The Football League Play-Offs provide some of the most exhilarating football matches in the domestic game.
For four teams, the season is decided over a two legged semi-final, and if successfully negotiated, comes down to a single 90-minute slog between the two finalists in a showpiece showdown.
With promotion at stake, you’d be forgiven for thinking teams would err on the side of caution, with defensive and cagey games the order of the day. But there’s something about these nail-biting, arse-cheek clenching fixtures that sends teams goal crazy as we bare witness to a myriad of twists, turns, tantrums and total football carnage.
Regular readers will know I’m a Scunthorpe United fan, and I’ve experienced both sides of the play-off coin. I remember vividly The Iron knocking out Swansea in the 1999 Division Three (now League Two) semi with a dramatic extra time win, before beating Leyton Orient in the final. Scunthorpe were also involved in a topsy-turvy final 10 years later at the new Wembley, eventually emerging 3-2 victors over Millwall. And all that after reaching the final thanks to a pulsating penalty shoot-out win over MK Dons.
Yet in 2003, it was play-off despair in the Division 3 semis, this time with the added insult of being dumped out by local rivals Lincoln City. 3-0 down in the first (away) leg, United clawed back to 3-3, before letting in two more, and then succumbing 1-0 on their own patch for a bitter defeat.
So I know first hand just what the play-offs can do to a football supporter, but it’s not just in England where the drama is this intense. Let’s spare a thought for supporters of the Dutch sides Groningen and ADO Den Haag.
In Holland, the last European place is settled by a play-off. 4th placed plays 7th place, while 5th plays 6th in a two legged semi-final. The two winners then play each other, again over two legs, for a place in the Europa League second qualifying round. Got it? Okay.
Den Haag got to the final thanks to a 6-3 aggregate victory over Roda JC, while Groningen won through on the away goals rule after a 4-4 aggregate score with Heracles (Groningen scored two away goals compared with Heracles one).
Den Haag, looking to qualify for Europe for only the second time, destroyed their opponents in the first leg of the final, making home advantage count with a 5-1 demolition of Groningen.
Three days later, the sides met again for the second leg; seemingly a dead rubber. Groningen managed to draw first blood, but Den Haag scored just before half time to make it 1-1 on the night and 2-6 on aggregate, surely booking their place in Europe.
Not so. In the second period, Groningen embarked on a comeback of simply biblical proportions, scoring three inside the opening 15 minutes of the half. Den Haag weathered the storm but with just one goal in it, Groningen were handed their golden chance to inconceivably level the tie when they were awarded a penalty kick in the 88th minute. Leading scorer Tim Matavz duly dispatched the spot-kick to complete the comeback to end all comebacks, and send the game to extra-time.
With both sides having won their home leg 5-1, it seemed incredible that the 30 minute extra-time period stayed goalless, but it did, and a penalty shoot-out was needed to separate the teams.
So after their Lazarus-esque comeback, it was surely a dead cert that Groningen, with the wind in their sails, would go on to seal the victory in the shoot-out, and secure European football for next season.
Nope. A shell-shocked Den Haag team somehow managed to drag themselves off the canvass and land the knock-out blow in a simply enthralling pair of fixtures, winning the shoot-out 4-3. In predictable fashion, hero Matavz turned into the Groningen villain, smashing the decisive penalty against the crossbar. Unbelievable.
So there you have it, the play-offs aren’t just bonkers in Britain, but also on the continent.