MARK O’HAIRE (@MarkOHaire) runs the rule over Saturday’s Championship play-off final from Wembley as Hull take on Sheffield Wednesday.
Hull v Sheffield Wednesday | Saturday 17.00 | Sky Sports 1
There’s so much at stake. There’s so much to win and so much to lose. There’s so much on the line.
There’s £170m on offer to the winner with trips to Old Trafford and the Emirates to look forward to.
There’s naff all but tears and the very real prospect of Rotherham and Burton next season for the loser.
I remember struggling to sleep the night before the 2014 Championship play-off final. I’d never seen QPR play at Wembley and we’d ambled through the campaign; I must have played Rob D’s ‘Clubbed to Death’ and a few Woodkid tracks relentlessly when eventually giving up on sleep at around 6am. The following 24 hours remain a bit of a blur…
I imagine Hull and Sheffield Wednesday fans will be feeling similar tension and anxiety. The Owls can taste the Premier League again after a 16-year absence; the Tigers are looking to bounce straight back to the big time.
Edginess over entertainment tends to be the order of the day in Championship play-off finals and it would be a big surprise if this fixture didn’t follow suit in what’s renowned as football’s most high-stakes game.
The bookmakers have chalked Hull up as 11/8 (Bet365) favourites to do the business in 90 minutes, and in my opinion, that’s a price worth taking.
Steve Bruce’s side appeared on course for automatic promotion for the majority of the campaign but a rotten return from February to mid-April put paid to those hopes with the Humbersiders finishing in fourth.
Nevertheless, the Tigers squad is packed with Premier League experience and showed in a stunning 3-0 semi-final first leg win at Derby, they’re more than a match for any second-tier side.
The Rams fought back at the KC Stadium to lead 2-0 at the interval before eventually running out of steam with Tigers skipper Michael Dawson and his well-drilled defenders eventually riding out the tie relatively comfortably.
Hull set-up to keep a clean sheet first and foremost and there’s no doubt their strengths are at the back – the Tigers boast a tally of 25 clean sheets already this season. But star striker and leading scorer Abel Hernandez has proved a consistent menace for opposition defenders and could prove their match-winner.
The Uruguayan international has 22 goals in 44 club appearances to his name this season and in the 20 matches he’s scored in, 14 have seen Hull triumph. I’ve been a big fan since his Palermo days and the South American star relishes the big occasions; he’s well worth a poke at 9/5 (NetBet) to net.
Bruce’s boys also have half a dozen players in camp that played twice at Wembley in the FA Cup only two seasons ago with Dawson, Hernandez and Mo Diame notable additions since. So the big stage shouldn’t be a problem for a team that finished two places and nine points above Sheffield Wednesday.
Just one of the past 13 Championship play-off finals has gone to extra time with nine of the 12 winners inside 90 minutes keeping a clean sheet. Drill down further and the 1-0 correct score has proven profitable in seven of the past 15 Championship finales and it’s an angle that deserves to be followed again.
Hull have W12-D5-L7 when taking on top-half teams this term whilst picking up 11 clean sheets along the way. In contrast, the Owls have W7-D12-L5 with their first leg semi-final victory over Brighton the first against top-six sides under Carlos Carvalhal.
Wednesday have won just four games in 19 away matches from their fortress Hillsborough home and head to Wembley having conceded in six of their previous nine. Blackpool in 2010 were the last sixth-placed finishers to triumph in the play-off final and I get the sense this side is just happy to be here.
The Owls were given a large slice of fortune against Brighton in the semi-finals and in fairness, stood firm in the face of a first-half assault during the second leg. But the 2015/16 vintage have already fulfilled, and even exceeded, all expectations already.
When Dejphon Chansiri took over last summer, the Thai businessman promised progress and teased a promotion push within two years. Eyebrows were raised when Stuart Gray was pushed and Carvalhal arrived – a total unknown in British football – but hasn’t it turned out well?
Carvalhal has penned a new three-year deal at Hillsborough and the Owls are heading to Wembley for the first time in 23 years. Fans flocked to snap-up tickets and the feel-good factor is back with a first return to the Premier League since 2000 well within reach.
There is momentum with the underdogs too – Wednesday suffered just two defeats in their most recent 10 (one of those coming on the final day with the entire first-choice XI rested) and in Fernando Forestieri they boast a Championship headliner.
The regular season meetings saw the sides locked at 0-0 and 1-1, which points to another tight affair. Indeed, only nine goals have been scored in the last six meetings between these two teams. However, with extra-time and goal-heavy play-off finals in short supply, I just have to hang my hat on a narrow Hull success here.
The Tigers boast much the same squad that suffered a heartbreaking Premier League relegation just 12 months ago, bags of experience, a super-solid base with the pace, guile and clinical forward line that could prove pivotal in the pressurised environment of a play-off final.
Chuck in Bruce’s record of three previous promotions and you’ve plenty of tools there to back up the favourites.
Hull are fancied at 11/8 but I’ll also follow the trends to have a wee wager on the Tigers sealing promotion with a 1-0 correct score win at 6/1 (BetVictor). As always, it promises to be a memorable match at Wembley. Enjoy.