PLAY-OFFS specialist Neil Warnock believes the winners between Hull City and Derby County will go on to clinch promotion to the Premier League at Wembley later this month.
The Championship play-offs get under way tomorrow night when Sheffield Wednesday host Brighton & Hove Albion in a first leg tie that is set to attract a bumper crowd of 34,000 plus to Hillsborough.
Steve Bruce’s Tigers then travel to the Ipro Stadium the following lunchtime to take on a Rams side that did the league double over the East Riding club during the regular season.
Both ties are set to be tight affairs, the large number of draws between the four clubs in their respective meetings this term – nine of the dozen clashes, in total – backing up the notion that the margins between success and failure in the quest to reach the Wembley final on May 28 are going to be slim.
Warnock faced all but Brighton of the four play-off teams during his 16-game tenure at Rotherham United and accepts the point that the semi-finals are likely to be close-fought affairs.
However, the manager with a joint record seven promotions on his CV maintains that the team to join Burnley and Middlesbrough in next season’s top flight is likely to be either the Tigers or Rams.
“I wouldn’t necessarily bet on anyone,” said the 67-year-old, who has this week been discussing his future with Rotherham United chairman Tony Stewart following the great escape he inspired at the New York Stadium.
“Hull are a strong side. And it will be a good side that beats Hull. That is why, personally, I see whoever wins that as the most likely to win the play-offs.
“Certainly, Derby won’t be as easy as Rotherham were against Hull (when the Tigers triumphed 5-1 on the final day). Steve Bruce knows that.
“Last Saturday was a great game for Hull because they didn’t have to exert themselves. They also didn’t get any injuries.
“When I looked at things at the start of the season, I thought anyone that finished above Hull would get automatic promotion.
“That is how convinced I was. When you look at their players, Steve will be wondering how they haven’t done that.”
As the countdown continues towards the 30th year of the Football League play-offs getting under way, excitement levels are rising markedly in both Sheffield and Hull.
Yesterday saw Wednesday fans snap up the final allocation of 3,000 tickets for tomorrow’s home leg. With Brighton’s 2,000 strong travelling contingent being housed in the upper tier of the West Stand, the lower area was opened up to Owls fans. The club’s allocation of 2,047 tickets for the return leg at the Amex on Monday has also sold out.
Hull, too, will be backed by a sold out away enclosure at the Ipro on Saturday lunchtime after the final few hundred tickets of the club’s 3,000 allocation were bought yesterday.
Those fans heading to the East Midlands from the East Riding will be looking for a big improvement on last month’s visit, a 4-0 drubbing that meant Derby became the only team to do the double over Steve Bruce’s men in 2015-16.
Together with September’s 1-0 loss on the south coast to Brighton, those losses mean City have taken just three points from six meetings with their play-off rivals this term. They came via goalless stalemates with the Seagulls and Owls at the KC Stadium and a 1-1 draw at Hillsborough during the autumn.
In contrast, Derby boast the best return with 10 points, while Brighton claimed eight and Wednesday six as draws dominated the clashes.
Despite Hull being the only team to lose against a play-off rival in the regular season, Warnock believes either Bruce’s men or the Rams will still prevail in the May 28 final that will join last weekend’s final day shoot-out between Middlesbrough and Brighton as the richest in world football thanks to promotion being worth a minimum £170m.
“The best way of going up is the play-offs,” said Warnock, who led Notts County (1990 & 1991), Huddersfield Town (1995) and Plymouth Argyle (1996) to promotion via the play-offs and suffered just one final defeat, at the helm of Sheffield United in the Millennium Stadium 13 years ago.
“I have had four of them. They are fantastic. Mind, it is a long way home if you lose, I imagine. I never came home from Wembley having lost one of them.
“Looking at this year, you wouldn’t bet against Hull. Though if you were in the Derby camp, you wouldn’t bet against them either. Brighton will find it difficult to get up for Sheffield Wednesday (after missing out on automatic promotion on the final day at the Riverside).
“I know from being around Sheffield recently that they are ready for the play-offs. I have to say, though, that the Hull tie against Derby will provide the winners. Though I wouldn’t put money on it. This is the play-offs, after all!”