Play-offs - Ipswich Town v Norwich City: History says first leg loss is likely to prove fatal

Bradley Johnson thumped home a goal in Norwich City's 2-0 Championship win over Ipswich Town at Carr

Bradley Johnson thumped home a goal in Norwich City's 2-0 Championship win over Ipswich Town at Carrow Road in March. Picture: Paul Chesterton/Focus Images Ltd - Credit: Paul Chesterton/Focus Images Ltd

Nothing will be decided at Portman Road today...or will it? Gavin Caney examines if Saturday's loser has any chance of overturning a deficit from the first leg.

Second tier play-off records

Second tier play-off records - Credit: Archant

Derby matches have the tendency to flick the overused expression counter into overdrive.

'The form book goes out of the window,' many mutter as the default switches to safe mode. If failure follows the saying is then usually trotted back out as part of the coping mechanism. Throw in the pressure of the play-offs to the mix and the numerical amount of cliches can start to fly off the scale.

Defeat in the opening game? Not a problem. 'It's only half time,' smiles the optimistic supporter who refuses to accept that their beloved side is heading for elimination.

Yet while such an irritating utterance may be true – 90 minutes is indeed the mid-point of a two-legged showdown after all – is there any scope for fans to trot out such a phrase that is increasingly in danger of losing its meaning? Is the first leg really that important?


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Well, the answer appears to be yes because the outcome of Saturday's first monster showdown between Norwich City and Ipswich Town is more vital than some are willing to let on. Because when a team thinks it's all over after the first part of the Championship play-off semi-finals has gone wrong, they're probably right.

Of the 52 play-off finalists since 1988/89 – when after two seasons the shoot-out for promotion also involved relegated teams from the level above – just six have lost a first leg. Only Crystal Palace, Bolton, Sunderland, Preston, West Ham – against the Tractor Boys in 2003/04 – and Watford have turned a negative result into a positive one come the end of their last four clashes.

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Had the away goals rule not been removed around the turn of the Millenium, Preston's penalty triumph would never have happened either. So perhaps the weekend's battle is 'more important than a normal game'.

It certainly will be for Ipswich who have the worst record of any team that have tried to go up through the, ahem, 'lottery of the (second-tier) play-offs'. Because not one of the aforementioned sextet suffered their initial setback upon their own turf.

So Mick McCarthy's troops will need to 'rewrite the record books' if Alex Neil's Canaries – yet to lose on the road under his management – continue to dominate clashes with their fiercest rivals from across the Norfolk/Suffolk divide.

Those facts are not the only ones that lean towards City's eventual progression though – far from it. A season-ending finish of third is, with 10, the best place to set about an upward movement into the Premier League. The modern trend, five of the last nine, backs up that theory.

Of course the 'talking will be done on the pitch'. The optimists will 'read what they want' into the figures. Yet even the most pessimistic yellow can hardly fail to feel optimistic about the next week or so thanks to the Blues' near never-ending play-off mishaps.

'The facts don't lie' is a cliche Ipswich fans will not want to hear, especially as they have the worst record of any team trying to get out of the old First Division (Second Division if you go back far enough). Five failed 'play-off adventures', excluding one from before the system's format changed to its current guise 'does not make for pretty reading' – well across the border at least. They've got to one final, and won it, which is a better success rate than City.

Yet they could argue that at least they reached a final on their maiden attempt.

Middlesbrough will hope their second foray in the quest of being part of the 'richest game on the planet' brings a first final appearance while Brentford – whose record in the third tier is as bad, if not worse than Ipswich's – are perhaps the 'unknown quantity'.

They'll fancy making history, because 'records are there to be broken', as will Ipswich of course. But, for now, the Canaries will just be hoping this first showdown with their Suffolk counterparts doesn't leave anyone saying sorrowfully; 'It's a funny old game' – because the past suggests a defeat looks like it will really be no laughing matter.

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