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Saturday 12th May will see Boreham Wood take on Tranmere Rovers at Wembley Stadium for the Vanarama National League play-Off final, with the winners joining National League winners Macclesfield in the Football League next season. For the clubs, much will be at stake on the prestigious Wembley turf. But what factors might be at play beyond 22 men kicking a ball around a stadium, and who is likely to prevail?
New Playoffs, Same Huge Game
2017-18 has seen a new format to the playoffs, with all teams finishing 2nd-7th qualifying for the end of season playoffs. The proposals caused a great deal of debate despite being voted in by 18 of the 24 National League teams, and yet the two teams in the final finished 2nd in 4th (in Tranmere and Boreham respectively). So in reality, the only difference compared to last year was Boreham playing two different teams rather than one, and Tranmere playing a game less. Nevertheless, this certainly doesn’t take anything away from the implications of this game.
Tranmere fans will be hoping that recent history doesn’t repeat itself following last year’s 3-1 defeat to Forest Green Rovers at the same stage. Despite their loss, there’s no doubt that the experience of playing at Wembley will have helped them and could give them an early advantage against Boreham Wood. Tranmere players will no doubt benefit from the leadership of veteran Centre-Back Steve McNulty, who has already achieved promotion to League Two twice before, with Fleetwood and Luton. The National League play-off final is unique in the atmosphere it generates: a 90,000 capacity stadium only filled by around 18,000 fans (going by last year’s attendance) is something that won’t have been experienced by the Boreham Wood players.
As well as relying on McNulty, Tranmere will be hoping that Talisman Andy Cook continues his scintillating form this season, as the league’s top scorer with 26. Boreham Wood will be hoping that promising goalkeeper Grant Smith is able to keep Cook at bay, having kept 17 clean sheets this season, whilst their biggest goal threat will be Bruno Andrade, who has contributed 21 goals from midfield including goals in both games against Tranmere this season.
With only 2 teams promoted from the National League each year, it’s notoriously difficult for clubs to negotiate their way into League 2. But for whichever club succeeds at Wembley, they will receive more media coverage (even though National League football has started to receive greater coverage this year), higher attendances home and away, with opponents such as Coventry City, MK Dons and Exeter bringing a far greater following with them. They will also naturally attract higher quality players, and it’s not unusual for clubs to surprise everyone and achieve successive promotions into League 1.
Expectation and Pressure
The expectation is far greater for Tranmere; having spent 94 years in the football league before their relegation in 2015, the pressure will be on for the Super White Army to bring themselves back to where their fans will feel they truly belong. Boreham Wood on the other hand were only promoted to the National League two years ago, and this is an opportunity for their players to put the club in the Football League for the first time in their relatively brief history.
Boreham Wood will be full of confidence having defeated the ever-spirited Sutton United to reach Wembley, whilst Tranmere defeated Ebbsfleet to extend their winning run to six games. In their previous meetings this season, Boreham Wood defeated Tranmere 2-1 in March, whilst a 2-2 draw was the result of the reverse fixture back in August.
Whilst the weight of expectation could play on the minds of Tranmere players, their experience of being here before could be vital: They will be desperate to put to agony of last year’s playoff final defeat behind them. The neutral fan will no doubt be right behind Boreham Wood, but expect Tranmere to right the wrongs of last year and have too much for Boreham Wood this time round.
Prediction: 2-1 Tranmere