On Saturday I watched Alloa play Cowdenbeath in the second leg of their play-off semi-final, both clubs seeking promotion to the SFL Division One. Cowdenbeth were, in a sense, a little lucky to be there at all – a year ago they lost in the play-offs a division lower, and only three days before the start of this seson were they moved into Division Two as a result of Livingston’s enforced relegation. Having prepared for life in the lower division, many expected them to struggle (including me), but they confounded those expectations by being in the title race for most of the season and finishing in a play-off spot.

For Alloa’s part they were somewhat disappointed to be here, having blown an apparently commanding lead at the top of the table with a series of defeats late in the season. On Saturday, this loss of form continued, a run of injuries had caught up with them, and – following a 1-1 draw in the first leg during the week – Cowden went away with a deserved 2-0 win and go forward to this week’s final against Brechin. (Both legs are being shown live on BBC Alba.)

But, a glance at the league table shows Cowdenbeath finished six points behind Alloa. Furthermore, in the incestuous world of Scottish football, this was the eighth time the two sides had met this season and Cowdenbeath had won none of the previous seven. Yet they are the ones to go through, and either they or Brechin – who finished yet a further five points behind – will be joining league winners Stirling Albion in the first division next season. There are those who find all this a little unfair and Rob Freeman made a persuasive case against the concept of play-offs on this site last week.

He has a number of good points, but I remain a big fan of play-offs. The case for them is simpler and comes as much from the heart as the head – for me, they make the season more interesting for more people and provide for great, often outstanding sport. Ultimately, football does not exist to be “fair” to those taking part in it – there are many things about it I might want to change if that were the case – it’s run for the benefit of fans and spectators.

Most of the time these aims overlap: a competition that is manifestly flawed or lacks sporting integrity is unlikely to appeal to anyone. But I don’t see that a play-off is so flawed. It’s still clear from the outset what you have to do to gain promotion – finish high enough for an automatic spot or beat some other teams in the additional games. Of course it mixes things up a bit, bringing the issue down to a small number of games in which luck will play a greater role rather than accepting the verdict of the full course of a season – it might even come down a penalties. I understand why some might see that as detracting from the sporting integrity of the league. I don’t agree, because there are benefits – sporting ones – to set against it. It’s a question of balance: I’m not for a moment suggesting every innovation which provides some additional excitement for some subset of fans must be a good thing. “Game 39” is an awful idea, it goes against everything is a league is about for a benefit that would be solely financial. The group stages of the Champions League I still regard with similar disdain. But in the case of the play-offs there are benefits that overwhelmingly override the perceived unfairness – and the important difference is that these benefits are not principally amount money. They provide greater interest for more fans more of the season, and provide some wonderful and utterly compelling moments of sporting drama (in an era when the FA Cup finals seem to have become ritually dull).

The first of these points Rob anticipated himself:

Scunthorpe must have been pleased to finish fourth (traditionally a place that gained automatic promotion) for the second season in a row, only to see sixth place Leyton Orient leapfrog them into the Third Division, all in the name of giving Grimsby Town, Torquay United and York City meaningful games in April.

To which I would principally say: them’s the breaks. Football is cruel as well as beautiful, and it’s impossible to separate them, it has to be the one to be the other.

