On Thursday evening Hertha face Fortuna Dusseldorf in the first leg. Fortuna are out of form and have won only 4 times since the turn of the year. The official Bundesliga helpfully divides the season in to two 17 game tables. Handy for the statto. The fact Hertha have managed to force their way in to the Relegation Play-offs is highly significant for both Berlin sides. The Union fans I spoke with all want the same outcome in the Oympiastadion - a Fortuana win. They want the Berlin derby next year and who can blame them after last season.
Sunderland fans do not have fond memories of Relegation play-offs. When Laurie McMenemy said he would take Sunderland out of the old Second Division, few expected he would face the ignominy of being the first Sunderland manager to relegate the former 'Bank of England club' into the third tier of English Football. The Guinness Book of Records is clearly written by someone who has indulged in too many of its sponsors beverages, as McMenemy is still rated as one of the twenty most successful managers in English post-war football. You only have to watch the Coogan-esque 'Do I Not Like That' documentary to see the clueless and sycophantic Geordie in action. Painfull viewing.
The more knowledgeable/sad among you may point to the "test matches" of the late 1800s - that pitted sides against each other from the First Division and newly formed Second Division - as being the first "play-offs". In the days of no promotion the bottom three and top two fought it out using a complex system. I'll not be offering any analysis I am afraid.
The relegation play-offs were introduced in to the English football league at the start of the 1986/7 season. In May 1987 Sunderland finished 20th and faced Gillingham with the second leg at Roker Park. Whilst Sunderland managed to level the tie they were relegated on away goals after an epic encounter at their old home. This format of relegation play-off lasted only two seasons and 1990/1 saw the introduction of the format that prevails today.
The principle of the play-offs is very clear in England. It extends the interest in the league for a large number of clubs giving them something to play for. Instead of the top three being promoted the top 2 are promoted and places 3-6 enter the lottery for promotion. The case for the play-offs here in Germany is much less clear cut.
If we compare the Championship in England, with the Bundesliga 2 in Germany, in my view there are two critical differences. The Championship is arguably less competitive so needs a play-off system to keep the league competition alive for as long as possible. You would be hard pressed to find anyone in disagreement with this point. The play-off system in the Bundesliga appears to want to protect the bigger clubs (offering third bottom in the Bundesliga 1 an escape route via the play-offs) rather than enhance the league competition in the German second tier. Dusseldorf finished third but nobody in mid-table was vying for 6th place as they were in The Championship. For these two reasons I'd be disgruntled if I were a Fortuana Dusseldorf fan and relieved if I supported the West Berliners.
Being a Sunderland fan, an FC Union convert and a lover of the underdog, I will be rooting for the away side this evening. KO time is 20:30. Expect an overview over the weekend. You can sign up via e-mail on the right hand side of this page or follow me on Twitter below. Please do so and thanks for reading. The blog has been up 1 week and has received almost 2,500 views, largely due to the official FC Union site highlighting the blog on their Facebook page, with the classic headline "Unioner aller Länder... auch in Cottbus dabei ;-)." The icing on the cake was a Union fan describing the whole blog as the "hammer". No greater praise.