18 April 2019
English football’s focus is currently on an enthralling Premier League title race and you would have to say rightly so. The battle between Liverpool and Manchester City can only be described as titanic and you do get the feeling that it is going to go all the way to the final day of the season.
Whoever earns the mantle of champions on May 12th will be deserved winners and for the biggest names in the game, they will then go off to recuperate after a gruelling nine-month top flight campaign.
However, the drama does not stop unfolding there and although it may not be the highest level that we’ll be focussing on in this article, it is just as important to the four teams who take part in it on an annual basis.
The theme of our article is going to look at the EFL play-offs and namely the Championship variety. This end of season spectacle is often described as a lottery and it is fair to say that whoever has the winning ticket, then stands to receive a huge jackpot prize.
That’s because after the 46 game war of attrition that the regular Championship season resembles, there is still a second route to promotion for teams that manage to finish between third and sixth in the table.
The big question though, is just what place finish is the one that will give you the best chance of earning promotion second time around and because we have a whole host of data available to us, that is something that we can now answer.
The play-offs have been running in one guise or another for the best part of 30 years and although we could go that far back, for consistency purposes we are going to take our data sample from the 1995/96 season onwards.
The reason that this has been done is because the 1994/95 season only saw two teams get promoted to the Premier League (1 automatic, 1 play-off) and the play-offs were for teams in second to fifth, therefore it doesn’t quite correlate with the other seasons since.
This means that over the course of those 23 seasons (1995/96 to 2017/18) 92 teams have appeared in the Championship play-offs (or second tier if we want to go back in time and reflect on the days when it was called Division One).
However, so that we are all on the same page so to speak let’s use the terminology of Championship play-offs and of course of those 92 teams, they are not all unique entries, if they where that would be the same as every team in the top four divisions today appearing at least once at this stage.
If its not 92 teams, just how many unique teams have appeared in the Championship play-offs in the past 23 seasons? The answer to that is no less than 37, an illustrious list of teams that have reached the promised land or fallen by the wayside and it is a list that looks as follows:
Some teams have only appeared in the play-offs once, while some seem to be regular competitors and with that in mind, let’s first take a look at the teams that have only reached the Championship play-offs once, a list that is as follows:
Of the 37 teams that have graced the Championship play-offs, only 13 of them have made one solitary appearance. This means that 35.1% of all the entrants from the past 23 seasons are one and done.
While of those 13 teams listed above, there is a good news story for four of them and they are the quartet that you find at the top of the list. Why is that? It’s because these four teams have made the play-offs once and won them on the first and only appearance.
For Burnley it was success in 2008/09
For Huddersfield it was success in 2016/17
For QPR it was success in 2013/14
For Swansea it was success in 2010/11
Of the four teams who gained promotion through the play-offs at the first and only time of asking, two of them are plying their trade back in the Championship at the time of writing and Huddersfield will be in more familiar surroundings next season after suffering a recent relegation.
This also means that 30.7% of all teams that have appeared in the play-offs once have then gone on to earn promotion to the Premier League, meaning that perhaps winning this particular lottery is not as difficult as it looks.
Then again try telling that to Preston and Reading who have both made the Championship play-offs four times without success, while the likes of Brighton, Nottingham Forest, Cardiff and Sheffield United do not fare that much better either. Three teams they’ve made these play-offs with no joy.
While there’s also another quartet who have been in the play-offs more than once and still not managed to earn promotion. However, they’ve only suffered the ignominy of failure twice and this quartet involves Middlesbrough, Sunderland, Sheffield United and West Brom.
More importantly who has made the Championship play-off stage the most in the past 23 years?
An answer that we can see with this top eleven list:
|Team||Play-off apps||Progression||Success ratio|
Ipswich may have reached the play-offs seven times in the past 23 years, although they will have to wait a while for appearance number eight, after their relegation to League One next season and to be fair, they might not be in a rush back to Wembley either.
That’s because they’ve only managed a single play-off success from those seven attempts, a percentage hit rate of 14.2%, certainly not a great deal to write home about and a record that is far from enviable.
Those seven appearances are just one more than both Crystal Palace and Birmingham, who have reached the play-offs half a dozen times each and it is fair to say the Eagles are the masters at this stage of the season.
Three times the South Londoners have gone onto win promotion to the Premier League from this stage, giving them a 50% success rate and this looks a lot better when you compare it to Birmingham’s solitary win from six attempts (16.6% success rate)
Crystal Palace are one of just four teams who have won the Championship play-offs twice in the past 23 years, a full list that sees them joined by Hull, West Ham and Watford. With this trio all winning it on two separate occasions.
Hull seem to not hang about when they get to the play-offs, as their two successes have come from two attempts, while West Ham and Watford needed three and four attempts respectively to earn the same number of play-off promotions.
While, Hull are the only team to enter the play-offs more than once and have a 100% success rate when it comes to promotion. Therefore, the next time they do finish anywhere between third and sixth in the table, it will certainly be a good omen for the Tigers.
