League One play-off preview: Past lessons

With the play-offs nearly upon us, Huddersfield Town fan Marco Jackson takes a detailed look at the history of the third tier showdown. Can we read anything into what has gone before?


I’d been trying to avoid looking at the play-offs this season, hoping that Huddersfield would be in second, but if I’d dared to look down, I’d want to arm myself with the best stats I can for the situation, so that’s what I hope to impart here. I come into this, as with all statistics I work with, with an open mind – questions that I’d like to answer rather than ideas I’d like to confirm.

The obvious thing I wondered was which team won the playoffs the most – is it the top team, who just missed out on promotion, or is it the bottom team, who are often on a good run to surge into it? Well, it’s a little bit of both, actually. In the 24 years of the Tier 3 playoffs; here the dispersion of winners by league position within that group¹.

Table 1

Additionally – here’s the same table divided into which semi-final the promotion winners come from.

Table 2

So its not quite double, but its worth bearing in mind that if you’re in the top or bottom position within the group, you’ve got a 25% better chance of going up than those in the 2nd or 3rd position. So with that out of the way, I can get into the more nitty-gritty as to what’s happened within the semi-finals. I’ve worked this out into a league table – putting the points on just as a guide of course.

Table 3

Now, there’s some interesting things to pull out of that – remember of course, that all the 1st Ranked teams home games are the second legs against the 4th, and the 2nd against the 3rd; its quite astonishing that, supposedly, the best team in the group have only won the first leg away from home twice. Coincidentally, both times this happened, it was Blackpool – beating Bradford in 1996 and Oldham in 2007.

There have been, over the 48 first legs, 25 draws – considerably more than half (52.1%) – compared with 13 home wins² (27.1%) and 10 away wins (20.8%) – and the goals tally tells a story, too. The first legs have seen only 94 goals at an average of 1.95 goals per game, whereas the second legs – when the gauntlets are thrown, have seen 121 goals at an average 2.52 goals per game – more than half a goal more.

Table 4

How important is the first leg result important, then? Well, it works out like this for the home team in the first leg – their result is the focus of this chart.

Basically, if you win your home game, you’ve an 85% chance of getting through (only two have failed). If you lose your home game, you’ve barely a chance at all. It is – I’m sorry to say for all those teams who lose – pretty much as you’d expect. It does go some of the way to explain the amount of draws, though; both teams wanting to remain in contention overweighing either one wanting to take an advantage into the next leg.

What, then, do these matches throw up in terms my favourite numbers – those of clean sheets and failing to score? The two in these situations are interchangeable, really, because you’re looking at a set group of teams. Home teams have kept 37 clean sheets, and away teams have kept 22 (that’s one every 2.54 and 3.48 games – almost a whole game’s disparity).

Again, that’s something that can be explained by noting that the home teams are the better teams in the second leg, and that leg has seen 20 of the 37 home clean sheets – 10 from each of the first and second ranked teams – more strikingly (or less strikingly, if you want to go into the realm of semantic pedantry) is that the away teams in the second legs have only kept 4 clean sheets each, a total of 8.

I’ve done a bit of filtering, as well, at the ‘unique clean sheets’ (basically, the games where one team scores but the other doesn’t – so discounting the 12 0-0 draws) and there is a definite advantage to having kept a clean sheet. Of the 11 teams who have kept a clean sheet in the first leg, 4 have failed to qualify for the final (36%) – and only one of those kept their clean sheet at home.

Of the 22 teams who have kept a clean sheet in the second leg, only one has failed to make the final (a mere 4.5% – it was Tranmere, who having lost 2-0 at Hartlepool, beat them 2-0 at home, but lost on penalties, 2005). Keeping a clean sheet, then, in the second leg, is almost a cast-iron way of ensuring your progress to the final.

Well, you know how to get through to the final (win the first game and keep a clean sheet in the second – simple, really) but what when you get there? Are there any trends?

