The Football League play-offs return this week, but what do you know of their history since they started delighting us in 1987?
This is the first week of Andi Thomas and Alexander Netherton's Premier League Diary. The fact that the first entry is for the Community Shield, which the sharper of you will know is not a Premier League game, is the kind of attention to detail you will come to expect, and ultimately love...
The Community Shield began with the elan one would expect from a newly reinforced and reinvigorated Manchester United. With his new club in need of a new midfield, amongst other things, David Moyes' impressive band of reinforcements made a mockery of the contest between the Premier League champions and recently relegated Wigan Athletic. Given Manchester United have finally spent the 'Ronaldo money' it was no surprise they ran out comfortable winners. Robin Van Persie may have scored both the goals, but without the support of the new purchases the club would have struggled against Wigan's energetic midfield.
At the back, Patrice Evra has struggled for the last few years with form. Evil man Luis Suarez is to blame for a great deal of this, but the rest of it is mainly due to his age and to the fact all of us, even you, decay. His pace is one of the few things that remain, but positionally he has lacked concentration and his focus throughout matches has been utterly absent. Luckily, Moyes acted swiftly to bring in Leighton Baines, and the benefits were obvious. No longer did the centre-back pairing spend the game wondering when Evra would leave them exposed, and no longer did Danny Welbeck have to fret over his defensive responsibilities. With Baines, Manchester United have acted quickly to solve what was evidently a longstanding problem from the Ferguson era.
And that's not all they've done. Marouane Fellaini is another Everton purchase who has quickly settled under his old manager. It's a different colour of shirt, but the same performance level as under Moyes: Fellaini was precisely what any United fan could have asked. Not only was he as assured as you might expect from years of Premier League experience, he offered quick, reliable passing and, most importantly, a genuine physical presence in midfield. No longer do United look like they're fielding a team of also-rans, apologies, geriatrics, and Michael Carrick. Given David Moyes' links with Everton, it's no surprise the move was so quickly completed, with so little fuss, rather than embarrassingly dragging on throughout the summer with no sign of anything happening, at all.
Of course, just Fellaini alone would have been a sensible reinforcement, but given that Manchester United had not bought a midfielder since Owen Hargreaves in 2007, that would have been a bit of a sop rather than a complete solution. United's fans will be even more grateful for the transfer of Cesc Fabregas from Barcelona, giving them a new, genuinely world class midfielder for the first time in six years. Fabregas, of course, was never able to truly convince at Barcelona, his direct tendencies sitting uncomfortably with his snootier, tiki-taka worshipping colleagues, like a fart in an art gallery.
But at Manchester United he can offer box-to-box coverage, technical excellence, and a talismanic quality that Barcelona never needed but that United have always thrived upon and have sorely missed. Not only did he set up one of Van Persie's goals, displaying the long established understanding the two have from their days at Arsenal, but his energy and presence kicked against Wigan's youthful enthusiasm. Having identified his willingness to move several months ago, Edward Woodward and David Moyes have clearly been working together long before Moyes' official start date of 1 July. To have actually waited until that date to get going in what might be the most important summer for the club ever, would have been certifiable.
Fabregas and Fellaini both prove that Manchester United were able to spend the money that they received from Wayne Rooney's inevitable departure to Chelsea, and Baines was bought with the usual net spend skimming permitted by the Glazer family. What is most surprising is that Gareth Bale/Cristiano Ronaldo is wearing a United kit. Few would have imagined the man from Spurs/Real Madrid would have made the dramatic transfer/return to United, but it goes to show that the new man, Edward Woodward, is not messing about in establishing Manchester United (and himself) at the very top of the pile.
This was a crucial summer: Alex Ferguson and David Gill had left, Chelsea had Jose Mourinho and Manchester City had spent loads, and quickly. The one thing United could not be seen to do was to faff along incompetently like the entire operation had fallen to pieces. That's why Bale/Ronaldo was such a vitally important signature. It proved to the rest of Europe, and the Premier League, that the club were still ultimately the most beguiling and important attraction in England, and one of the greatest in the world. A team with such tradition, and with owners who say they are fully committed to on-pitch success, simply could not have continued with Tom Cleverley, Ryan Giggs and Michael Carrick any longer, without looking like risible chumps operating purely on a knife edge devoted to profit, and to the furtherance of Mister Potato and Kansai Paint.
Not only that, but Antonio Valencia's generous and logical (and in no way weird or cowardly) abdication of the glamorous number 7 - the shirt of Best, Ronaldo, Beckham, and Owen - demonstrates that the new owner, Bale/Ronaldo, has ensured that United remain their arrogant selves. They weren't just saying that any squad number is any squad number: Bale/Ronaldo has chosen to be the centre of attention, to lead from the front. No longer is a cowardly 1-0 victory going to be the way for United. No more two banks of four. Moyes' future is an exciting one for all fans, not just United's.
Up front, too, things had changed. Having finally rid themselves of the toxic, lazy, narcissistic, victimhood-loving and unfit Rooney, United have secured their long-term target of Robert Lewandowski. An athletic and committed striker, physically forceful and technically excellent, this was his chance to reconnect with Shinji Kagawa, his mobile and incisive erstwhile Dortmund colleague. Where Rooney was out-of-shape, Lewandowski is strong, where Rooney was terrible in his first touch, Lewandowski brings calm and control, and where Rooney was frustrated and frustrating, the Pole plays for the team as much as himself. This, finally, is the United that has been promised by Ferguson and the Glazers, ready to blossom under David Moyes.
The midfield is reinvigorated, Baines and Fellaini will adapt quickly to their old boss' demands and the new fans' expectations. Fabregas is the superstar to satisfy Ronaldo/Bale, and Lewandowski will take over from Van Persie when the times comes. Rooney will not be missed. There's been a lot of paper talk about United and purchases for years. Finally, it's come true, and a farcical mess of increasingly humiliating/hilarious nothingness has been avoided.
For Wigan, of course, this was a game that nobody saw them in, not even themselves.
Andi Thomas and Alexander Netherton