Football League Expert & Columnist
The final miracle
Cheltenham and Crewe have had miracle seasons, says Peter Beagrie, but who will win at Wembley?
Last Updated: 24/05/12 5:52pm
Cheltenham were second favourites for relegation at the start of the season. Now they're slight favourites to go up.
It's been a topsy-turvy and occasionally patchy season for Mark Yates' side. At times they haven't looked like being able to win a game and at other times they've looked unbeatable. But as the season drew to a close, they won six of their last eight and are the form horses in the League Two Play-Offs.
This is Yates' first job in the Football League and he's performed a minor miracle. On Sunday he can become the first man to win promotion via the Play-Offs as both a player and a manager with the same club, having played in the Cheltenham side that beat Grimsby 3-1 in 2006.
When he took over from Martin Allen in December 2009 the club wasn't in great shape, but he's managed to improve their league position every year.
He guided them to sixth this term and they were brilliant in the Play-Off semi-final with Torquay, winning 4-1 over two legs. They had to call upon goalkeeper Scott Brown a few times early on, but they soon took over the game.
They boast several players in form. Ben Burgess has three goals in his last five and James Spencer has two in four. Top scorer Darryl Duffy and 10-goal hitman Jeff Goulding have only been on the bench lately!
Marlon Pack has great ability from set pieces and the speedy ball-carrier Kaid Mohamed will enjoy himself on the Wembley pitch. Jermaine McGlashan was the outstanding player in the semi-finals and I think he will be a real threat to Crewe.
Those players have the skill and pace to turn defence into attack and if Cheltenham can get the ball to Mohamed and McGlashan in the wide areas they will be a real threat.
Crewe are another side who have taken huge strides this season.
Steve Davis took the team on a 16-match unbeaten run in early 2012 and that's largely down to the way they have become more solid defensively. David Artell has been a big player for them at the back, as has Adam Dugdale, and they have tightened up tremendously.
But this Crewe side still boasts some very accomplished footballers. Dario Gradi has produced a consistent supply line of Academy talent over the years and that's evident in the current attacking pairing of AJ Leitch-Smith and Nick Powell.
Leitch-Smith runs the channels for fun and makes teams defend deep, which allows Powell to operate behind the centre-halves. He's a tremendously balanced player, full of tricks and a lot of big clubs are looking at him. They are 22 and 18 respectively, but these boys have become men this season, playing with no fear and a smile on their faces.
I understand 18 of Crewe's 26-man squad are Academy graduates and their youth system is as spectacular as ever - but they'll be hoping to be stars of the present, rather than stars of the future when they get to Wembley.
Of the three Play-Off Finals, this is probably the hardest to call. Southend and Torquay were arguably the favourites to reach Wembley, so these two teams don't mind tearing up the form book.
This game boils down to youth against experience with Cheltenham the bigger, stronger and more physical outfit. At this moment in time they are probably the slight favourites and have more depth in their squad to choose from.
But Crewe were able to dispose of a much more experienced Southend team in the semis and will be looking to their likely lads - Leitch-Smith and Powell - to book them a place in League One.
Both teams like to go forward and play football in the right manner and they are worthy finalists. They have earned the right to play in the national stadium and I'm pleased the playing surface is worthy of the venue these days; the ball should run true for these footballing sides.
The old Wembley had 39 steps. This one has 107 steps, but they'll bounce up them with a spring in their boots if they win the game.
It'll feel like 1,007 steps if you end up on the wrong side of the result though...