The Championship Play-offs are always a highlight of the season. With so much at stake, not least a financial windfall of at least £150million, the unpredictable can and often does happen.
This year sees four clubs of wildly varying resources compete for that golden ticket to the promised land of Premier League football.
Much has already been made of the disparity between Luton Town’s squad cost of just £1.5million and the £113.7m worth of their play-off rivals Sheffield United.
Brentford gained promotion via the Play-offs last season… but who will follow them up?
Nottingham Forest’s squad value is £30.8m and Huddersfield Town’s £17.2m, so they also far exceed Luton. But equally they are dwarfed by the Blades, who only came down from the top-flight last season.
It’s a point hammered home by the fact Fulham’s promotion squad cost £158m and Bournemouth’s £125m, also the product of recent Premier League visits and parachute payments.
It can create a two-tier environment in the second tier but ultimately those riches are what everybody is striving for and dreaming of.
As the Championship Play-off gets underway this weekend, we preview the two semi-final ties.
LUTON TOWN vs HUDDERSFIELD TOWN
First leg: Kenilworth Road, Friday 7.45pm Second leg: John Smith’s Stadium, Monday 7.45pm
Both live on Sky Sports Football
Luton form: LWWDLWW Huddersfield form: WDWWWW
You’d have got long odds on this being a Play-off semi-final at the beginning of the season. Luton have been upwardly mobile for several seasons but finished only 12th last season, while Huddersfield barely avoided relegation.
But both clubs have brilliantly exceeded all expectations and will happily assume the role of underdogs with more pressure on Forest and United.
Nathan Jones has worked wonders at Kenilworth Road. Let’s not forget that Luton were a non-league team as recently as 2014 and have been slowly clawing their way back up the pyramid after financial strife and points deductions sent them tumbling down.
Luton Town have exceeded all expectations to finish sixth on a shoestring budget
Working on a shoestring budget, Jones relies on the spirit of the collective in a team completely absent of flashy show-offs.
The Welsh manager set fire to the players’ table tennis table as a symbolic dawning of a new era of greater focus and professionalism. His recruitment has been smart out of necessity, there is no money to be wasted.
Jones said this week that Luton winning promotion would be ‘possibly the greatest story in football’ and he has a point.
They were relegated from the top division at the dawning of the Premier League era in 1992 and have been right down to the bottom and back again.
Luton manager Nathan Jones has worked wonders to deliver the Hatters into the top six
What is for sure is that no Premier League star will relish the cramped dressing rooms and in-your-face atmosphere of Kenilworth Road next season, with the Hatters hoping to utilise that to their advantage against the Terriers too.
Huddersfield have been revitalised by Carlos Corberan, a former member of Marcelo Bielsa’s backroom team at Leeds. His first season was poor but they have been in and around the top six all this campaign.
They come into the Play-offs as the form side, having beaten Middlesbrough, Barnsley, Coventry and Bristol City in their final four games and they’re seven undefeated.
Huddersfield don’t have a large budget either and have relied largely on free signings, with Corberan’s coaching skills ensuring he gets the maximum out of his squad.
Huddersfield celebrate a goal during their final match of the regular season last weekend
If omens exist, Huddersfield have won promotion on their last two forays into the Play-offs. In 2012, they defeated Sheffield United on penalties in the League One final and in 2017 they overcame Reading on spot-kicks to make the Premier League for the first time.
The Terriers did beat Luton 2-0 only last month as part of their strong finish to the season but it might have been different had Elijah Adebayo converted a penalty for 1-1 with 20 minutes to go.
The absence of Sorba Thomas, who has contributed 14 assists this season, will hinder Huddersfield and a couple of very tight, keenly contested legs seem likely.
Huddersfield boss Carlos Corberan could guide the Terriers back to the Premier League
SHEFFIELD UNITED vs NOTTINGHAM FOREST
First leg: Bramall Lane, Saturday 3pm Second leg: The City Ground, Tuesday 7.45pm
Both live on Sky Sports Football
Sheffield United form: DLDWWW Nottingham Forest form: WWWWLD
Two clubs with big fanbases who believe they deserve to be Premier League entities meet in the other semi-finals.
There’s plenty of long-standing rivalry between Sheffield United and Nottingham Forest, dating back to the 1984 Miners’ Strike, and sell-out crowds at both legs will create a spine-tingling atmosphere.
They met in an epic semi-final back in 2003. After a 1-1 draw at the City Ground, Forest raced into a 2-0 lead at Bramall Lane only for Neil Warnock’s Blades to come back, force extra time and then use their momentum to win it.
Enda Stevens celebrates scoring for Sheffield United in their 4-0 win over Fulham last week
A repeat of that classic would be very welcome and anything seems possible after the remarkable seasons both have had.
Just down from the Premier League, the Blades started the season inconsistently under Slavisa Jokanovic and he paid the price at the end of November.
Paul Heckingbottom came in and lifted the team from mid-table mediocrity to a Play-off berth, the season concluding with three straight wins, including a 4-0 thrashing of champions Fulham.
Top scorer Billy Sharp, who has 15 this season, has picked up a calf strain to add to existing absentees up front including Oli McBurnie, Rhian Brewster and David McGoldrick.
That may force the Blades to go without a recognised centre forward and seek a policy of containment for much of the tie.
Billy Sharp, celebrating a goal against Derby, is a fitness doubt for the semi-final, first leg
Forest transformation during the course of the season is even more dramatic. They looked doomed to a season of relegation struggle after losing six of their first seven league games.
But Steve Cooper has proved an inspired appointment, lifting them from 24th and bottom to within a whisker of snatching automatic promotion from Bournemouth.
In the end they finished fourth after a final day draw with Hull City but Cooper has worked wonders not only to construct a winning side but restore pride to a grand club that as underachieved for so long.
Brennan Johnson (left) has been Nottingham Forest’s outstanding performer this season
Forest haven’t been in the Premier League since 1999 but enter these Play-offs as the favourites with their outstanding academy graduate Brennan Johnson showing the way.
He’ll be even more key with Lewis Grabban ruled out with a hamstring issue and Keinan Davis also sidelined with a similar issue.
As with their last Play-off meeting 19 years ago, this tie could well prove to be an epic.
Forest boss Cooper has transformed Forest from relegation fodder to promotion hopefuls