury at their 6,078-capacity Victoria Road ground. Shrewsbury are bringing 1,400 away fans, which is around Dag & Red’s home average. Tickets for home fans are still available. So far this season they’ve attracted more than 3,000 fans just once, for the visit of champions Brentford. Shrewsbury, with almost 60 years of League history (but one in the Conference, a year during which they were thrashed by 5-0 by… Dag & Red), seem the “proper” choice to stay in the promotion fight. For those with a sense of history, it simply seems like a waste for a sparsely supported team like Dag & Red to move any higher. If they make it on footballing merit, fair enough. But that won’t stop most fans feeling inclined to cheer for Shrewsbury.
Tranmere manager Ronnie Moore has previewed the Scunthorpe game as “one of those meaty encounters”, and said that his players “won’t need any Churchillian speeches” because they know what they have to do (sparing Tranmere players the doubtless inspiring sight of Ronnie standing on the dressing room bench and beginning “Never, in the field of English third division conflict…”). Both Tranmere and Shrewsbury have the arguable advantage of knowing that only victory will see them make the play-offs, and so they can go all-out for the win.
Shedding the context of which sides morally or historically deserve to make the play-offs, both games will put fans through all the emotions you’d expect from last day do-or-die encounters. It would just be a shame, on a day when there is an inevitable wedge of meaningless games, if neither Glanford Park nor Victoria Road sells out. Ian Plenderleith