LIFTING THE LID: We chat to former West Ham striker Marlon Harewood to relive his Championship Play-off Final memories ahead of this Sunday’s showpiece clash at Wembley.
Is there a more rewarding match in football than winning the Championship play-off final? Known as the most valuable one-off match in the sport, the victors can earn up to a reported £265 million for booking their ticket to the Premier League.
“The feeling is amazing, knowing you are going to be coming up against elite players next season and having to better yourself. That’s when the work starts.”
Marlon Harewood is recalling his memories to BETDAQ of what it’s like to win such a high-stakes match, having earned promotion to the Premier League via the play-offs with West Ham back in 2005.
Yet while for the winners the promised land awaits, for the losers, it’s another hard slog across another long year in the Championship.
“The range of emotions for the winners and losers is unrivalled – massively so,” Harewood says. “What the two teams will be feeling at full-time is so far apart. But going into those games, you are always going to have your winners and your losers, and I’ve witnessed both of them.”
Harewood is better placed than most to talk about the highs and lows of the Championship play-off final, having also lost with West Ham the year before they gained promotion in 2004.
Having been relegated from the Premier League in the 2003/04 season, West Ham were determined to bounce straight back up, particularly so given the abundance of talent they had in their squad, including the likes of David James, Michael Carrick, Bobby Zamora and Tomas Repka.
Harewood, meanwhile, signed from Nottingham Forest in November of the new campaign, just a couple of months after the Hammers had appointed Alan Pardew as their manager.
While the Hammers couldn’t secure automatic promotion, they finished fourth to claim a place in the play-offs, beating Ipswich in the semi-finals to set up a final with Palace.
“The first one was just so down-heartening,” Harewood says of the 1-0 loss. “It was such a good game, but it was Neil Shipperley that scored the winner to get Crystal Palace into the Premier League. Missing the opportunity to get into the Premier League and losing the game was heart-breaking, but luckily we got the opportunity to go again the next season.”
And go again West Ham did. But while West Ham’s squad now included more experienced players such as Teddy Sheringham and Chris Powell, it was by no means a routine season for the club. Pardew’s men scraped a place in the play-offs after finishing sixth – just three points ahead of seventh-placed Reading.
West Ham then edged past Ipswich once again in the semi-finals to set up a place in the final with Preston at the 70,000-plus seater Millennium Stadium in Cardiff, with the new Wembley in the process of being rebuilt.
“The atmosphere was phenomenal,” Harewood recalls. “It was crazy. You try not to think too much about the occasion and try to just think about the football and performing on the pitch. It was key to remember how well you had been performing up until that point and to try and finish off on a high and to carry on how you had left off and end with a bang.”
“It was one of those games where we knew what we were going into and what we needed to do to win the game and get to the Premier league,” Harewood adds. “We had a very good team at the time, a good team bond and a good dressing room atmosphere.”
In a repeat of the final the year before, the game just needed one goal to settle it, but this time round it was the claret and blue of the West Ham fans that were celebrating when Zamora scored the 57th minute winner – and again at the sound of the final whistle just over half an hour later.
“It was amazing, an indescribable feeling,” Harewood says. “When you get yourself in a situation like that and win, and you know next year you are going to be playing in the Premier League…”
Harewood adds: “I remember sitting on the pitch after the game and thinking to myself; ‘Wow, we’ve done it’. The cameras came to me, and I remember thinking, it’s been a long old season, and the relief and emotions of it just came out and I went crazy, knowing we were going to be playing in the Premier League, playing against elite players, and bettering myself as a player and bettering West Ham – getting them back to where they had been before.”
After two seasons out of the Premier League, West Ham were back in the big time, with all of the riches that that entails set to come their way.
On Sunday it’ll be the turn of Huddersfield and Harewood’s former club Nottingham Forest to battle it out for a place in the Premier League. Whatever happens, come the final whistle, it’s safe to assume there will be agony and ecstasy dished up in equal measures at Wembley.
“It’s one of those games you grow up as a kid thinking about and hoping that one day you might get the opportunity to take part in. I was lucky to get into two of them two years running,” Harewood says. “Everyone dreams of making it to the Premier League and I felt so fortunate to do it with West Ham.”