When the Football League fixtures are announced in mid-June, supporters often find themselves contemplating promotion via the npower Play-Offs and the joy such a success would bring. Fans may even start calculating who they need to finish above in an effort to end up in the top six (or seven if you're in npower League 2) while dreaming about their day under the famous arch.
As the season evolves, the Play-Off picture becomes increasingly focused. And for the winners of the semi-finals, there follows a week encapsulated by every imaginable emotion. Supporters dare to dream of victory but are kept awake by the nightmare of defeat. Hope, expectation, trepidation…
For those involved in organising the events themselves, the npower Play-Off Finals represent an even longer build-up; with perhaps just as many different feelings and challenges to overcome as the players and supporters face.
The Football League's Head of Partnerships Stuart Morgan and his colleagues are responsible for the commercial elements of the Finals; things that might often go unnoticed but are essential when it comes to ensuring every part of the event is memorable for the clubs involved. From coverage on the giant screens and broadcast management, to the matchball and even the organisation of the on-pitch post-match celebrations, Play-Off Final days are organised with military precision.
"The team celebration shot at the end of the game is a massive moment for our sponsors," explains Morgan. "That's the money shot! That is the image all the television screens and national newspapers use, so it's very important we get it right. And believe it or not, it can be difficult working with players in that situation. Even communicating with someone five yards away from you can be a challenge because the noise is immense.
"We've obviously tried and tested how we operate moments like that over the years, but people can do some funny things when they're celebrating. We also keep an eye on the media to make sure rights holders get access to the pitch and that non-rights holders don't. We've had people try and maximise their day in terms of overstating what they're entitled to, which would obviously have an impact."
The post-match events might be the most iconic but there is a lot that will have happened before and during the game that Morgan and his team will have overseen.
From the moment you enter the Wembley Stadium vicinity every element will have been co-ordinated. From the adverts you see in your matchday programme, to the banners adorning the outside of the stadium and everything on the perimeter boards and more, nothing is left to chance.
"My main responsibility is the delivery of sponsor and broadcaster rights and there are three major processes. The first is to work with the sponsor to ensure their branding is approved. The second is developing a schedule with Service Graphics - our graphics provider - to ensure things are put up and taken down when and where they should be. The third is on-site, a final check to make sure only our sponsor and partners brands are represented on each Play-Off Final day."
Not surprisingly, given what's involved, these processes begin months in advance.
"For the Play-Offs, we start organising things around March. There are a team of people from the League responsible for the event and we liaise with Wembley and the sponsors in terms of getting the ball rolling for the Finals. Wembley appoint an Event Manager, a Hospitality Manager, a Broadcast Manager, and a Media Manager, who are our points of contact.
"The next process is meeting the Play-Off semi-final clubs. Sometimes this happens before we know who all the semi-finalists are, so this year we had 17 clubs. To be honest, as we enter the last week of the season, anyone who has a chance of making the Play-Offs will need to run through things such as ticketing, hospitality, merchandising and other sponsor rights we expect them to deliver.
"As you can imagine, my job relies on preparation, so I'll work with all the brands and sponsors a month before to make sure their hospitality, ticketing, and advertising are delivered.
"Two weeks before the game I'll write to all the media rights holders to agree accreditation. We sift through all the applications and check the rights holders are in the right areas and given the correct access, and those who aren't can access the stadium to do their reporting but with restricted rights.
"npower are quite involved when it comes to ticket design and matchday programme design. ProgrammeMaster produce our event programmes and we have a team who look after the publications from a commercial point of view, checking things such as adverts [and their positioning] and partner exclusivity.
"We have a dedicated Mitre football for each game, too, which features the official title and the date of the game. Then there is the schedule of pre-match entertainment, which goes on for two hours when the supporters come into the ground."
To give you an idea of the number of people Morgan has to speak to, the broadcasting element of his job alone involves up to 200 people.
"We liaise with our live rights holders Sky, and also with the BBC, who do the highlights show. We agree camera positions, which involves a site visit beforehand. We work with the broadcasters to maximise these but do our utmost to prevent any seat kills [where a supporter's view is obstructed].
"We speak to so many people in that process. Sky will have about 100 alone at the event. The BBC might have 10, BBC 5 Live and BBC local radio around 30 and international broadcasters in the region of another 20."
And that's not all, for the logistics of having three games over a period of eight days is a challenge in itself. Yet having been involved in the process for many years and having overseen Play-Off Finals at different venues [Old Trafford and Wembley Stadium] last year, Morgan is well versed with the intricacies of the Play-Offs.
"There will be a lot of rebranding this year with the Play-Off Finals being so spread out over two weekends. It will require liaising with all parties - Wembley and Service Graphics -in advance and making sure everyone is aware of our schedules in order to make sure the sponsors needs are met..
"In many ways last year was a bigger challenge because we hadn't done split venues before one day after another. That was exacerbated by the fact it was npower's first year and they understandably weren't familiar with the procedures themselves. Split weekends don't pose the same challenges."
So, after all that, is there a point on any particular Play-Off Final day when Morgan can relax and enjoy the game?
"You can just about relax when the game is on, but we always have our eyes and ears focused to ensure everything is at it should be. For example, we have to ensure the giant screens don't show any controversial moments and make sure the advertising boards are working properly. We also need to ensure the broadcasters are happy. We get requests from them all the time, so we're just troubleshooting."
And even if Morgan is called upon during the game, at least he knows he'll be getting fit in the process!
"We do a lot of walking on the day, a lot [laughs]. I couldn't tell you the exact distance, but one year we used pedometers to get an idea and some of us covered something like 9km. There is no doubt we walk big distances. We never keep still! We're always on the move."
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