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August 2021

Are the Play-offs fair?

Are the Play-offs fair?

Adam Brogden.

We have had in place a system of achievement in football ever since the very first cavewomen drove her man to kick a rock in anger, and that system is referred to as the pyramid system.

OK not from the very start of time, nor the very start of football, but it has been there at least in part since the invention of the second division in 1892.

After a few years the system settled down and for the most part was a simple concept where leagues are set atop one another and promotion is won through a team amassing more points than any other team within their respective division, and to make the league basis fair, teams play each other home and away each season.

Today, most leagues have 20-24 teams within them, the top 5 divisions have one league and underneath these, the divisions spread out in multiple leagues just like a pyramid, hence the pyramid system. Simple me thinks, but no, some smart ass had to change things around in the late eighties and takes us back to the 19th century with the re-introduction of a play-off system at the end of the season to determine who would win the last promotion spot via a mini cup competition.

These days the play-off’s consist of the four teams finishing in positions 3-6, this season in the Championship and the teams that finished in these positions have been playing each other for the premiership prize. Watford finished with 77 points in third spot so under the previous rules would be playing premiership football in the 2013/14 season, however in sixth spot, finished Leicester who have just lost to Watford in the semi-finals; they finished the season with 68 points, 9 points behind Watford.

To highlight what 9 points mean in the championship, if we look 9 points below Leicester, we end up 5 points above the relegation zone to league one. The nine point margin we see in the Championship is the largest over all the play-offs in the professional leagues.

So a scenario does exist that annuls the pyramid system to a certain extent and could lead to a club being in a division and being totally overwhelmed the following season, as has happened in the past.  Blackpool, Burnley and Crystal Palace spring to mind.  Indeed the only side in the last decade that has won the play-offs from 6th spot and stayed in the premiership, has been West Ham, but they have recent history, and thus, experience in the league.

Now is this scenario fair on the competitive integrity of the premier league?  I would have to say no – and that’s why they got rid of it in 1898.   When a team can finish the season 3 or 4 wins behind 3rd place, but still gain promotion into the league above it devalues the whole merit system. And can cause an imbalance in the league above.

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Of course I know the reasoning behind this is to get more bodies through the turnstiles and increase motivation for mid-table sides towards the end of a season, yet the whole point of the pyramid system and the season long competition is to find the most consistent teams that deserve promotion into a tougher, more competitive league. Not a side that can put a little run of results together and win a mini-cup competition. We already have these competitions and they are called just that “cup competitions”.

Far too often we witness sides promoted from the play-offs lower qualifying positions struggling the following season, and not once has a side that has achieved promotion then faced demotion, found their way back straight away. Blackpool came close but they did not over-extend themselves to stay in the premiership like so many do. It does harm the clubs short-term prospects and stability, and takes them a while to recover, and some do not. Blackpool were smart, they recognised this, so the question is valid; should they have gained promotion when they resigned themselves to over-achieving and facing relegation the following season?

Many clubs miss out on the premiership via the play-offs but it doesn’t cause detrimental harm to the club and they try again the following season.  Cardiff have done just that and seem to be a side that could stay in the premiership for some time, and with them gaining entry into the premiership we have now had 46 of the 92 clubs in the professional pyramid make an appearance in the premiership.

There are many things in football that need looking at and changing, but this was not one of them.  The problem has only increased over the years with this format filtering down the pyramid into non-league football, and again causing imbalances all over the pyramid. So, are we gradually seeing the pyramid system being dismantled, and over-time what will replace it?

The more I look into the governance of our sport and the rules by which clubs must compete, the more I despair for the integrity of it. It’s as if the play-offs were introduced to attract investors into football with the promise of promotion at shorter odds, and helping to artificially increase the value of a club. Watford if they gain promotion will be an interesting club to watch this summer due to their links with other football clubs around Europe.  Their owners could shift quite a few players to England to help with their survival in the premiership.

I’m surprised we don’t have playoffs  on a league basis between the relegated clubs and the promoted clubs; this would be a much fairer method of deciding who can be promoted and who will be demoted. A six team mini league at the end of a season, for example.  Although ten extra games per club maybe a bit much, and again it is circumventing the pyramid system of achievement.

There must be a better way of doing this.



13 comments to Are the Play-offs fair?

  • WalterBroeckx

    The system used in Belgium must be the most crazy system in the whole world.
    I think it would need a whole article to try to explain it. Might do it in fact. 😉

    The play off system is of course meant to have a few more money spinning games at the end of the season. Like you say it is a bit unfair at times for the team finishing in 3rd with sometimes a big advantage over the other teams in the play off but who then in a face to face game wipe out that point advantage.

    Football is not about fair any more I’m afraid…

  • elkieno

    I didn’t read it yet as its home time here in Sydney (6pm)and the weekend beckons… Already getting nervy and then come Sunday at probably some crazy hour, I will be biting my nails and doubling over in anxiety before kick off!
    What time is the game on anyway?
    Come On You Rip Roaring Gunners!!!

