It has been sixteen years since a team relegated from the Premier League was able to make an immediate return. In 1996, it was Leicester; at the halfway stage in this year's semifinal, it looks as if either West Ham or Blackpool are about to make a similarly remarkable return.
West Ham entered the Championship playoffs with perhaps the most to lose, having missed out on automatic promotion on the final day after looking set for the bulk of the season. Yet the east London club will be the happiest of the four contenders for the final at the halfway stage, after a comfortable win at Cardiff in the curtain raiser.
On paper, this is how it should have been. Sam Allardyce's side has been assembled with easily the biggest wage budget in the division, and is accordingly shot through with Premier League experience and quality. The gulf in class between the Hammers and the more thriftily put together Cardiff side was especially apparent in the opening half of the match in South Wales, and Welsh international Jack Collison's brace was a fair reflection of West Ham's dominance.
The bid to secure an immediate return to the Premier League hasn't just been a financial gamble, but an ideological one. The installation of Allardyce in Upton Park last summer was not met with universal enthusiasm: this is a rare club amongst English ones, where aesthetics represent a significant part of its identity, and the former Bolton and Newcastle coach's approach is rather more pragmatic. The Hammers faithful have given it a lukewarm reception.
But Allardyce's appointment was not miles off the mark. West Ham made the same calculation that Real Madrid did when they hired Jose Mourinho. The Hammers were forced to concede that something drastic was needed, and that results are more important than beauty, at least in the short to medium-term. It's a comparison of which Allardyce himself might approve. "I'm not suited to Bolton or Blackburn," he famously told the press in 2010, while still Blackburn's head coach. "I would be more suited to Internazionale or Real Madrid."
Allardyce was trying to provoke, though he was predictably ridiculed for the statement in the English media. Yet there was a bit more behind the bravado, as Allardyce feels that he hasn't been given enough credit for his work. He has a point: he regularly worked miracles at Bolton, and Blackburn's dive since his departure puts his efforts at Ewood Park into sharp perspective.
Like Mourinho, Allardyce was brave enough to embrace a club whose traditional culture juxtaposed many of his own ideas. If he is able to lead West Ham back to the top flight at the first time of asking, it would arguably be the greatest achievement of his coaching career so far.
He is long enough in the tooth to know not to hire a team bus for Wembley just yet, though. "Two goals is a margin that's difficult for [Cardiff]," Allardyce said after the game, "but they'll be thinking about getting the first goal and whether we'll be nervous and edgy and trying to protect what we've got."
Cardiff coach Malky Mackay will be telling his players exactly the same thing. Having seen his charges win at Upton Park on the season's opening day, Mackay knows well that the pressure of satisfying the home crowd can weigh heavily on claret-and-blue shoulders. One can argue that West Ham can only beat themselves now, but the sketchiness of their recent home form tells us that isn't impossible.
Atmosphere should also play a role in defining the result of the other semifinal, with the eventual victor in Birmingham's matchup with Blackpool far more difficult to call. The pair scored a combined 157 goals between them in the Championship this season, but it took a speculative Thomas Ince shot, cruelly deflected in off Blues captain Curtis Davies, to decide things at Bloomfield Road.
Birmingham's fans remain optimistic after a surprising season, and made themselves heard on a chilly Friday night on the Lancashire coast. That noise level will be raised significantly when Blackpool make the trip south, with the Midlanders' St. Andrew's stadium one of the most old-fashioned and intimidating in the upper echelons of English soccer.
Certainly Chris Hughton's team will need that extra lift, having ceded narrow-but-valuable ground in the first game. "We have an opportunity to take them back to St Andrew's," said the coach post-match, "so we're still right in it." Controversially fired by Newcastle in 2010, the Hughton's work this season has to be admired, but it's not clear if he as an answer for this game.
He does have some decent tools at his disposal. Birmingham may have endured difficulty, but the cupboard is not quite bare. Extensive player losses have been unavoidable given the uncertain financial environment enveloping the club, and Seb Larsson, Craig Gardner, Scott Dann and Roger Johnson are missed. Yet Hughton has been able to call on players of national and international renown such as skipper Davies (who cost city rival Aston Villa in excess of $15m back in 2008), Nikola Zigic and former Rangers winger Chris Burke.
What Blackpool lacks in top-level experience, however, it makes up for in collective understanding. Coach Ian Holloway has never countenanced abandoning his side's passing, attacking style, even when relegation from the Premier League loomed in the last campaign. Hughton acknowledged how taxing it is to contain such a relentlessly offensive side after the first leg. "They get a lot of possession in the middle of the park,' he said, "and all you can do is try and restrict them to minimal chances, which we did. But we didn't use the ball well enough in our general play or working on the counter."
The ever-upbeat Holloway admitted a little disappointment that his team won't be traveling with a more substantial advantage. "I'm absolutely delighted with the way we played under pressure," he said after the first leg. "Our play merited more than one goal but let's see if we go there and impose ourselves."
At least Holloway knows Birmingham have to come out and play now. He has forward guile and finishing power to call upon, plus the ultimate in play-off lucky charms: Scottish forward Stephen Dobbie was on loan at Blackpool and appeared in the 2009 playoff final that sealed promotion to the Premier League. After returning to parent club Swansea last campaign, he repeated the trick as the Swans saw off Reading at Wembley. Dobbie is now hoping to make it a hat-trick.
It may just be an anomaly, but this is one of the strongest playoff line-ups in recent memory - and in such a situation, anything is worth clinging to as the teams step into the arena.