Of course, we should also highlight that 18 different teams have earned play-off promotion to the Premier League since 1994/95, a list that looks as follows:
|Season||3rd place||Play-offs previous season?|
Instead of just putting a full list of play-off winners since the 1995/96 season, there is also an additional column to provide a bit more context and it is one that tells us if a winner was in the play-offs the season before.
Are teams sustaining their solid league placings or have they come from nowhere to surprise us all? When you look at the split, it looks as follows (a split of 22 teams as Leicester in 1996 would have had no previous year to look back on)
That means more than two-thirds of all teams that have won the Championship play-offs, did so without having appeared in this part of the season the year before – meaning you don’t have to be a perennial also-ran to then get promoted to the Premier League.
Now that we know the repeat success stories and the repeat offenders, it’s time to take a look at what position gets you promoted the most. Do teams who finish third, then go on to get over the line or do they fall away after having nothing left to give.
It’s something that looks as follows:
3rd Place – 9 Promotions (39.1%)
4th Place – 3 Promotions (13.0%)
5th Place – 7 Promotions (30.4%)
6th Place – 4 Promotions (17.4%)
As you can see nearly two fifths of all teams who finished third in the regular season, then went on to win the Championship play-offs and that is then followed by fifth place as the next most recurring position for promotion.
Also, when you consider that 3rd/6th and 4th/5th meet in the semi-finals, it means that 56.5% of all promoted teams come from the first pairing and 43.5% of promoted teams then come from the second pairing.
Looking at the historical data, means it does bode well for whoever finished third in the Championship and more often than not, they still manage to find that extra requirement in order to join the two automatically promoted teams in the top flight the following season.
This is something that one of either Leeds or Sheffield United will be looking at with great interest and if they don’t manage a top two finish, they will at least be primed and ready to go up through the play-offs.
However, a third place finish is not necessarily a guarantee of a play-off success and arguably fourth place is the position you don’t want. Why is that? Because, just four of the 23 winners have come from this particular position.
A statistic that does not particularly look good for West Bromwich Albion, who currently find themselves lying fourth in the Championship table at the time of writing. Then again, maybe it is the weight of historical failure which is skewing the data somewhat.
That’s because between 1998 and 2013 only one team who finished fourth in the Championship, then went on to win the play-offs. That team was Charlton back in 1998, when they won an incredible final against Peter Reid’s Sunderland.
Since 2014 though, the plight of the fourth place team has improved somewhat, with both QPR and Hull finishing in this position and then winning the play-offs in the past five seasons (2014 and 2016 respectively).
This means that maybe there is perhaps a crumb of comfort for the fourth place finishers this time around and if they think that they have it bad, then the plight of the sixth place finishers is arguably worse.
Although they have perhaps won more play-offs over the course of our sample, no team since 2009/10 has finished sixth in the Championship and then gone on to earn promotion to the Premier League – a feat that was achieved by Ian Holloway and Blackpool.
Does this mean that the Championship is less wide open each season and only three or perhaps four teams have a realistic chance of then reaching the promised land of the Premier League? You could argue perhaps not and especially when you consider the success of fifth place teams.
Again though, this is tally that is more weighted by history and not current trends, as only Huddersfield have finished fifth in the Championship and gone on to win the play-offs in the last five seasons.
If we take the last eight seasons as something of an arbitrary cut-off point, four play-off winners finished third with two each coming from fourth and fifth place finishes, with no success for the team that finished sixth.
Of course, drawing a line over the past eight play-off seasons doesn’t paint the full picture, but it does allow us to see if there is more of a current trend in play and we know that from those last eight years, 50% of all play-off winners finished third in the Championship.
This is something that will encourage one of either Leeds or Sheffield United, because not only do they have the weight of history behind them, they also now have the weight of current trend behind them.
Finish third and you have a far greater chance of then winning the play-offs. However, that is far from a guarantee, because if that was the case the percentage of winners from this particular position would be a lot greater than two-fifths.
That ultimately is what makes the play-offs such a captivating competition, because its not just a case of the third place team turning up and rolling over their opponents, they themselves still have to dig deep for potentially three more fixtures before the true end of season.
Even earning a hefty amount of regular season points is not a guarantee of success either. Take Sunderland in 1998, as mentioned they lost in a sensational final to Charlton – one that went to the further lottery of penalties and although the Wearsiders lost, that arguably will not rankle as much.
That’s because Peter Reid’s group of players managed to earn 90 points from a 46 game season and still not get promoted, the highest points tally ever earned by a team finishing in a play-off place and not moving onto the Premier League.
Therefore, it just goes to show that points don’t necessarily mean prizes, it’s all about what you can do in the play-offs and more importantly you have to leave all your league form behind you, because ultimately that then costs for nothing.
Yes, teams may well feel that they are going into the play-offs with a good head of steam, but that steam can quickly be evaporated after a semi-final loss and all your regular seasons earlier efforts will then be in vain.
It’s almost nigh impossible to pick who will win the play-offs in any given season and when we finally know the 2019 runners and riders, the drama over the course of two weeks will then unfold once again. With that in mind, just who will end up with the winning lottery ticket this time around?