League Two play-off preview #1: Past lessons
Ahead of the play-off semi-finals later this week, Marco Jackson takes a look at the numbers game. We may have reached the lottery stage of the season, but surely there are still a few things we can learn from the past?
Tight at the top
The best thing about the bottom division is its competitiveness. I say it a lot when discussing League Two. The three promotion spots leave the league wide open — you can be in the bottom half in January or February and know that a decent run will get you into 7th place; 7th place is enough for a spot in the play-offs, and you can dream of League One — and that’s what being a fan is all about: dreaming. Having looked at that in-depth, the numbers do tally up; there’s 0.6 teams more within 4 points of League Two than of the League One playoff places at the end of the season on average — 2.25 to 1.65 — so there is extra interest there.
With that in mind, I’m going to look at the other numerical features that the Tier 4 play-offs throw up, and have thrown up, since their inauguration in 1987. If we start with the qualification for the play-offs itself — generally, a points tally of 80 would be enough to get into that three-place automatic promotion party, but there have been five occasions where the top-ranking play-off team has had 80 or more points (most notably MK Dons in 2006/07, with 84) and once, the 2nd ranked team have also had 80 (Rochdale, 2007/08).
At the bottom end, only twice would 73 points not be enough for the playoffs (2007/08, when you’d have needed 78, and 2003/04 when Yeovil’s 74 points DID see them missing out to Lincoln on goal difference). Average tallies for the four positions are as follows.
That leaves two teams who average 7 points difference playing against each other, and two who are only two points apart.
This disparity matters. Of the eight bottom-placed teams who made the final, half of them were in the first four years of play-off semi-finals; and two were the last two seasons (Shrewsbury and Dagenham respectively). The other 16 finalists from this tie, despite 11 home (and therefore 4th Ranked) victories in the first leg, were in the first place. Four 4th Rank teams have won the first leg and been eliminated — each time the scoreline was 1-0; Barnet twice, Colchester and Preston — happily enough, Colchester were one of the teams who won through from a 1-0 deficit.
There have been four first leg draws in the 1st Rank vs 4th Rank game — all ended up with the 1st Rank team qualifying. Only once has a 4th Ranked team holding a deficit qualified — Shrewsbury in 2009 lost 0-1 at home to Bury, but made the final anyway, on penalties, after winning by the same scoreline at Gigg Lane. With tongue firmly in cheek, the best advice for the team in the bottom play-off spot, then, is to win your home game, but try to make it better than 1-0. Something like Dagenham’s 6-0 thrashing of Morecambe last season would be ideal.
The first-leg matches between the third and second ranked teams are — as you’d expect — a little more even. 10 home wins vs 8 away wins; on all eight of those away wins, the second placed team made the final, which is ominous — especially compared to the home team victors, who have an 80% success rate. As for the draws — its 3 vs 3. That all balances out to mean that the teams that win the first leg in the 3rd Rank vs 2nd Rank tie, 90% are successful in terms of getting to the final, and leads are seldom overturned.
This table of the average goals scored in the semi-finals is pretty interesting; the home goals column is obviously higher, but for the first ranked teams to have scored only 16 times in 24 away ties, is shocking — that figure includes 13 occasions of failing to score, which is more than half. It doesn’t really tally up with the fact that so many first ranked teams qualify — a 49 vs 52 goal deficit against the 4th placed teams, which although Morecambe’s 6-0 victory against Dagenham leaves the 3-goal swing the other way, is further explained by the knowledge that 15 of those 28 home 4th placed goals were scored in 5 games; that same 6-0, and the first four semi-finals, which saw the 4th placed team always qualify.
The differences between the 2nd and 3rd ranked teams are too tight to draw any real conclusions from. 3rd place teams have won 10 of the first legs, drawn 6 and lost 8. Of the 10 victories, on two occasions the 2nd place team came from behind (Preston North End and Rochdale) but the other eight saw the first leg victors through. The 6 draws were split evenly — 3 qualified, 3 failed to do so. The eight defeats, meanwhile, were 100% terminal. No 3rd ranked team has recovered from a home defeat to qualify for the play-off final.
What does that mean, then? It means that League Two tends to go with form; that the table is a fair reflection of what will happen in the playoffs.
This is further borne out by what we see in the final.
The first ranked team has made the most of their position in more than double the finals of any other ranked team and, when they get to the final, are far more likely to win it than not — they’ve won six against the Rank 2, and six against Rank 3, so plainly there’s no difference there; a figure that only the bottom ranked team can come close to. The middle two teams, despite contributing — obviously — half the finalists — have only racked up 7 wins between them — a measly 29.17%. It seems that if you’re the best team, or you come into the final on the high of having beaten the best team, you’re more than likely to carry that form into the big game.
The goals for tally for the final (only the single leg finals included) is quite revealing too. Instead of being a very tight affair; the winning team average 1.95 goals per game, while the losing team average only 0.75; averaging more than two goals a game in total, then, despite a run of 5 one-nil victories in the late 1990s. Discount those games, and the goals average is, evidently, higher — the winning team netting 2.25 goals, and the losers exactly 1.
What’s the difference?
I did wonder how heavily the disparity of points would weigh on the teams — given the triumphs by the top ranked team, but it works out at 28 points over the 21 finals — 1.33 per game difference between victors and vanquished — there’s been a few big margins, though, both ways; Torquay beating Blackpool in 1991 when they finished seven points behind them, and Cheltenham beating Grimsby in 2006 despite a six point deficit; they’re obviously the levels to aspire to if you have a big points gap to overturn.
Something else worth worrying about, particularly for losing finalists, is the amount of teams who have been in the Tier 4 play-offs and are either out of, or have dropped out of, the League since that day. Five of the victors have tasted non-league football — York, Cambridge, Wrexham and Aldershot (with the addition of Stockport now), and five of the losing teams (totalling seven defeats); Grimsby, Mansfield, Rushden & D, Darlington (2), Torquay (2). Of course, Aldershot — after re-forming — and Torquay are back in the League now, but the others seem a long way away; York’s defeat in the Conference Playoff Final in 2010 notwithstanding.
One of the other things I always think about in terms of playoffs is how far the teams have to travel to get there. In this, at least, there’s a marked disparity. The winning teams average a journey of 131 miles (a little further than Chesterfield have to travel to Wembley) and the losers some forty miles further on average — 169 miles (a little further than Rochdale’s journey). These figures remain similarly proportioned throughout the years, whether the final has been at Wembley or the Millennium Stadium — of course, this year’s, at Old Trafford would, on this basis, favour those teams in the North West.
I also began to wonder, while I was looking through these successful teams, how well their managers had progressed in the game; this was inspired by Martin O’Neill’s Wycombe featuring — obviously, Martin’s gone on to great things and is a man in demand — I suspect his Tier 4 play-off winning days are behind him forever.
But is he the only one? Well, yes and no. Nobody has gone on to as much success as he has, but four of the 24 victorious managers have gone on to the Premier League; Brian Little, Neil Warnock and Brian Laws are the others, while there are a few ‘next big things’ that have come out of the game too — Jim Gannon, Steve Cotterill, Sean O’Driscoll have all been successful elsewhere.
So, what have we learned about the Tier 4 play-offs? Most importantly, the top ranking team will probably go through; there’ll more than likely be goals in the final, and there’s more chance that either of the competitors will drop out of the league than their manager go on to the Premier League. Sounds even more nerve-racking when I put it like that.