Nine gruelling months of Championship football lead up to one game.
At Wembley tomorrow, Aston Villa will play Derby in a match of gargantuan proportions.
Not only is the Championship play-off final the richest match in world sport, but it is also the ultimate game of glory and despair.
After the 90 minutes tomorrow one side will experience the glory of reaching the Premier League and the guaranteed £170million windfall that comes with it.
The other will be left to pick apart how a single game of football turned all their season-long efforts into dust as they prepare for another arduous year in England’s second tier.
It is difficult to encapsulate just how brutal a single game deciding such an important step for a football club is.
Villa, beaten finalists against Fulham last season, know the the feeling of coming so close but yet so far all too well.
Derby, themselves who lost out to Fulham at the semi-final stage a year ago, won’t have the same scars as their opponents but the prize of Premier League football carries such desire that it will be hard not to be overcome by the occassion.
All the emotion on show after the momentous win at Elland Road to dump third-placed Leeds out at their own ground could still be for nothing if Derby don’t finish the job at Wembley.
And for Villa, who put together a 10-match winning running towards the end of the season, another defeat in the play-off would be such a cruel ending to two brilliant seasons.
Putting aside the fact that winning this game can completely change a club’s economic fortunes for one moment, the consequences of losing can equally devastating.
If Villa don’t go up it looks almost certain that they will lose Jack Grealish, who has proven himself to be far too good for the Championship.
Yes, they will be paid handsomely but it won’t be just Grealish, much like how Ajax’s squad will be picked apart this summer, so too will both Villa and Derby if they don’t make the climb upwards.
Whichever side goes up knows they will have a chance of keeping their best players and with the added financial injection they can start fishing in different talent pools.
Remember Fulham spent over £100million on transfers after winning promotion last season… They just didn’t spend it very well.
Winning the play-off final propels you into a different stratosphere from both a financial and reputational perspective.
But it is losing the game that can be the most damaging, more damaging than even not making the play-offs at all.
The biggest prize in English football is so tantalisingly close and if you’re defeated then all the hard work that has been put in to get to that position, 46 league games, thousands of miles covered and all the blood, sweat and thunder it takes to prosper in the Championship counts for nothing.
You have to start again from scratch and start preparing for how you are going to clamber out of the league after another 46 games next season.
And that’s it, the Championship play-off final is the ultimate game of glory or despair.
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