With the games being played at Wembley and Cardiff – both pretty extreme locations – I wondered if there may be some advantage in travelling less far (Cardiff’s 1.3 mile journey in 2003 was beneficial for them, for sure) but it runs at 8 v. 13 in terms of who travelled the furthest (shorter travellers with 8) so there wasn’t anything to go on there – the average distance, for what its worth, was 138 miles, which is closest to Scunthorpe Utd (141) than anyone else who has won at either venue.

Going back to the table at the top, something worth paying pretty close attention to is the team sitting in the 3rd ranked spot in the playoff zone. Their 3 final victories all came within a 6 year period, and all came within the six years that the final was held in Cardiff – Wembley awaits its first 3rd Ranked playoff champion from Tier 3, so it might be best avoiding that.

Having the division’s top scorer in your team is no guarantee of success, either – of the five that have featured in playoff finals, 3 have won, 2 have lost, and the only goal was a Leon Knight penalty for Brighton – perhaps they’re best avoided in the betting at the very least. Something else worth noting, if you’re in the lower spots, is that Rank 4 teams have only lost 4 playoff finals, but won 7- that’s far more than 50%, so there should be no fear there.

The final itself, I have to say, is a bit of a ‘lottery’; the average Rank position for both winners and losers is 2.375 – so anyone can beat anyone on the day; all you can really say is that teams who are Rank 1 are more likely to keep a clean sheet than any other teams (5/14), though that is on the strength of there being generally fewer than 3 goals (average 2.76) , indeed 6 of the 21 finals have ended 1-0, and a further 4 have ended 2-0 – tension is very much the order of the day, and there has only been a winning margin more than 2 once – West Bromwich Albion beating Port Vale 3-0 in 1993, in one of those games the division’s top scorers failed to net in.

Something else which might be pertinent this season is how well the teams who top the ranking for goals for and against do. One of the maxims of American sport is that defense is the most important aspect as it can dry up attacks. There is, in playoffs, no hard and fast evidence of this.

The team with the best attack (of the 4) has made the final 7.5 times (the .5 coming from two teams sharing the goals tally). The team with the best defence has made the final also 7.5 times. The only difference is that the better defenders lead 6.5 to 4.5 in terms of winning promotion – a difference, but not one to set too much stock in.

I’ve looked at the finals from a lot of different angles and there is no trends, and seemingly no rhyme nor reason behind which team wins it. It is, as I thought it would be, a one-off match between two pretty good teams which is won by the one who plays the better on the day. That is, in the end, what it should be. If there were some way a team could pre-empt their success by doing something or other, it would go against the whole competitive ethos of the playoffs.

One more statistic I looked at is to appease those who just missed out, finished in the spot just beyond the playoff boundaries (7th, in today’s money) to see if they fared better the next season – if the disappointment spurred them into the playoffs. Its bad news, I’m afraid. The great majority of them finished in mid-table averaging 56.6 in total league position – that’s 13th in League One this season. Only two were promoted – one as Champions, Swansea in 2007, and one through the playoffs, W.B.A. in 1993. As well as being cruel to those teams who make it, it seems the playoffs are cruel to those teams who don’t.


All distances were taken from Google maps from the location of the grounds teams were playing at at the time (Bristol Rovers at Twerton Park, for example).

¹ For the first two seasons, the three teams just outside automatic promotion were joined by the team just above the relegation zone in the division above; that team were ranked as the highest placed for this purpose – neither of them avoided relegation, as it happens – Sunderland and Sheffield Utd.

² None of which have been attained by Huddersfield, failing to do so in 1992, 1995, 2002, 2006 and 2010 (and failing to beat Lincoln at home in 2004 in the Tier 4 playoffs, too)

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.

1 Comment

  1. Graham Yapp
    May 11, 2011

    I was at the West Brom 3-0 Port Vale game in 1993 that you mention as being the one with the three-goal margin. Arguably, that scoreline was the result of a second-half red card (for a defender, Peter Swan, if I remember rightly) so it finished 11 v 10. It was nil-nil up to that point. West Brom had lost the first leg of the SF at Swansea but came back with a 2-0 win at The Hawthorns – that is a game of which I have very fond memories!

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