Five years on and it’s almost like a re-run of the League 1 play-off final. In 2005, I and my son Jonny were among 41,000 Sheffield Wednesday fans at the Millennium Stadium Cardiff to watch the Owls take on Hartlepool (with 17,000 fans of their own), with promotion to the Championship as the prize. I remember holding on the phone for hours to get tickets. Every Wednesday fan, however peripheral, felt caught up in the occasion and wanted to be there. On that occasion Wednesday won and the ensuing cup presentation and celebrations were so joyous and glamour-packed you might be forgiven for thinking we had just won the Champions League or the World Cup.
Sunday’s match against Palace is technically just a scheduled Championship fixture like any other, but for practical purposes it is a play-off final. As in 2005, two teams are playing against each other in a single match for a place in the Championship next season. The loser will be playing in League 1. It means as much as 2005, captures the imagination just as much and Owls fans will be clamouring to be in the crowd. Futile attempts to get through to the ticket office by phone, or to get a response from the club website, took me straight back to 2005.
I should have been on the website even before the final whistle at Selhurst Park last night confirmed that Palace had failed to beat West Brom, missing the chance to secure Championship survival and setting up the dramatic finale on Sunday which, as fate would have it, brings together the two remaining candidates for the last remaining relegation spot. Thankfully, Jonny managed to get through on the website at around 1:50am and secured 4 tickets together in the South Stand.
While there are practical and emotional similarities with Cardiff in 2005, there are also some differences. No extra time or penalties. No cup to be presented. Palace need only draw; Wednesday need to win. Against that, Wednesday have home advantage and will have a full house urging their team on.
2005 was about the euphoria of promotion. 2010 is all about avoiding the anguish of relegation. We win to stay where we are, not to go on to greater and more hopeful things. In Cardiff, both sets of fans milled in the streets in a friendly spirit. Everyone was enjoying their day out and there was a genuine party atmosphere. There was nothing to lose, and the chance of a big gain. This time, the atmosphere will be far more tense and grim. The winner gets away with a narrow let-off; can breathe again. No great hike in status to get euphoric over. For the loser, there is the despair of the drop.