Championship play-off preview: Past lessons

In the third and final of Marco Jackson‘s statistical play-off previews, the second tier comes under the microscope.


It never used to be like this, but in the last few years, the amount of importance put on that one game in late May, and the monetary value placed on people kicking a ball around, is getting greater and greater and greater. There’s been some pretty memorable games, too – last year’s Blackpool against Cardiff was a classic of the genre, and I was living in Norwich during City’s playoff loss in 2002, which probably hardened my fondness for the Canaries.

As ever, though, there’s the thorny business of the semi-finals to get through first of all; and there was something that leapt out in this regard as I was writing the competitors names into my spreadsheet. Every name I wrote, it seemed, came up auto-suggested; they’d all been there before. Looking at this, the average number of appearances in Tier 2 playoffs is surprisingly low¹; only 39 teams have qualified for the Battle Royale in 24 years – 10 of whom are current Premiership teams, and Norwich can be added to that list.

Table 1

That’s a sizeable difference, and one that will take a good few years to redress – at least three, although most likely more, as 15 of those

39 are confirmed in the Championship next season, with that figure likely to rise to 20 or so with relegation and playoff failure to come; Ipswich Town, incidentally, hold the highest number of playoff appearances in the 2nd Tier – 7 – which is the equal highest total playoff appearances – as recorded by a few teams, most recently Huddersfield.

Table 2

If your team is one of the chosen 39, then, what can you expect from the semi-finals? As with football in general, you can expect more home wins than away – but that number is mitigated by the position within the four. You can also expect the second legs to produce more goals than the first legs, as desperation sets in, as well as fatigue.

The two lower ranked home teams have won twenty two home games, and lost twelve, compared to the top two teams having won thirty four, and lost only seven; it looks particularly bad for the bottom ranked teams. Looking at that in a little more depth, those three away victories have only resulted in one promotion – that of West Ham United in 2005.

Meanwhile, the equally imposing four away victories for the 3rd ranked team have resulted in 2 promotions; one for Leicester, and one for Birmingham – those disappointed victors were, by sheer coincidence, the same two teams but in different seasons (Leicester’s 3-2 victory in Cardiff last season not being enough to (quite) overturn the 0-1 defeat of the Foxes in their own backyard).

Table 3

There’s an interesting anomaly in the clean sheets that are kept too, in that the 2nd Ranked teams keep more, both at home, and away, than any other team – that includes five 0-0 draws, compared to only two in the other ties (one for each – 1st and 4th) at home – it certainly explains the far smaller goals for column for the 3rd Rank team in that chart – despite, as ever in this division, the second legs have more goals than the first – 135 v. 115 (or 2.81 per game v. 2.36, if you’d rather) – doubly impressive considering 20 teams failed to score in the second legs.

The clean sheets are something that is relatively prevalent in the finals, too, if we switch our attention to those now. Of the 21 single-legged playoff final victors, thirteen finished with their goal intact – 57% – and of the twelve that won (Birmingham drew 0-0 with Norwich in 2002 and won on penalties), 67% (eight) scored only one goal to win, including five of the last seven years. That in itself goes some of the way to back up my statement in the first sentence.

It never used to be like this. Before 2001, the playoff finals averaged 3.91 goals per game. Since then, we’re down to 2.10 goals per game (both figures include extra time, and the 2.10 includes last season’s 3-2 game with those attacking anomalies of the recent past, Blackpool – remove that, and the figure drops to 1.76 goals per game.

Score, then, in the Championship playoff final and recent history suggests you’ll be promoted. If the game goes to extra time – interestingly – as it has three times – if you score, you can pretty much bank on your goal being cancelled out – all six teams who have played extra time have scored a goal. Only one, Bolton Wanderers in 1995, have scored more than that; the other two went to penalties with the two teams in yellow missing out, but both were promoted as champions within two seasons.

My favourite statistic that I’ve been producing about the playoff finals (probably because it’s the easiest to work out) is whether the distance a team has to travel to the final makes a difference; in practicality, it shouldn’t make a bean of difference – teams will be well cared for in hotels the night before, and Wembley is invariably pretty full for these games, so there’ll be no massive advantage of fans of one team or another.

There is, in this respect, a slight advantage from travelling less far away; the average distance the winners travel is 121 miles, and the losers travel 139 – that’s 18 more miles of disappointed trip home to consider – just further than the trip from Wembley to Sheffield Utd, as if they haven’t suffered enough already; that discrepancy held firm during the Cardiff years, too, so you might just be better off coming from a little nearer than your opposition – distances favour Reading if they make it this year; I ought to qualify this by pointing out that those 18 miles come off an 11 v. 10 balance of closer v. further away teams winning, so the difference is probably less than it seems.

And finally, if you’ve conquered all the above things, either through the likelihood of what has gone before, or if you’re a 4th ranked team who have won away from home, and come from behind in the final having travelled further than your opponents, and your team stand on the little platform spraying champagne amidst appropriately coloured ticker-tape and chanting in Spanish, comfort yourselves with this thought.

Of the 22 teams who have been promoted via the 2nd Tier playoffs, 9 have finished in a position the next season that would see them retain their Premiership status. While that’s not quite half, that’s certainly something to aim for.

¹This figure does not include the 2011 qualifiers, though Cardiff will be making a 2nd appearance, Swansea a 1st, Reading a 4th and Nottingham Forest a 3rd.

The Seventy Two
The Seventy Two published an outstanding series of articles about the Football League between 2010-12 and was the brainchild of Leicester City fan, David Bevan. As well as collaborating with The Two Unfortunates on the Football League Blog Network and a mammoth 2011-12 season preview, the site featured a host of leading bloggers and David was rewarded with a nomination in the 2011 Football Supporters’ Federation awards. Latterly, he was joined as co-editor by Joe Harrison and TTU is happy to present this archive of the site’s output.

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