THE stakes are high enough without factoring in that today’s clash between Middlesbrough and Brighton & Hove Albion is the richest in the history of world football.
A minimum cash windfall of £170m spread over the next three years is up for grabs as the two clubs meet in what is effectively a shoot-out for the Premier League.
Boro are the favourites, Aitor Karanka’s team needing just to avoid defeat to join Burnley in clinching automatic promotion.
But the Seagulls head to the Riverside on a 13-game unbeaten run and will fancy their chances of clinching promotion and a payday that, if whoever prevails today can stay up in 2016-17, will soar to at least £290m thanks to the new bumper TV deal for the top flight that kicks in next season.
For Karanka and his players, the incentive is reaching the Premier League and the Spaniard is determined to deliver as reward for chairman Steve Gibson sticking by him during those troubled days of March that saw the Boro manager walk out following a fall-out with his players.
“In my mind there are three people who deserve promotion,” said Karanka, who missed the 2-0 defeat at Charlton Athletic only for Gibson to smooth his return a few days later.
“One is the chairman and then the players and the club. For me, he (Gibson) is the person who has given me the first opportunity to be a coach and to get him back to the Premier League will be amazing for me because he deserves that.”
The huge financial prize at stake in this lunchtime’s clash represents an increase of £40m on the riches that lay ahead for last year’s trio of promoted teams.
It includes the minimum £95m that will flow into all Premier League clubs’ coffers next term plus the guaranteed parachute payments for 2017-18 and 2018-19 should a team be relegated.
Another White Rose club whose fate will be decided this weekend are League One Barnsley.
The Reds travel to champions elect Wigan Athletic tomorrow knowing only victory can guarantee the final play-off place. Anything less and Scunthorpe United, who travel to Sheffield United, or Gillingham can leapfrog the South Yorkshire club.
Considering Barnsley were bottom of the table in December and last month lifted the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy, many would consider just being in contention a feat in itself. Caretaker head coach Paul Heckingbottom, however, insists anything but an extension of the club’s season would leave him “deflated and gutted”.
“I am not really one for looking back,” explained Heckingbottom. “So, I don’t know if I would look back at winning a first major trophy in more than 100 years and our first at Wembley and take satisfaction.
“The situation is what it is. We have to go there and try to win. I would rather be in the position we are in. We are pleased where we are and are delighted we have got ourselves in the mix. Now, it is down to finishing the job.”
Bradford City, already guaranteed a place in the play-offs, host Chesterfield tomorrow in a contest that will be preceded by a minute’s silence in memory of the 56 lives lost in the 1985 fire disaster.
Also already in the play-offs are Yorkshire duo Hull City and Sheffield Wednesday.
Hull boss Steve Bruce will revert to his first-choice XI against Rotherham United after resting key players in recent weeks and he believes taking on a side led by Neil Warnock will be ideal preparation for the challenges that lay ahead.
He said: “It won’t be easy against Neil’s team. He will relish this. I can just imagine what his team talk will be, ‘They won’t fancy getting injured, we’ll tear into this lot’.
“I hold Neil in the highest respect. He is not everyone’s cup of tea, but he has done a wonderful job there. It just shows you what a bit of experience and a bit of fire can do.”
Carlos Carvalhal, meanwhile, has vowed to make “eight or nine” changes today when his Wednesday side travel to Wolverhampton Wanderers.
The Portuguese wants to keep his key players fresh with next Friday’s semi-final first leg in mind.
“I have played in cup finals, but never the play-offs,” said Carvalhal, whose first year in English football has brought memorable Cup triumphs over Arsenal and Newcastle United. “I have been in three finals in my career along with the UEFA Cup, and this is a similar situation.
“But we like this adrenaline, we liked to be focused, it’s not a stress but an opportunity to us.”