Depending on which levels of football you follow, you may not have noticed that we’re in the middle of play-off season. The Championship Play-Offs begin tomorrow as Nottingham Forest travel to Bloomfield Road, and the make up of the League One and Two Play-Offs this season will be decided tomorrow afternoon. As far as non-league is concerned, Oxford United and York City are selling tickets for their Wembley final a week on Sunday, and this Sunday, Fleetwood Town, and Bath City host Alfreton Town and Woking respectively for the right to play in the Blue Square Premier next season. Below the Blue Square the Play-Offs are already over, and the winners are already planning next season’s campaign at a new level. But while the Play-Offs produce money for the club and excitement for television and the neutrals – are the Play-Offs all they are cracked up to be? Are the Play-Offs even fair?
I hate the Play-Offs. I’ll come clean from the beginning. I’m an Ipswich Town fan – only Preston North End, Brentford and Bury have a worse record in the Play-Offs than we have. Even when we eventually won them at the fourth attempt, the feeling wasn’t one of joy, but of unbridled relief. But that’s not why I hate the Play-Offs. I hate the Play-Offs because in the pursuit of adding more excitement, they actually penalise relative excellence by rewarding mediocrity.
When the Play-Offs first arrived in the 1986-1987, it seemed a good enough idea at the time. The First Division was reducing the number of teams from 22 to 20, in order to help the England side, who had recently failed to qualify for Euro 84, and rather than cut two teams in one season, and relegate more, or promote fewer teams than usual the Play-Offs were introduced – similar to the Tests of the late Eighteenth century. Only these Play-Offs had a twist. Instead of nineteenth in the First Division (Charlton Athletic) facing third in the Second Division (Oldham Athletic), it was extended to include fourth and fifth (Leeds United and Ipswich) instead. Quite why teams that finished seven and eleven points behind Oldham respectively were given a second chance to go up, yet the teams that only finished two and three points ahead of Charlton (Oxford United and Newcastle United respectively) didn’t have to try and avoid the drop for a second time was never explained. In fact, that begs the question – if Play-Offs are so great – why are they only used to decide promotion? Why don’t clubs that finish just below the drop zone get a second chance to stay up? If Play-Offs are that great, – why are the sides at the top the only ones that get a go? Sunday’s live game between Sheffield Wednesday and Crystal Palace showed that just because two teams are at the wrong end of the table, and suffer from a lack of quality, doesn’t mean that a game where the loser goes down isn’t exciting.
Once the First Division was reduced to 20 clubs by 1988, the decision to keep the Play-Offs was based on the idea that the “experiment” had worked – Scunthorpe United and Wolverhampton Wanderers, who saw teams finish seven and nine points behind them promoted, would have disagreed. The main reason given, was that it helped generate excitement, not just in terms of the end of season spectacle (which at that point was not only a two legged affair for the final, as well as the semi-final, but was also not televised), but it also extended the season for the also-rans in mid-table. 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. Scunthorpe would eventually gain promotion from fourth place ten years later. In some respects, that the only clubs who were leapfrogged in the first three years were from the Fourth Division almost vindicated the decision to implement the system as promotion only, after all, they were “only” Fourth Division sides. It wasn’t until the following season, that the best placed side failed to gain promotion to the First Division, as third-placed Newcastle United were denied by sixth-placed Sunderland, who gained promotion despite losing to Swindon Town. For those too young to remember 1990, Swindon Town were relegated two divisions (reduced to one on appeal) for making illegal payments to players, all of which overshadowed how unfair the Play-Offs may have been that season.
And talking about money, there’s an unfairness in the way that the finances end up. Proceeds from the semi-final matches get split amongst all the sides in the division, but the finalists get to keep their own profit. Not to mention one-off replica shirts, celebratory t-shirts, hats, banners, scarves, mugs and all the other tat that clubs try and foist onto Wembley finalists. Bournemouth have spent seemingly most of the last fifteen years in financial trouble, and now they have gained promotion, with the increased costs that League One will bring, they will see a club who have earned at least ten fewer points get all the money, not to mention the memories that a day out at Wembley will bring. In the Championship the protocol of the last nine years (since ITV Digital went bust) has been that the winners donate their share of the profits to the losing finalists, which must have been of comfort to Wolves in 2001, when Norwich City (who finished 11 points lower) gained all the proceeds from a match that the Canaries lost. Maybe it was the Football League that the fan’s banner (top left) was aimed at.
