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If the league table never lies, why discard it for play-offs?

6 December ~ At the end of the regular Conference season in 2003-04, Hereford United were second on 91 points, a point behind Chester City, having scored 103 goals and conceded 44. Shrewsbury Town were third, a massive 17 points behind and with a goal tally of 67-42. The points difference was the same as that which separated Shrewsbury from Gravesend & Northfleet in 11th place. Hereford had won 28 games and Shrewsbury 20. But after the play-offs it was Shrewsbury and not Hereford who moved up. While Shrewsbury were beating Barnet, Hereford were losing to Aldershot, who had finished a full 21 points behind them.

This was a grave injustice and an example of the play-off system not working. I accept that it has breathed life into the end of the season and that when teams are bunched together and only separated by a few points, luck could play a part. But 17 points is an enormity and states quite clearly that over the course of the season one team has played better than another team.

So what can be done? It is not often that one turns to Italy for lessons in football efficiency, but maybe English football could learn something from the Italian way of interpreting play-offs. In essence, everything is done to favour the team that finished higher in the regular season.

For a start, if there are more than a certain number of points between what would be the first and second teams in the play-offs, they are cancelled and the first team is automatically promoted. In Serie B this means more than nine points, and it happened in 2006-07 when third-placed Genoa finished ten points ahead of fourth-placed Piacenza. The same rule is applied to relegation play-offs. As these involve only two teams, which are at the bottom and not at the top, the cut-off gap is five points.

The play-offs almost always take place, but they are still geared to favour the team with a better record in the regular season. Put simply, this team does not have to win over the two legs. It merely has to avoid defeat and away goals count for nothing. So for example in Serie B last season, second-placed Novara reached the play-off final after drawing 0-0 away and 2-2 at home with fifth-placed Reggina while AlbinoLeffe stayed up at the expense of Piacenza with the same results because they ended the season with 49 points to their opponents' 46. There was no extra time and there were no penalties.

Though the Italian system differs from its English counterpart in that there is no grand Wembley-style one-off final, it could still be introduced into the English game by simply saying that if the final ends in a draw, with or without extra time, the higher-placed team in the regular season goes up.

No longer would teams be able to switch off once their play-off position was assured if they knew that the higher they finished, the more advantages they would have in the play-offs, which they might even be able to avoid if they accumulated a big enough advantage over the team immediately below them. It would also be much fairer, because it doesn't seem right that a team that finished third has virtually no advantage over a team that finished sixth.

There is one final point which even Italy hasn't adopted yet. In a two-legged play-off, the team that finished higher should be able to choose where to play the first game. It is always assumed that playing the second leg at home is an advantage, but some teams might not agree. They could even include Shrewsbury Town, after their defeat against Torquay in May. Richard Mason

Comments (37)
Comment by drew_whitworth 2011-12-06 10:45:54

Simpler still - have three teams, not four, in the play-offs, then 4th & 5th play off over two legs for the right to meet the third-placed team in the final? (I was going to say 'Wembley final' there but Cardiff or Old Trafford would seem just as interesting as venues...)

Comment by Coral 2011-12-06 11:39:42

One year Shrewsbury miss out after being 3rd, another year they will just sneak in. Teams who finish just off the automatic promotion hate it and those who finish just inside the final play off place love it. Just deal with. I have dealt with the fact the FA cup goes to teams who have a string of decent games and get lucky with the draw. The fact that football thros up those little things is what makes it interesting and gives excitement.

Comment by t.j.vickerman 2011-12-06 12:23:06

Might as well revive my convoluted idea of about a decade ago: 6th v 5th over 2 legs with 5th playing at home in the 2nd leg. Winner plays a one-off game away at 4th. Winner plays 3rd in a final on neutral ground. If a 6th or even 5th-placed team gets through that, fair play to them.

Or, alternatively, leave it as it is. I love the Play-Offs as they are and I'm a Huddersfield supporter (time to remind people of how far ahead we were of Peterborough in the league table before losing to them at Old Trafford after '15 minutes of madness').

Comment by t.j.vickerman 2011-12-06 12:28:06

And I think the Italian system of having one team guaranteed to go through if they avoid defeat is a recipe for dull, cautious football. I would open every league up to have 4 up, 4 down (top 3 up, 4th-7th in the Play-Offs).

Comment by Jongudmund 2011-12-06 12:48:56

The play-offs already favour the higher placed teams. In League 2, the 4th placed team play the 7th placed team, with the second leg at home. That worked for Shrewsbury twice when they finished 7th and didn't work at all last season when they finished 4th and lost to 7th-placed Torquay.

Have to declare a conflict of interest here - I support Shrewsbury. My only comment on the "grave injustice" suffered by Hereford is "wah, wah, wah, get over it".