  • WalterBroeckx

    Mind you speaking as a ref…as a ref the play off games are also a bit interesting. Getting an appointment for a play off game is a bit of a reward for your good season most of the time. (I got one) and getting a cup final game is also mostly a reward for a good season (oh I got that also, the Women’s cup final game it was 😉 ).

    So for refs and assistants it is a way of finding out how you did in the season.
    So yes as a ref I don’t mind them.

  • Rupert Cook

    Agree Adam. I think it would be far fairer having the team that finished third from bottom in the PL playing the team who finished third in the Championship, if there was any need for change at all which I don’t believe there is. Bring back the old way of promotion and relegation.

    Look at rugby union and league, it’s crazy. You can win the league on points but then lose it in “play offs”. Utterly ludicrous, it devalues the league.

    Having said that my other team, Oxford, won promotion to the league a few seasons ago despite finishing fifth in the Blue Square so I guess I shouldn’t moan.

  • Murukesh Mohanan

    I posted a question in Quora: Should the UEFA Europa League winner or the UEFA Super Cup winner qualify automatically for the next Champions League?
    Essentially, I thought that it would be good thing for the Europa League winner to qualify for the Champions League playoffs (or group stages). Part of my argument was based on the playoffs being used in promotion to the PL. I see your pyramid consideration, but since EL slots go to FA Cup and Carling Cup winners, it doesn’t wholly apply to the EL, and I wonder if some exceptions can be made for the CL. Any thoughts from the people at Untold?

  • Gf60

    Harumph. I can remember a side that “won” promotion just after the 1st World War…and it’s not been relegated since! 😮

    Just think what might have happened if the spuds hadn’t gone down (as indeed they deserved)

  • ian

    The play offs are only designed to drive extra revenue by keeping attendences up towards the end of the season so more teams have something to play for. It also gives the FA the opportunity to rip off fans with extortianate ticket prices at Wembley.

    I think when they were first introduced the team finishing third bottom in the Prem were included along with the teams finishing in 3rd, 4th & 5th in the Championship.

  • Stuart

    I’ve always thought the play offs are a ridiculous idea. If 38 (or however many games) per season is not enough to decide who gets promoted then why is a few more enough? Further to this, why don’t the top four of the premier league have a play off to decide who the champions are.

  • Goooner

    In Germany the 3rd last team from the Bundesliga, play the 3rd team of the 2nd league. Home and away with penalties afterwards if it stays all aquere after that.

  • Rufusstan

    It depends what you mean by fair I guess. The playoffs cannot affect the final league positions, unlike Rupert’s examples (and most US sports; which are crazier), so it is fair in those terms.

    Our playoff system is straightforward at least, and fair on the clubs in that they know what they are getting into, and seeding slightly helps the higher placed teams. It does not get around the fundamental argument of more points; get promoted.

    First thought on that is 3 years ago, Cardiff were 4th on goal difference alone. Would it be fairer that under the old system they would fail to go up because they scored a few less goals than Swansea?

    I am really not sure that the PL is damaged by all of this. The Championship has got stronger in the last 10 years or so and we are moving away from the 3 up and 3 down; then same 3 back down we used to have.

    If you look at the 4 teams highlighted as getting promoted from 4/5/6th, Then Burnley did have a hard time. Palace and Blackpool did go down, but both were a point from safety. In Palace’s case, they still finished above the champions. West Ham stayed up, and Sunderland- again the champions- went down instead. Most of them coped as well as other sides have. West Brom win the Championship one year; the next finish dead last in the PL.

    I guess what I am saying is that the strength of the championship means that the league finish does not have a strong connection to how well the team copes in the PL: We’ve just seen the 2010 and 2011 champions relegated, but the other 4 promoted clubs are still in the PL–the two coming up through the playoffs being 9th and 10th. In the end: the clubs get money, the fans love it, so why not give them the chance?

    By the way, there really should not be any chance of PL clubs getting into the playoffs. The six team mini league in the article, could mean that no one gets relegated or promoted, and that is harmful to both leagues.

  • Adam

    Thankyou to everyone who commented or read with interest.
    I must say a big thankyou to Tony Attwood for the editing and adding of information to this article and others in my name that have been posted on Untold.

    I like to think I’m getting better at researching & writing (this all started as a project for me to improve my written English, believe it or not) I’m still a work in progress and actually enjoy writing now, so much so, its another thing my missus moans about.

    Anyway, thankyou Mr Attwood.

  • @blacksheep63

    i suspect it depends where you finish; Northampton fans are excited about a trip to Wem-ber-lee and the chance to get up to the 3rd division but if I’d finished 4th I’d be a bit miffed. That said we all know the rules at the start of season. I wouldn’t have a play between the (say) top 3 in the champs and bottom three in the PL but how about a play-off between the teams that finish from 15-18? Bottom 2 get relegated, then 4 teams p/off for the final drop? And the final is not at Wembley but somewhere grim…

  • @blacksheep63

    or 3rd is what I meant (doh)