Steve Bruce has taken some stick for his team selection lately, rotating players with no apparent rhyme or reason, but it all began to make sense when his preferred starting 11 suddenly slipped through the gears to trounce Rotherham 5-1 on the final day. And Bruce, wisely, is banking on experience and pedigree trumping all other factors in this arena.
Hull have those qualities by the bucketload, and they don’t necessarily have to play well in order to get the result they need. They played at Wembley twice in the FA Cup only two seasons ago and still possess half a dozen players from that campaign, while Michael Dawson, Mo Diame and Abel Hernandez have been notable additions since.
It only helps their cause that main rivals Brighton and Derby will suffer the absence of key midfielders. The Seagulls must do without Dale Stephens following his red card in the crunch final-day encounter with Middlesbrough, breaking up arguably the best engine room partnership in the division, while Rams’ orchestrator George Thorne suffered a broken leg in the defeat to Ipswich.
Sheffield Wednesday have strength in depth and are being slightly under-rated at 4/1 but it’s Hull who tick most boxes. Two seasons ago, the Tigers finished second on 79 points. Now they have 83 in a campaign in which Bruce has been heavily experimental and if it wasn’t for the recency effect of dropping 27 points in the last 18 games, they would be no bigger than 2/1.
Throw in the experience of having triumphed at Wembley in the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy already this term, the fact they held their nerve under sustained pressure to clinch sixth spot with a resounding 4-1 away win at champions Wigan, which left them with an average two points per game against the rest of the top six, and the case becomes compelling.
Bradford aren’t too far behind in the shot ratio stakes at 60 per cent and their penchant for keeping clean sheets towards the end of the campaign - seven in the last nine games - is an ominous sign for semi-final opponents Millwall, suggesting Phil Parkinson is currently in the zone from a tactical perspective. The only downside is an injury to Billy Clarke.
The case for the Bantams is also negated by the prospect of having to finish the job on a Friday night in Bermondsey. A 25,000-capacity crowd at Valley Parade can be trusted to get behind their team on Sunday lunchtime but it will be nothing compared to the pressure that will be put on officials at the New Den, and the schedule is definitely a leveller.
Walsall’s pursuit of Burton right through to the finishing tape was only to be admired but interim boss Jon Whitney has subjected his players to quite an emotional rollercoaster in recent weeks. The Saddlers finished third - and history shows that third-placed teams are promoted twice as often as everyone else - but there’s little evidence here to suggest they are stronger than Barnsley.
On ten previous occasions that a team has squandered an automatic promotion place they occupied going into the final day, no fewer than seven have recovered to secure promotion via the play-offs, with all ten progressing through their two-legged semi-final. It’s counterintuitive perhaps, but any pressure is simply washed away by an inner desire to swiftly make amends.
Stanley have quite clearly been the best team over the past 46 games and when you combine that with the statistic that says the highest-finishing team triumphs in the play-offs 39.7 per cent of the time, you need to find some pretty compelling reasons not to snap up the 3/1 about the Lancashire minnows not underlining their superiority over the next three weeks.
Pound for pound, Portsmouth have the better personnel but they’ve laboured under the weight of big expectations all season and Paul Cook’s performance-orientated feminine approach isn’t really compatible with the cut-throat nature of knockout football. If Pompey do get past Plymouth, and it’s a close call, I’m not sure they’d enjoy a David-v-Goliath clash with Accrington at Wembley.
Besides, it might not come to that. Plymouth are very capable opposition over two legs and the Pilgrims can be trusted to fare much better under the strategical Derek Adams than they did last season when floundering under the ambiguity of John Sheridan. Meanwhile, the under-ambitious Neal Ardley seems to be happy enough that Wimbledon are taking part.