Are the play-offs really a lottery?

By Ben CarterRadio 4's More or Less
Play-off trophy, Champagne, Wembley Way and the Wembley Arch, Dean Windass

The formula for winning the Championship play-offs is well known, isn't it?

Sneak in with a late surge before going on to shock the sides that finished above you in the table. Form is everything, final league position means nothing.

But is this true? We have looked back at the last 20 seasons of the Championship play-offs to analyse these theories. Is there method to them, or are they a myth?

See the tables on mobile

Table one analyses final league position and success in the play-offs:

League positions and promotions
1994-95 *ReadingBoltonWolvesTranmere
1995-96C PalaceStokeLeicesterCharlton
1996-97WolvesIpswichSheff UtdC Palace
1997-98SunderlandCharltonIpswichSheff Utd
2000-01BoltonPrestonBirminghamWest Brom
2002-03Sheff UtdReadingWolvesNott'm Forest
2003-04SunderlandWest HamIpswichC Palace
2004-05IpswichDerbyPrestonWest Ham
2005-06WatfordPrestonLeedsC Palace
2006-07DerbyWest BromWolvesSouthampton
2007-08HullBristol CityC PalaceWatford
2008-09Sheff UtdReadingBurnleyPreston
2009-10Nott'm ForestCardiffLeicesterBlackpool
2010-11SwanseaCardiffReadingNott'm Forest
2011-12West HamBirminghamBlackpoolCardiff
2012-13WatfordBrightonC PalaceLeicester
Reach final?60%45%55%40%
Runner up?25%30%25%20%
Key: BOLD = promoted; ITALICS = runner-up* Reading actually finished 2nd, Bolton 3rd, Wolves 4th and Tranmere 5th

It might provide some comfort for Watford fans after their side missed out to Hull in the battle for automatic promotion last weekend. Five of the last seven teams to finish in third position in the table have been promoted via the play-offs - a run that was started by Watford themselves in 2006.

Brighton supporters might not be so positive though, as history shows that just three of the teams who have finished fourth have been promoted in the last 20 years - and none in the last 15. The last team to do it was Charlton in 1998 after perhaps the most dramatic play-off final ever.

Crystal Palace players celebrate
The fifth-placed team has won 30% of the last 20 play-offs - good news for Crystal Palace?

And what about Brighton's play-off semi-final opponents, Crystal Palace? The table shows that the team finishing fifth has been promoted twice as many times as the team in fourth.

Leicester sneaked into the final play-offs with virtually the last kick of their last game against Nottingham Forest. The news for them is mixed. Only four teams finishing sixth in the last 20 years have been promoted via the play-offs.

But in the last 10 years, every time a sixth-placed team has reached the final they have won, most recently in 2010 when Blackpool beat Cardiff in a thrilling game.

So are we to conclude that form going into the play-offs is more important than final league position?

Palace fans will surely be concerned about their side's recent run, as their last-gasp winner against Peterborough secured their first win in seven games. Can a team on such a poor run of form get promoted?

Table two looks at the average points per game accrued by each of the play-off teams from 1 April to the end of the season:

League positions and promotions
1992-93Portsmouth: 2.38Tranmere: 2.33Swindon: 1.38Leicester: 1.33
1993-94Tranmere: 1.78Derby: 1.67Leicester: 1.44Millwall: 1.40
1994-95Reading: 2.29Tranmere: 1.38Bolton: 1.33Wolves: 1.30
1995-96Leicester: 2.38Stoke: 2.11C Palace: 1.43Charlton: 1.00
1996-97Ipswich: 2.67Wolves: 1.67Sheff Utd: 1.60C Palace: 1.50
1997-98Charlton: 2.71Ipswich: 2.29Sunderland: 2.00Sheff Utd: 1.00
1998-99Watford: 2.75Ipswich: 1.62Birmingham: 1.62Bolton: 1.33
1999-2000Ipswich: 2.29Bolton: 2.29Barnsley: 1.57Birmingham: 1.57
2000-01Bolton: 1.88Preston: 1.75Birmingham: 1.12West Brom: 1.00
2001-02Millwall: 2.50Norwich: 2.50Birmingham: 1.80Wolves: 1.00
2002-03Wolves: 1.86Reading: 1.71Sheff Utd: 1.38Nott'm Forest: 1.12
2003-04Crystal Palace: 2.38West Ham: 1.57Ipswich: 1.57Sunderland: 1.56
2004-05West Ham: 2.12Derby: 1.88Ipswich: 1.71Preston: 1.57
2005-06Preston: 2.67Watford: 1.80Leeds: 1.00C Palace: 1.00
2006-07Southampton: 2.00Wolves: 1.67West Brom: 1.50Derby 1.33
2007-08C Palace: 2.40Hull: 1.40Watford: 0.83Bristol City: 0.80
2008-09Preston: 2.17Sheff Utd: 2.00Burnley: 1.83Reading: 1.29
2009-10Leicester: 2.50Blackpool: 2.17Cardiff: 1.83Nott'm Forest: 1.50
2010-11Cardiff: 2.22Reading: 2.12Nott'm Forest: 1.88Swansea: 1.75
2011-12West Ham: 2.33Cardiff: 2.33Blackpool: 2.00Birmingham: 1.86
2012-13Brighton: 2.14Watford: 1.43Leicester: 1.29C Palace: 1.0
TOTALS:Nine promotions, one runner-upThree promotions, six runners-upFive promotions, nine runners-upThree promotions, four runners-up
Reach final?50%45%70%35%
Key: BOLD = promoted; ITALICS = runner-up.

Brighton clearly have the best form of the four teams in this season's play-offs, having averaged 2.14 points per game from their last seven matches. History shows that teams with the best form have reached the final 50% of the time since 1992-93, and nine of those 10 teams have actually won the play-offs.

But there is one caveat. In the last seven years, only one team with the best form - West Ham last year - have reached the final.

West Ham won 2012 play-offs
West Ham: Only team with best form to have reached final in last seven years

Surprisingly, it is the third-ranked team in terms of form who have reached the final most often - 14 times in the last 20 years. Saying that, they have only won five of those finals. Leicester rank third in terms of form going into the Championship play-offs this season.

However, there is another way of looking at form that might be important this year. No side with form as poor as Leicester's (1.29 points per game since 1 April) and Crystal Palace's (1.00 points per game) has been promoted in the last 20 years. The winning sides with the worst form going into the play-offs were Bolton in 1995 and Derby in 2007, who both averaged 1.33 points per game in April and May.

As always, you should be careful about using past performance to predict the future. But if you do want to make a prediction based on statistics and where a side finished in the table, Watford are a good bet.

If you want to look at form though, then Brighton are the best bet. And if you are Crystal Palace fan, you might want to pray this is the time that form really does go out of the window.


Join the conversation

These comments are now closed.


Top Stories