There is something strangely addictive about Play-Off football; it produces a unique, almost unbearable tension that brings out both the beautiful and ugly side of football. Players, managers and fans alike often become demonic in the final surge for promotion.
Teams who have impressed all season start to suffer a bad case of the jitters, whilst the late runners who just manage to sneak in ride high atop a wave of momentum. There is no doubt that promotion through the Play-Offs is the most glamorous way to go up; but a defeat is equally as crushing and deflating, a season ending in bitter disappointment.
Quite frankly, it’s the hope that kills you.
However, for all of the drama and entertainment that the Football League Play-Offs provide, one must now begin to question their fairness in the modern day game.
There is no point denying it; football is now almost entirely a business. Financial gain, particularly for lower league clubs, is becoming a higher priority than silverware. Take, for example, drawing a Premier League club in the third round of the FA Cup – the dream of giant killing is beginning to fall behind the opportunity of a lucrative replay. Victory is one thing, but a financially stable future is quite another.
It is a similar case with the Play-Offs. Promotion to the top flight of English football is a reward worth an estimated £90million – a ludicrous amount of money that will more than settle a few loan debts.
This is where the question of fairness begins to arise. If a team finishes third in the Championship and loses in the Play-Off final, the jackpot is rewarded to a team who, over the course of a whole season, have finished lower. A whole campaign and, more importantly, financial security is decided in three games rather than over forty six.
This should not be the case. When considering the points total amassed over an entire season, a team finishing third can be significantly ahead of sixth, yet could still lose to them in the Play-Offs. This season’s League 1 Semi-Final between Huddersfield and Bournemouth is a prime example; the former finished the season fifteen points better off than the latter. Those five extra victories over the course of the season are now obsolete.
This is not to say, however, that the current Play-Off format should be dismissed altogether. It should only be tweaked in order to prevent any injustice – a ‘common sense’ approach.
Italian football, for all its controversies, employs a more sensible approach to Play-Off football. In Serie B, the top two teams (like the Championship) are rewarded with automatic promotion. However, if the team finishing third are ten or more points clear than fourth place, they too are automatically promoted – Play-Offs are only used when the gap between third and fourth is less than ten points.
This format, or something similar, would be much more beneficial in English football; it may not be used often, but would provide a safety net in extreme circumstances where a Play-Off would be nothing more than unfair. For example, if the club in third place finishes 15 points better off than sixth, they should be rewarded with a bye to the final – leaving 4th and 5th to battle out for the remaining place.
The second problem with the current format is that it only occurs at one end of the table. Mid-table dwellers, for which automatic promotion becomes mathematically impossible, still have a chance of promotion through the Play-Offs. Two extra games on the season provide a small but beneficial boost to finances whilst progression to the final means a profitable day out, win or lose.
However, in the bottom half, it is only the teams that are statistically the worst that suffer. As soon as clubs are mathematically safe from relegation, their season is over. There is no relegation Play-Off to fear. A club that misses out on automatic promotion by a point still has a chance to save their season, but a club that suffers relegation by a point are condemned to their fate. A team finishing in sixth place still has an opportunity of financial gain, yet the team finishing sixth from bottom is not punished in the opposite sense.
Again, the Italians have recognised this. The bottom three teams of Serie B are automatically relegated, but fourth from bottom still has a chance to save face if less than 5 points behind the team above them. If this applies, a two-legged Play-Off is played with the aggregate winner rewarded with survival – the loser becomes the last demoted team.
The key to a successful Play-Off format is making it equal at both ends of the table. Lincoln City chairman Bob Dorrian believes that relegation to the Blue Square Premier this season will cost his club half a million pounds in revenue – the Imps missed out on safety by just one point. At the other end of the table, Shrewsbury missed out on promotion by just one point yet still get another chance (albeit a slim one – they lost Torquay in the Semi-Final) through the Play-Offs to save their season.
Torquay, on the other hand, scraped into the Play-Offs on the final day of the season, thanks to a superior goal difference to the team below.
With football becoming increasingly business-minded, the cost of missing out at either end of the table is having massive financial implications on the state of our clubs. It is time that the correct measures are put in place to ensure that both the rewards and punishments are equally fair and justified.
By Robert Bartlett – Grimsby Town fan