(Also, the claim that the 2004 conference scenario shows the play-off system not working is utter drivel - if anything it shows the play-offs do work. If you're going to fix it so the highest-placed team always wins, then why bother having a play-off at all? Duh.)

Comment by Paul Rowland 2011-12-06 12:52:13

Here's my suggestion: how about doing away with play-off semi-finals, and just have one play-off final - third from bottom against third from top in the league below?

Comment by David Agnew 2011-12-06 13:00:58

Simpler still, let the 46 games just decide who should go up, rather than an arbitrary three game period, where form, injuries and suspensions all mean that it's never going to be a level playing field. Still, at least they've got rid of the ludicrous away goals rule - which always benefited the side that finished lower in the table!

If playoffs are so great, let the Premier League introduce them to decide the League Champions.

The whole point of the playoffs is to extend the season for the mid-table sides. Leagues should be about rewarding excellence, not mediocrity.

Comment by Lincoln 2011-12-06 13:12:18

"whole point of the playoffs is to extend the season for the mid-table sides" but it is not mid table teams that get to play. This debate has gone on for years but the fact is at the start of the season most teams are in favour the Play Offs because it offers them a better chance of going up. More than that, for my home team it offered a life line financially for five straight seasons, and my how we needed it.

Comment by Jongudmund 2011-12-06 13:14:46

@David Agnew

But you have some exceptional circumstances where play-offs could potentially reward excellence.

For example, one year when Shrewsbury finished 7th two teams who had scored more points then them were below them in the table (it was the season when 4 clubs had point deductions for financial problems). I think it was Rotherham who started the season on minus 17 points. They were never going to win the league but they almost made the play-offs. If they had, they would have truly deserved their shot at promotion.

As it happened, Shrewsbury were the 9th best team in the division (on performances alone) but ended up going to Wembley (and losing the final).

Comment by Cavalry Trouser Tips 2011-12-06 13:17:04

The playoffs are for sponsors and TV companies to milk the supporters for a few extra quid - that's it.

Comment by jertzeeAFCW 2011-12-06 13:21:16

I have favoured the Italian method for years.

The only league that has some semblance of getting it right in the UK is the Ryman League (yes, unbelievable, isn't it) that has only one leg with the team higher up playing at home.
Therefore 2nd plays 5th at home and 3rd plays 4th at home.

If the 2nd placed team win they play the final at home.

As for 4th being better than 7th, that is not always true. The 4th place team could have been top all season and lost the last 5 matches while the 7th placed team may have been 10th all season but won thir last 5 matches. I know who I would put money onto win that game.

Comment by frontier psychiatrist 2011-12-06 13:40:34

I like the idea of skewing things a bit more in favour of the highest finishing team. Automatically pitting them against the lowest placed team was the right kind of idea but often it has meant they face a team who clicked in April and would fancy their chances against anyone. Maybe they could be given their choice of opponents from the other three, and whether they'd like to play at home first-leg or second.

Comment by wittoner 2011-12-06 13:42:48

The Evostik league has the same play off system as the Rymans - One off semi finals and one off final. All games played at the ground of the higher finishing team and yes, it is much fairer.

But of course it doesn't yield as much money as two-legged games and Wembley finals so there's no chance of it being adopted higher up the pyramid.

Comment by JimDavis 2011-12-06 13:52:40

I like the playoffs for the simple fact they seem to mess with the heads of all involved with Cardiff City so much.

Comment by geobra 2011-12-06 14:32:44

@ T.J. Vickerman

If anything I'd say that the English system is more likely to encourage caution, because both teams know that if the end result is a draw, they still have a chance. At least in the Italian system, whatever the actual score, one team is either trying to win or to get back on level terms, and to do that they must do some attacking.

For the record, easily the most thrilling and dramatic game I've seen in the last 10 years was a Serie B promotion play off semi final 2nd leg between AlbinoLeffe and Brescia in 2008. It finished 2-1 to AlbinoLeffe and 2-2 on aggregate and it had absolutely everything you could ask for from a game of football.

This doesn't mean of course that there aren't also a lot of dull play-off games, especially in the first leg. But surely at that point of the season they only interest the two sides involved, and all they want is to come out on top, not to entertain the neutrals.

Comment by t.j.vickerman 2011-12-06 14:50:55

@geobra

Thanks for the examples. I suppose the approach is shaped more the nature of the teams and managers involved than the system.

Comment by geobra 2011-12-06 15:23:38

It seems that nobody has yet picked up on what is surely the key point, which is not whether it was fair that Shrewsbury went up and not Hereford but whether it was fair that a 17-point gap at the end of the season counted for nothing.

