The promise and potential pitfalls of Football League play-off promotion

“Going up through the play-offs is the best way to go up” is a phrase that you often hear in the latter stages of the domestic football season. But with the three Football League play-off finals taking place at Wembley over the upcoming Bank Holiday weekend, Tom Simmonds questions if that’s really true?

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The dopamine rushes that winning these games gives players, coaching staff and supporters alike are what people who eulogise winning the play-offs are really referring to, rather than the result of a football match when they make this statement. The highs of winning a play-off final may be more intense, but winning in this way has its disadvantages.

The recent data surrounding the fortunes of those teams who win play-off finals throws up one prominent trend. These clubs, particularly higher up the pyramid, are extremely likely to be relegated back from whence they came at some point soon after being promoted.

Of the last six winners of the Championship play-off final, three (Burnley, Blackpool and QPR) have been relegated straight away. Hull managed Premier League survival in 08/09 before suffering second season syndrome in 09/10. Swansea, promoted in 10/11, and Crystal Palace, who beat Watford in the 11/12 final, have managed to survive relatively comfortably since their elevation.

Those promoted to the Championship via the play-offs in the same time period have fared similarly. There is the same amount of instant relegation, with Scunthorpe in 09/10, Peterborough in 11/12 and Yeovil in 12/13 dropping in their first seasons. Doncaster and Millwall managed four seasons of survival each despite courting relegation for much of them. Huddersfield and Rotherham, the two other sides in this group, will start their third and second seasons in the Championship in 15/16 on the back of their own flirtations with relegation. It is hard to see either side making a dramatic leap up the table, given that their resources are dwarfed by those of most other Championship clubs, well fed on large gate receipts and Premier League parachute payments.

There are also logistical problems for teams promoted in this way, the relentless march of time being the biggest. The teams involved in the play-off final this time are disadvantaged by not knowing what division they will be in for three weeks, whereas their competitors will be able to plan with more clarity.

Numerous managers in charge of play-off teams have spoken historically of having two target lists – one for their current division and one should they be promoted. This is far from ideal for all concerned. It inconveniences players on a promise conditional on their putative new employer being promoted and those who do not know if they will be given new contracts until after the games. Such a situation is ripe for exploitation by agents who can either use this limbo to leverage their clients’ wage demands or by scouting around to get their players moves that will get them some security as soon as possible.

This is not to say that going up through the play-offs is to be avoided; any team should take their promotion however and whenever it might come. However, it is not a particularly cogent argument to say that you would prefer your team to go up by virtue of winning an artificially constructed post-season competition rather than to have a season like Bristol City or Hearts 14/15 campaigns. Automatic promotion is its own reward, and part of that reward is the extra time that not being involved in the play-offs gives a team. While those involved with Norwich, Middlesbrough, Preston, Swindon, Southend and Wycombe will have their eyes on the prize, a substantial number of them will be privately thinking they could do without the stress.

Would you rather your team be promoted automatically or through the play-offs? Who do you think will win the upcoming finals?

Follow @TallulahOnEarth

Read more from Tom Simmonds here!

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