It’s almost that time of year again. The non-league end of season play-offs started last night with wins for Hampton & Richmond Borough and Eastleigh in the Blue Square South, and tonight the clubs of the Blue Square North do battle in the first part of their end of season mini-tournament. The Football League ends this weekend, and there is a sizeable group of people that now count the Championship Play-Off final at the end of May as being a more important match than the FA Cup Final. There remains, however, a minority of people that continue to regard the end of season play-offs as being a sop to money and exhibitionism which overlooks the performance of clubs throughout the course of a season.
People are right to be wary of anything that compromises the sanctity of league football, but they are looking in the wrong place when they criticise play-offs. Firstly, end of season play-off matches are nothing like a recent invention. Between 1893 and 1899 they were used between what were then the two divisions of the Football League before being scrapped in favour of automatic promotion and relegation. They weren’t called anything as vulgar as “play-offs”, of course. They were called “test matches”, and were played at first by the bottom three teams in Division One and the top three team in Division Two in a series of single matches (bottom of Division One versus top of Division Two and so on), with the winners going into the next seasons top division. After three seasons of this, a mini-league was played between the bottom two teams in Division One and the top two teams in Division Two, with the top two of these four clubs either getting promoted or staying up.
The play-offs returned in 1987, and that it was this season that they made their reintroduction should be no surprise. After the Heysel disaster, English clubs were banned from Europe and the end of the domestic season started to look rather threadbare. Anything that could maintain interest to the end of the season was to be welcomed, in the absence of a bunfight for a place in the UEFA Cup, play-offs were seen as an easy way to invigorate the end of the football season. For the first two seasons after their revival, the three teams below the automatic promotion places played off against the team that had finished one place above the relegation places. At the end of the 1987-88 season under this format, Chelsea, of all people, were relegated into Division Two. The current format was adopted for the 1988-89 season.
The success of the play-offs cannot be understated. A succession of Championship play-off final matches at Wembley during the 1990s featured levels of drama that hadn’t been seen in English football for years. In 1995, Bolton Wanderers beat Reading 4-3 after Reading had led 2-0 and in 1997 Charlton Athletic and Sunderland drew 4-4 before Charlton won 7-6 on penalties. When a second promotion and relegation place was granted between the Football League and the Football Conference in 2003, it seemed only natural that the second place should go to a play-off rather than being granted automatically and, when the rest of the non-league pyramid was redesigned a couple of years later, play-offs became an integral part of the season.
The obvious argument in favour of end of season play-offs is that they prolong interest to the end of the season. The effects of this have been more pronounced in non-league football, where there used to be more typically one automatic promotion place. During my salad days, I watched a lot of Isthmian League football. Here is a randomly selected Isthmian League season from the 1990s. There can be little doubt that this season in the Isthmian League Premier Division was all over for everyone bar the bottom five or six and the top two from about January onwards, and this was far from uncommon. Play-offs mean that, more often than not, teams down to mid-table still have a theoretical chance of promotion until very close to the end of the season. There are simple less “meaningless” matches and (and this is critical for clubs that largely lead a hand to mouth existence) bring in significant revenue at the end of the season.
The counter argument to this is that it is fundamentally unfair for a team that has finished sixth in a division to be able to get promoted, but this is a misunderstanding of how the league season works. To suggest that the teams in second, third or fourth place in any given league have the sort of automatic right of promotion that the champions have isn’t terribly logical. At the start of the season, everybody entering knows the rules and what you have to do in order to get promoted. You may feel that it is unfair if you finish in second place in the league and lose on penalties, but the only sure fire way to prevent that from happening is to finish top of the table or in one of the automatic promotion places. It’s hardly as if you didn’t know at the start of the season, after all. I’m more inclined to sympathy for this sort of argument towards clubs that have had points deducted while the season was in progress.
The argument against play-offs also hinges on the assumption that promotion is an automatic right, and this is far from true. There was no automatic promotion into the Football League until 1987, for example. Also, when criticising play-offs it is worth considering what the replacement for them would be. Do not be surprised to see moves from the Premier League to cut the number of promotion places into it from three to two (or maybe even one), as perpetually struggling clubs look to minimise the chances of missing out on all of that lovely money. Talk of whether the team that finishes third in the Championship deserves automatic promotion or not will become suddenly redundant if this comes to pass. Ultimately, the power of decision over promotion and relegation usually rests with the clubs that are in danger of relegation.
This is an annual debate, and it is one that will not go away. However, the costs and benefits of the current system – all of which have, ultimately, been voted for by the leagues’ contituent members – have to be taken into account, and the significant benefits of the play-offs seem to negate concerns over “fairness” which are, in some respects, tenuous in the first place. Of course, if you have any better suggestions, feel free to leave them in the comments section. The madder the better.