The league is a format that rewards consistency and the ability to grind out points over a long period. That’s great, because it means the teams that end up at the upper echelons of the table come promotion-time are getting a well-earned reward for a season’s worth of good play. But there remains a small problem with the format – the teams who do end up at the business end of the table only get to play each other twice, and there’s no difference between the reward for beating a club with promotion hopes and a team fighting every single game against the drop. A club could play very well against the lower-tier teams but not perform in bigger matches, and vice versa.
The beauty of the play-off is that it forces a team to earn their promotion solely against the teams who also have hopes of getting promoted. Since you’d hope that these teams are playing at a similar sort of standard to those in the league above, if a club can’t cut it in the play-offs it seems fairly likely they won’t be able to make it in the division above. Secondly, a team who can produce play-off results is proving themselves in another dimension of the game. It takes a different set of skills to win on a weekly basis and to win a match on a single big occasion. Any team that makes it through the play-offs is demonstrating a more complete squad and that merits the promotion.
The big thing, though, is the occasion. A lower-league team doesn’t get to visit a stadium like Wembley all that often. for the loyal followers of these clubs, the spectacle of watching their beloved teams peddling their trade on the biggest stages in English football has surely got to be worth the risk that all might not go to plan. Once a year, when the season reaches its peak, the lower-league clubs have all eyes on them. If we shed the play-offs we lose the occasion.
Miles Dilworth believes there is too much at stake to allow teams to go up undeservedly
For the neutral the play-off certainly pays-off. Added drama at the end of the season, dramatic Wembley finals and it keeps more teams in with something to play for towards the back end of the season. But when the stakes are as high as they are, there is a fine line between providing entertainment and providing a fair result.
As my colleague rightly points out, the League should reward consistency across the season, but a play-off showdown simply does not do this. There are too many variables and so often having to regroup at the end of a season for another push towards promotion puts the team who finished 3rd (or in the case of League Two, 4th) at a disadvantage.
Not that this argument is emotionally charged at all, but it is hard to see Brentford picking themselves up from missing a last-minute penalty against Doncaster to put them into the Championship, and succeeding in the play-offs.
The play-offs reward the side who are in form at that moment, rather than the side who have consistently proved themselves across the season. With so much money at stake, promotion can make or break a side’s future – the Championship play-off final is commonly referred to as the most lucrative game in football. Thus it is absolutely crucial that the who deserves to go up, does go up; there just isn’t room for messing about.
In the past ten years, across the entire Football League, only 12 times has the team finishing closest to automatic promotion won the play-off final. On eight occasions, the team that has gone up has finished 8 points or more behind the highest placed team of the four sides. In 2005 West Ham finished 12 points behind 3rd placed Ipswich and prevailed in the play-offs. That is a huge margin, the same margin that separated 6th place from 20th in the Championship this season.
It is difficult to argue that the right team was promoted that season. The play-offs are a lottery and play with the fortunes of clubs. Even reducing the number of teams legible to compete for promotion to two would make for a fairer system. But the current one cannot continue.
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