Advantage Swansea in the first of the Championship’s Play Off Semi Finals – but is it really?

The Play Off’s are a great invention – perhaps some going through agonies waiting for their team’s game in them to start might think differently, but, come on, they are a brilliant way to end the Football League season and the 2010/11 version started last night with a very good 0-0 draw for the jacks at Nottingham Forest. When you consider that Swansea had left back Neil Taylor, rightly, red carded in the first minute and then went on to dominate the first half before holding Forest at arm’s length without too many alarms, they have to be favourites to finish the job on Monday at the Liberty Stadium and I now expect them to be our Wembley opponents if we can get through our own Semi Final with Reading.

One of the main reasons for my confidence as far as the jacks are concerned is that one of the constants in football (and virtually every other team sport) since it was first played is that you do better playing in front of your own supporters  than you do in front of your opponents’. The Football League recognise this by giving the higher placed team the “advantage” of playing the second leg of their Play Off Semi Final at home, but lately something odd has been happening which suggests that, maybe, Swansea’s situation in their tie with Forest is not as promising as it might first seem.

Promotion Play Off’s for the right to join the big guns in what was then called the First Division started in 1986/87 and, in the first decade of these matches, home advantage counted for a lot with twenty of the Semi Finals being won by the hosts, ten being drawn and a further ten resulting in away wins. In their second decade, playing at home was even more advantageous with twenty two victories, another ten draws and just eight wins for the visitors. However, in the last season of that second decade (2005/06), something odd happened that had not occurred before and hasn’t done since – not one of the four Semi Finals were won by the home team as two finished in draws and two in away wins.

This signaled a change in the pattern of results in these matches which has continued throughout the next four seasons to the present day – if you include last night’s match, the seventeen Semi Finals played since 05/06 have seen the home team win on just six occasions and there have been only two draws while over half of the games (nine) have seen the away side come out on top. I reckon this dominance by the away teams has been going on long enough now for it not to be considered as some sort of oddity or blip and can only surmise that the weight of expectation from the home crowd, and subsequent disappointment when things don’t go as expected, has nullified the traditional advantage I mentioned earlier – especially in second legs where the home support thinks you have done the hard bit already by getting a result in the first match.

So what does all of this mean as far as tonight’s match at the Madejski Stadium is concerned? Well, one thing the stats say is that if there is a positive result, then the team who win have to be big favourites to reach the Final. If Reading win, then City won’t have just the “curse of the cameras” (two draws and four defeats in the six live televised games from Cardiff City Stadium this season) to overcome, but also the fact that no home team in the second leg has overturned an away loss in the first game and got to the Final since West Ham did it against Ipswich in 03/04. On the other hand, no team in the history of the Play Offs in this division has come back to reach the Final after losing the first leg at home – three teams (including Leicester last year) have won the second leg after losing in front of their own fans in the first match, but it’s never done them any good as far as the outcome of the tie goes.

As for what I think will happen, well I’m not too hopeful because that Middlesbrough cave in has,once again, got me doubting our capacity to cope on the really big occasion – this feeling has never really left me since the disastrous end to the 08/09 campaign if I am being honest. That said, I definitely have a habit of concentrating solely on the good things that our rivals do while conveniently ignoring all the bad things and yet the complete opposite seems to happen when I’m watching us play!

City are a good side and a look at the league table should be all the proof sceptics like me need to show that, despite all the recent negativity, we really aren’t any worse than the other three teams involved. In saying that, if we are going to be playing Premiership football next season then, as others have mentioned at various times already, I expect our success to be based on individual moments of magic (like Peter Whittingham’s goal at Leicester last season for example) more than an outstanding team effort because, for nearly all of the past nine months, I have not been able to shake off this feeling that, while we have some very talented players for this level, we have never really been a team in the best sense of the word.

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