TEN clubs, 16 matches, one aim – avoiding relegation or winning promotion!
The League season maybe over in the Championship and Leagues One and Two, but the drama is far from over as the end of season Playoffs kicks off tomorrow night.
Whilst Ayr, Inverness and Dundee United will be fighting it out for the right to face the 11th placed Premiership team for a top flight position, ten sides will find out in the next fortnight which of the other three Divisions they’ll be playing in next season.
In the case of Berwick Rangers, they’re fighting to stay in the SPFL set up as they take on Highland League Champions Cove Rangers. It’s been a turbulent season for Berwick, who finished bottom of League Two having collected just 19 points all season and conceded 91 goals. Cove, on the other hand, strolled to top spot having scored 100 goals and dismissed Lowland League winners East Kilbride 5-1 on aggregate to set up Saturday’s first leg against the Borderers.
Cove will be hoping to go one better than last season having lost to Cowdenbeath over two legs, meaning that still only Edinburgh City have progressed into the SPFL set up since the Pyramid Playoff system was introduced in 2014/15. That motivation against a side who’ve lost their last six matches, and who have changed their managerial team, could push them into League Two at the third time of asking, having also lost out to Montrose in 2015.
Having preserved their League status four years ago, Montrose are now looking at back to back promotions through the Championship playoffs. Last seasons League Two Champions finished fourth in League One, showing their remarkable progress under Stewart Petrie, and will have no fear going into their Semi Final with Queen of the South. The Doonhamers have endured an awful run of results, falling from fourth in the table in January and looking at the Premiership Playoffs to second bottom having picked up just eight points from their last 14 matches.
The goals of Stephen Dobbie, the Championship player of the year, have dried up over that slump that saw Queens only survive relegation on goal difference, costing Gary Naismith his job and saw him replaced by Allan Johnston. Entering his second spell, Johnston’s immediate remit is simple, see off Montrose then the winner of the other Playoff Semi Final between Forfar Athletic and Raith Rovers to preserve Queen of the South’s status in Scotland’s second tier.
Forfar go into their Semi Final in decent form having won their last three matches to secure second place, ensuring home advantage for the second leg. Having finishing just outside of the relegation zone last season, the fact they have a shot at promotion is testimony to the management of Jim Weir and they won’t be fearful going into the Semi Final. Raith, on the other hand, have enormous pressure on their shoulders as they seek to go back into the Championship at the second attempt. Being the only full time side in the Division, finishing a distant ten points behind Champions Arbroath was a big disappointment for John McGlynn’s outfit. They’ll be looking to avenge last seasons Playoff disappointment to ensure that they don’t have a third campaign in the third tier, and with Falkirk coming down there is no assurances that they’ll win the title next year either.
Further down the table, Stenhousemuir go into the League One Playoffs on some sort of a high having avoided automatic relegation on Saturday with a draw at Brechin, consigning them to consecutive relegations. They face Annan Athletic, who have yet to taste promotion since their election to the SPFL set up as Gretna’s replacement in 2008. Annan have had a strong second half of the season, which catapulted them into the playoffs having been the Divisions top scorers with 70 goals. They’ll fancy themselves to cause an upset against a Stenhousemuir side, who came up through the Playoffs twelve months ago and now are the League One side fighting for survival.
The other Semi Final comes between two sides who were, for long periods, involved in a race with Peterhead for the League Two title. Edinburgh City, who are the only side to be promoted to the League via the Pyramid Playoff three years ago, led for most of the season before falling away and failed to win any of their last five games, therefore will be hoping they find something in the Playoffs to push them into League One.
Clyde were many people’s favourites under Danny Lennon at the start of the season, but were dealt a blow with a four point deduction in February for fielding an illegible player. They rallied to put in a strong finish to the season, only missing out on automatic promotion on the last day of the season, so they will fancy themselves to rise to the occasion to fight their way out of Scotland’s fourth tier.
It’s going to be a tense, nervous and exciting fortnight for the players, management and fans of the clubs involved. It may not be as high profile as going for a place in Europe, a major trophy or gaining promotion to the Premiership. However, for these ten clubs, the outcome of their respective matches will have a huge bearing on what budgets they have for next season, the impact on the calibrate of player they can attract and, in some cases, the overall future of their clubs.
The playoff system has been a positive impact to our game up here, and we expect more thrills, cheers and tears as the battle for places in the lower tiers of the SPFL commences.