The Canaries went from doubting whether they would make the play-offs to feeling disappointed about missing out on automatic promotion after winning 15 times in 22 games since hiring Alex Neil. The 33-year-old has wiped out concerns over his youth and never having coached in England and now actually has an experience advantage over his three rival bosses because he has overseen a successful play-off campaign before, guiding Hamilton up from the Scottish Championship last term.
Boro will be the most rueful about not securing a top-two place as they led on multiple occasions in February, March and April, only to pay for six defeats in their closing 15 matches, including five in seven on their travels. Two things in their favour are that they won five of the six regular-season clashes with their three foes and that QPR broke the curse of finishing fourth by becoming the first Championship side in 16 years to go up from that position in 2013/14. However, the Teessiders are play-off rookies, with this their first participation since a prompt semi-final exit way back in 1990/91.
The Bees’ fantastic achievement in reaching the play-offs in their first Championship season in 22 years almost wasn’t – they dropped out during the run-in only to profit from Derby’s final-day choke at home to Reading, and even ascend to fifth thanks to Ipswich’s reverse against Blackburn. Their past play-off record isn’t too pretty though, with seven separate challenges ending in failure, the most recent occurring two years ago in League One, when they were beaten by Yeovil at Wembley.
Whereas Neil, Aitor Karanka and Mark Warburton possess four months, 18 months and nine months of Championship managerial mileage respectively, Mick McCarthy has gained promotion from the division twice before, with Sunderland and Wolves. Both of those triumphs were as champions though, and his employers have an underwhelming one-in-seven play-off success rate, yet just being involved again is huge progress following nine years of mid-table nothingness.
Ipswich v Norwich
“Old Farm” bragging rights are very much in the Norwich camp right now. They did the double this season – winning 1-0 at Portman Road and 2-0 at Carrow Road – and the last time that the teams shared Championship status in 2010/11 too – romping to 4-1 and 5-1 victories back then. The best omen for the Tractor Boys is that they have taken 13 of the last 15 points available to them at home so, as first-leg hosts, there is an opportunity to assert authority in the tie.
Brentford v Middlesbrough
Middlesbrough’s head-to-head supremacy over Brentford is enormous: five successive wins in which the sole goal that they conceded was a 90th-minute consolation in a 4-1 romp. In 2014/15, they won 4-0 at the Riverside Stadium in September then followed up by grinding out a 1-0 at Griffin Park in January. The Londoners have the worst record of the play-off-contesting quartet against one another, taking four points from a possible 18 in total.
The Trends (this century)
Third – 7
Fourth – 1
Fifth – 4
Sixth – 3
Third-versus-Sixth Semi-Final Wonders
Third – 11
Sixth – 4
Fourth-versus-Fifth Semi-Final Wonders
Fourth – 7
Fifth – 8