But the unfairness of only the top sides being forced to enter the Play-Offs, and the unfairness of making third placed sides play extra games in order to get midtable sides bigger attendances, and even the extra financial gains the playoff finalists get over the automatically promoted sides all pale into insignificance, compared to what happened to Leicester City in 1992. The Foxes had finished fourth, one point behind free-spending Derby County. However, the Rams were beaten over two legs by even freer spending Blackburn Rovers. For the second season, the finals were now at Wembley, and for the first time they were shown live on British television. The nation’s top referee, George Courtney was assigned the game (his last as a referee), and in the first half, he awarded a controversial penalty after a challenge by Steve Walsh on David Speedie. Mike Newell converted the penalty for the only goal of the game. It’s one thing to say that decisions even themselves out over a 46 game season, but over three games at the end of the season, you are at the mercy of bad or weak refereeing, opponents getting away with cheating, plain bad form, injuries, suspensions, and as we saw at Boreham Wood at the weekend, even attacks from fans on players. And that isn’t even the unfairest thing of all.
In 1999, Ipswich Town chairman David Sheepshanks forwarded the motion to the Football League AGM, that the playoff semi-finals should no longer be decided on the away goals rule. Many people considered this as sour grapes, considering that Ipswich had just been knocked out of the Play-Offs on the away goals rule for the second time in three years – both years having finished behind their victors, who had had the whole of extra time to score extra away goals (as opposed to European competition where where the away goals rule comes into effect after 90 minutes). The other chairman agreed that this was a touch unfair for the lower club to score a goal that would effectively count double in the event of a draw, and the change to the rules was passed unanimously. What wasn’t reported, was that in the 13 seasons up to the rule change, every one of the six occasions that the away goals rule had been applied, the team that had finished lower in the table, had been victorious. Now, if the teams are level at the end of the game, it goes to the much fairer penalty shootout.
Imagine that. You’ve played 46 league games, countless cup games, two semi-finals, and now a final at Wembley. After two hours playing, the players are tired physically, and mentally, the pitch is cut up, from all the other games played (and the FA often decide to schedule an England home game for playoff weekend, helpfully cutting the pitch up further), and then to decide your entire season on a handful of kicks from twelve yards out. Penalties are great, if you’re a neutral. If you’re not, they’re not. Penalties aren’t even a fair way to decide World Cup and European Championship second round games, but we have to pretty much live with it, because of the schedules of those tournaments make it nightmarish to have replays, and there’s yet to be a better sudden death method suggested yet. But a penalty shootout to decide an entire season? To decide whether everything you’ve worked for since you started pre-season training the previous June has been a success or a failure? I’d be amazed if anyone can provide a single reason as to why a penalty shootout can be a good way to decide a season. And before you ask – no, my lot have never been involved in a penalty shootout (and a good thing too, we’ve lost eight out of ten of our penalty shootouts, and before this season, our only win had been in the Zenith Data Systems Cup, and even then we only scored two out of five penalties).
And then, once you’ve been through the Play-Offs, with the extra few weeks to the season you’ve been through, while everyone else is on their post-season holidays, your players either have less time to relax after the season is over, or return to pre-season later, putting you behind everyone else. Not to mention missing out on early transfer targets because the manager doesn’t know which division he’ll be in the following season, let alone what his budget will be. So, it ends up with two seasons being affected by the post-season lottery.
Teams shouldn’t need to play 46 games to decide semi-finalists, and ignore those 46 games and just take the next three games to decide the fate of those four sides seasons. Call me crazy, but if you can’t make it into the promotion places after you’ve played everybody else twice, maybe you just don’t deserve to go up at all.
And if you still think the Play-Offs aren’t that bad after all. When someone floated the idea that the Premier League could use Play-Offs to decide the fourth Champions League place, the idea was pretty much rejected out of hand. Now, when you consider that this is an organisation that gave genuine thought to Game 39, maybe the Play-Offs aren’t a good idea after all.
So, good luck to all of the sides involved in the rest of the season’s Play-Offs. You’ll all need it. And if you win a playoff this season, spare a thought for Hitchin Town. The Canaries finished their Southern League Midland Division campaign with 100 points from 42 games, two points behind champions Bury Town, only to lose their playoff semi-final to a Slough Town side that finished 23 points behind them.