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May 4, 2013

The league that keeps on giving

This corner of south-east London alternated between bright sunshine and autumn shower, meteorologically mirroring a wildly oscillating final day of the Championship. Crystal Palace's match with Peterborough United was the league in microcosm, with the fine lines between success and failure starkly apparent.

In the end top overcame bottom and there was relief and despair in equal measure, with Palace closing out a 3-2 win to secure their play-off place and Peterborough relegated by events in the final ten minutes. It was against current form, with Palace winless in nine and Peterborough arriving with just one loss in twelve.

This was just the tip of the iceberg in overall terms, for the day and for the season, with Watford coming tantalisingly close to stealing the second automatic promotion spot from Hull, and five different teams occupying the play-off spots in 3rd and 6th place before Gianfranco Zola's side and a joyous Leicester ended up in them.

The bottom saw similar turnover, with Barnsley starting off in third-bottom (the final relegation spot) and Peterborough, Huddersfield, Barnsley again and finally Posh occupying it at various stages. It has been some scrap at the foot of the table. Even second-bottom Wolves, who succumbed to defeat at in-form Brighton and were never really in the final day shake-up, finished with a total of 51 points, which would have seen them safe in each of the last four seasons.

The drama in Palace's camp was rather of their own making. Having been top of the Championship in October and strong automatic promotion candidates throughout, their poor run just at the wrong time had left them sweating. It was no coincidence that 29-goal top scorer Glenn Murray has failed to score in eight coming into the game with Peterborough.

As far as that coveted top spot is concerned, the suspense has been over for almost as long as Palace have been parted from it. Cardiff City – at the end of a season that began in tumult, as the Bluebirds were turned red by Malaysian owner Vincent Tan to wide local disapproval – hit the summit for the third and final time 18 games in and rarely looked like relinquishing their throne. The champions join near neighbours Swansea City to form a South Wales axis in the Premier League next season, which will excite fans as much as it will send a shudder down the spine of the region's police force.

Far from winding down on the final day with the trophy, Malky Mackay's side almost managed to scupper Hull's promotion challenge. They took the lead at the KC Stadium with a goal from former Tigers forward Fraizer Campbell at the dawn of the second half. Combined with Ahmen Abdi's equaliser for Watford against Leeds - while all the rest of the Championship were enjoying a well-deserved half-time cuppa, due to a delay caused to a bad-looking injury to Watford goalkeeper Jonathan Bond – Hull dropped into third place behind Zola's side.

Steve Bruce's men turned it around, but only just. Nick Proschwitz, disappointing since his £2 million signing from Bundesliga. 2 side Paderborn, had stepped up to be an unlikely hero with an equaliser, and when Paul McShane gave the Tigers the lead, they seemed home and hosed. Yet Proschwitz missed a stoppage-time penalty to seal the deal before Nicky Maynard made it 2-2 with a spot-kick for the visitors.

The Tigers had themselves to blame that it had got this far, having taken just one point from three previous games – incidentally, against the bottom three – when a win would have clinched things. It all meant that if Watford could find a winner in their held-up game they – and not Hull – would avoid the play-offs and go straight up. Bruce and his players endured an agonising 13-minute wait, watching Watford's progress on monitors in the players' tunnel, before Ross McCormack's breakaway goal for Leeds confirmed Hull's ascent.

Whatever happens from here, Watford have been one of the stories of the season. There has been much suspicion of and opposition to the loan-player-heavy methods of their owners, the Pozzo family, but it has produced some breathtaking football at no financial risk. Who'd have thought there would be another way to success other than chucking a load of money at the puzzle, eh?

Hull have been there and done that before, most notoriously when midfielder Jimmy Bullard was given a reported four-year, £50,000-per week deal in a vain attempt to keep the Tigers in the Premier League in 2009 - only for an old knee injury to resurface twenty minutes into his debut. Owner Assem Allam has done much to put the club on a more even financial keel and has his reward for putting his faith in Bruce, overlooked by Wolves last season – one suspects, to the Molineux club's lasting regret.

Wolves' chosen appointments were a big factor behind a second successive demotion, with Stale Solbakken fading badly after a good start and his replacement Dean Saunders not a universally popular one. Still, they looked to have averted the worst with a run of five wins from six matches before a fatal dip in the final weeks. They were almost followed by the freefalling Blackburn Rovers, a club whose laughably incompetent ownership's running of the club makes the Wolves board look like Bayern Munich's. Eventually the goals of £8 million Jordan Rhodes made the difference and offered hope for a more stable future.

The real plaudits at the bottom go to Barnsley's David Flitcroft. After taking charge of his first manager's post at the end of December, the 39-year-old has transformed the team. Had they posted the 1.68 points-per-game average achieved under Flitcroft for the entire season, Barnsley would have gone into the final day with a chance of automatic promotion.

Due to the excellent form of a number of their rivals, the Tykes started the day in that dreaded 22nd place, and after taking the lead twice in their basement battle with Huddersfield, twice fell back into after conceding equalisers.

They were saved by Peterborough's shortcomings. Cheered on by a large away following, the Posh were impressive in south London and led twice through superb strikes by Lee Tomlin and Nathaniel Mendez-Laing. Darren Ferguson's side were undone by late strikes by the indefatigable Kevin Phillips and Mile Jedinak, but led his players over to the visiting fans at the final whistle, where they deservedly received generous applause.

The drama's not over yet. Palace will relish their play-off semi-final pairing with their bitter rivals Brighton, while Watford will attempt to pick themselves up to play Leicester. This season that keeps giving has a little more in the tank.

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