THE Sky Bet League One play-offs began last night and for the first time in three years, Oxford United are watching from afar.

After a double dose of heartbreak at this stage it might prove a blessing in disguise, as it gives the U’s a head start on some of next season’s rivals going into the summer.

As their points tallies show, the four play-off contenders – MK Dons, Sheffield Wednesday, Sunderland and Wycombe Wanderers – are all strong sides and it would have been a tall order for United to beat two of those in a matter of weeks.

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The semi-finalists are intriguing: MK produced one of the most dominant halves of football at the Kassam Stadium this season, but they found out last night how tough it will be to overcome Wycombe over two legs.

Meanwhile, Alex Neil seems to have found the right formula at Sunderland since taking charge, but my bet for promotion is Wednesday.

The Owls took 45 points from their last 20 games after losing 3-2 to United in January so their form in the last three months is as good as anyone’s, even taking into account the consistently high standards of the top six.

Their record against the rest of League One's top 11 is very good, although they did take one fewer point than Sunderland from these matches.

They also have stacks of higher-division quality and experience, led by the brilliant Barry Bannan in midfield. That might just make the difference, especially in Monday's second leg at Hillsborough.

It will be disappointing if United do not get another trip to that famous old ground next season, but Wednesday could well be the strongest of the four in 2022/23 if they stay in League One.

Sunderland would surely be up there again if they miss out, but you would expect MK and Wycombe to be weaker in the new term.

On that front, Wednesday winning promotion could benefit United. The top of League One is likely to be just as competitive next season - even more so if potentially the strongest side in the play-offs stay down.