Nothing will be definitively decided in the promotion race at Dens Park on Saturday. However, history suggests the prize on offer is far from inconsequential.
The Premiership playoffs were incepted in the summer of 2013 when the Scottish Premier League and Scottish Football League merged to create the Scottish Professional Football League, providing a secondary route to the promised land.
However, that path is laced with laboriousness and, many will convincingly argue, weighted to ensure the team which finishes 11th in the top-flight approaches the process with a sturdy leg-up. They tackle just one tie in order to secure their survival, while their potential usurpers while face — at best — two.
Those were the terms required in order to convince the Premiership turkeys to vote for the Christmas of an extra relegation place. And in the six iterations of the playoffs so far, one pattern has emerged: securing second spot in the Championship is crucial.
Teams finishing in third or fourth in the Championship – ranging from Raith Rovers to Rangers – have never won promotion to the Premiership.
The legs went; injuries told; the consistency wasn’t there. Whatever the various reasons were, every club which has attempted to navigate those three ties – six gruelling fixtures, before factoring in potential extra-time – has failed.
“It’s a big advantage to finish second and not need to navigate a quarter-final, as well as a semi-final and final,” said Raith Rovers boss John McGlynn.
“It’s very significant. As well as the congestion, those extra two games see you run the risk of injuries or suspension.”
Even reaching the final is a chore if you begin your journey at the quarter-final stage.
Only two sides have ever made it that far; one of which was Rangers (2014/15), who boasted resources which should have allowed them to canter to automatic promotion. The other was Dundee United (2016/17).
The Gers’ dream died on an ignominious afternoon at Motherwell. Cammy Bell stumbling into his own net and Bilel Mohsni chinning Lee Erwin remain iconic images to this day and, given the successes enjoyed by the Ibrox outfit this term, that 6-1 aggregate defeat seems like decades ago.
United’s failure was rather less parodical, losing 1-0 on aggregate to Hamilton in a nerve-shredding finale. Greg Docherty scored the only goal in the second leg at New Douglas Park.
“The six games has taken its toll – it was an evenly contested game but I felt we ran out of steam,” ex-United boss Ray McKinnon said after the galling reverse in North Lanarkshire. “I’m not making that an excuse, it’s just a fact. You could see the legs were gone in the second half. We didn’t have the same intensity to our play or our pressing.”
A shortened campaign
There is, of course, a first time for everything – and while it would require an unprecedented feat to win promotion from third or fourth spot, this campaign is nothing if not unprecedented.
An entire Championship season has been compressed into 27 games, meaning traditional assumptions regarding fatigue, burnout and momentum may prove to be ill-founded as the finish line approaches.
Dee boss James McPake, as one might expect from the man whose side occupies third place at the moment, made that very point last week; in a shortened season, one extra tie may not be the calamity it has been in previous years.
Dens Park defender Liam Fontaine, meanwhile, did not find securing second place with Hibernian in 2015 particularly rewarding when the capital club were dumped out by Rangers.
“I have been in that position where we finished second with Hibs and we had to wait around to play the winner of third vs fourth,” recalled the 35-year-old. “Rangers still went on to beat us and get to the play-off final.
“The main aim is just to seal a play-off place and then take it from there.”
One point will be enough for Raith Rovers to secure second spot and the 12 days’ rest that affords before the tie against the victors of third vs fourth.
That would be a truly remarkable feat for a side only promoted to the Championship by 0.03 on the points-per-game basis when League 1 was called last April.
“We’ve done our taking on the pitch this season and repeatedly punched above our weight,” adds McGlynn. “We’ll need to do that against at Dens Park. But I have absolute confidence, faith and trust that my players can do that.
“We find ourselves in a good position in that regard and want to hold on to that position.”
Dundee must win to take the race to a Friday night finale next week. Should they do so, the Dee – who visit Queen of the South on the last day — would be one point behind Raith, who host Hearts.
Tannadice Street travails
Regardless of when they enter the process, Dundee — should they seal a top-four berth — will also be embarking on their first playoff campaign of the SPFL era, with their previous promotion and relegation having both been automatic; feast or famine for the Dee.
— SPFL (@spfl) May 23, 2017
By contrast, no side has been involved in more playoff games than their neighbours across Tannadice Street, and Dundee United fans have the grey hairs and psychological scars to prove it.
United have navigated seven ties (their nearest challengers are Falkirk with five) and for every moment of Paul-Dixon-at-the-Falkirk-Stadium joy there was some Wato-Kuate-screams-at-a-baffled-camera-operator anguish.
Raith have been involved in the process before, finishing fourth in the 2015/16 Championship before giving Hibs and almighty scare before bowing out with a gutsy 2-1 aggregate defeat.
Current players Ross Matthews, Iain Davidson and Kyle Benedictus were involved in the group that season.
And while no amount of experience can fully prepare either side for the tumultuous drama of the playoffs, experience does suggest that second spot is worth fighting for.