It should also be noted, however, that some of this analysis relies on the assumption that league placings would have finished the same had teams being playing, from the outset, for an additional automatic berth rather than play-off spots. This is flawed. I’m not going to pretend that, say, Blackpool could really have finished above Nottingham Forest this season if only they’d been playing with a different system, but nonetheless such analysis can’t be relied on. To take a case in point, look at the Alloa and Cowdenbeath situation mentioned above. Yes they finished with six points between them, and that might seem significant – but it was only a three point gap (and Cowdenbeath had the better goal difference) when, as it happened, they played one another on the last day of the season. Because Alloa were the only ones who could still win the league, they had more to play for that day and duly won, but clearly had there been a second automatic promotion spot to play for then Cowdenbeath’s approach to the game – and their team sheet – would have been very different.
Another argument relates to the possibility of a team losing in the play-offs due to refereeing error. I don’t really see this as a separate argument – I’ve already accepted that deciding issues on play-offs introduces a larger element of luck than would be likely to be the case over a full league season, and the possibility of getting a critical bad decision is one form that luck can take. That’s football, again it’s an integral part of the game but I no more see such a possibiltiy rendering a play-off unworthy than would be the case for, let’s say, a World Cup.  There’s a difference there of course: a World Cup is only a short event and not an addendum to something else, but the point stands.To argue against a competition because of the possibility of reffing mistakes is to argue against having football altogether.
He makes several other arguments about possible additional unfairnesses introduced by the play-offs – for example the financial advantage that accrues from the extra games (that the team finishing higher misses out on), and on the other hand the disadvantage in having a three week delay before you can start planning for the following season. I’m not going to suggest that such arguments necessarily balance out – there is in any case no definite answer to which of these factors will be more significant, that in itself will vary according to circumstances – but I would nonetheless note that these arguments work against one another. I agree, there are cons as well as pros to going up via the play-offs, and Rob’s argument would have been stronger if such factors all worked in the same direction.
He also asks why, if play-offs are such a good thing, they are only used for promotion and not relegation issues? This is an interesting question. In Scotland the play-offs involve one team fom the higher division too, trying to avoid relegation just as was the case in the first season only when they were first introduced in England in the 80s. It works okay for us, but it’s more to do with the ten team leagues, and avoiding the play-off spots extending right down to midtable. I guess in the more general case the answer here casts light on the advantages I’m claiming for them – the interest and excitement they generate only really works when it’s a positive force, when it provides a focus to work towards and look forward to. Sucking more teams into a relegation battle might keep their season alive for longer, but it’s not going to have the same spirit of joy and optimism as the ones at the right end of the table.
Also interesting is the reason why play-offs have apparently been rejected in the Premier League for the fourth Champions League spot. Richard Scudamore poured cold water on the idea in an interview the other day:

“Can you imagine what would have happened if Tottenham had got there and not got there? And Liverpool had got back in, via a play-off route? No disrespect to Liverpool, it would have been outrageous, really.”

This is pretty specious, by artificially designing the example for the one case in which it might have worked to cement the Big Four. For most of the past few years it would have worked the other way, allowing clubs outside a realistic chance to gain access to all that moolah and thus, perhaps, help to prevent the domination of a Big Four in the first place. So yes please, play-offs in the Premier League too, I’d love it. I suspect the real reasons for it not going ahead are practical – particularly in even-numbered years when many of the players involved have major international tournaments to prepare for, and in any case those clubs fighting for 4th to 7th spots are already fighting for them as Europa League spots and so there’s less to gain in terms of extending the interest in the season. These factors are specific to the circumstances and should not be taken to imply an inherent undesirability of play-offs.

Ultimately, the argument for the play-offs is an emotional one. The wonderful dramatic moments, the joy and the tears, all the greatness of football and all the nerve-jangling rollercoaster of fandom compressed, often, into a single afternoon. The play-offs have it all, and I could give you many examples, maybe Charlton v Sunderland the greatest of them. My own experience of play-offs, as fan rather than neutral, has been mixed – I’ve seen Raith lose a couple, but my other team are Manchester City (or at least, they were, pre-Shinawatra) and I was lucky enough to be at Wembley in 1999 when two late goals pulled the game back from the dead and they went on to beat Gillingham on penalties. Had there been a third automatic spot, City might well have got it (they finished third as it was) and gone up in the more normal fashion. But when Paul Dickov smashed that 95th minute equaliser into the roof of the net I can’t believe there was anyone in that City end who would have missed that moment for the world. Pure raw emotion. Pure sport. The play-offs are great.