The English play-off system takes no account of this, while its Italian counterpart fixes limits. We won't all agree on which system is right, but there's surely scope for discussion here. For example, it's difficult to see how one could call the Italian system unfair.

And let's remember that the difference could easily be more than 17 points. Look at the gap that usually separates Rangers and Celtic, or Barcelona and Real Madrid, from the rest in Scotland and Spain and imagine that there were play-offs to decide who went into the Champions League beginning with the team that finished second.

Or are the kind of clubs that we're talking about (Shrewsbury, Bristol Rovers, Torquay etc) really more interested in a day out at Wembley, even if they lose, than a promotion that they've earned over 46 games?

Comment by Coral 2011-12-06 15:45:28

"seems that nobody has yet picked up on what is surely the key point, which is not whether it was fair that Shrewsbury went up and not Hereford but whether it was fair that a 17-point gap at the end of the season counted for nothing"

Not really because it is a nothing point. It is entirely fair because they werre the rules that Hereford entered into at the start of the season. It would have been oh so fair had they just sneaked into the playoffs with the last kick of the season. These things are only unfair at the end of the season when the team just not good enough to pip the automatic teams doesn't get promoted. Fact is there were 3 slots available to take and Hereford were not outstanding enough to get one of these. Tough.


"Look at the gap that usually separates Rangers and Celtic, or Barcelona and Real Madrid, from the rest in Scotland and Spain and imagine that there were play-offs to decide who went into the Champions League beginning with the team that finished second."

I would bet a sizeable chunk of money each year that in those playoffs both Madrid/Barcelona and Celtic/Rangers come second, because they really are a lot better than the other clubs who would be there.

"Or are the kind of clubs that we're talking about (Shrewsbury, Bristol Rovers, Torquay etc) really more interested in a day out at Wembley, even if they lose, than a promotion that they've earned over 46 games?"

That is a more interesting point, and the answer is probably yes. To spin it a bit, are the teams more interested in a huge pay day, being on TV and a trip to an iconic stadium and going up. Or do they want to go straight up. In both cases ultimately struggle with a fairly dull season before being bombed back out to the league below?

Comment by dannycat 2011-12-06 16:01:40

Wait till you live in Belgium.
The championship was decided by half a point.
Another Belgian joke... and hard to explain abroad.

Comment by geobra 2011-12-06 16:50:58

@ Coral

Actually there were two spots available, not three. One automatic, and one via the play-offs.

It all depends what you mean by fair, doesn't it? I can invent intrinsically unfair rules, and if you agree to play with me you must abide by them. In that sense what happened was 'fair'. But surely there is an argument for saying that it should have led to a rethink, without of course altering the outcome of the 2003-2004 season.

Comment by Jongudmund 2011-12-06 16:56:06

@geobra @Coral
"Or are the kind of clubs that we're talking about (Shrewsbury, Bristol Rovers, Torquay etc) really more interested in a day out at Wembley, even if they lose, than a promotion that they've earned over 46 games?"

When you finish 7th, getting to Wembley is great.

When you are pipped to 3rd and end up in the play-offs, it's kind of gutting.

I'm not speaking for all Shrewsbury fans but personally I would much prefer automatic promotion over a day trip to Wembley (even if we did the unthinkable and won there). I think many fellow fans would feel the same way.

Comment by Coral 2011-12-06 17:14:19

@geobra

Sorry I was talking about a League 2 example.

Anyways, going back to it being unfair or fair. More teams have a chance of going up and to me that would be fair. People often refer to the Leeds Sunderland FA cup final being unfair because Leeds were the better team. Or more recently Inter beating Barcelona in the Champion's League because Barcelona played better football. It was not entirely fair that Inter went through based on who is a better team but it was within the rules of the game. There are plenty of perceived injustices in football.

Fact is teams have not brought up a change in the league structure because at the start of the season Hereford would have said "hmmm would I rather the chance for promotion stretched to 5 teams come the end of the season or 2?" They would of course elect for 5 because it offers them more chance. I remember long dull seasons that just ground out to nothing before the playoffs. Now at least the glimmer of getting a playoff spot. If Hereford piped up before the start and said they want to bring a motion that the playoffs are drawn up from the hand of the devil and should be changed ready for when they are 17 points ahead, then fine.

Comment by geobra 2011-12-06 17:56:18

@ Coral

You can't compare the Hereford / Shrewsbury case with Leeds v Sunderland and Inter v Barcelona. In those games Leeds and Inter scored more goals than their opponents, which is how you win football matches, and the fact that their opponents 'played better' is irrelevant and certainly doesn't make the results 'unfair'. Opponents of the play-offs would argue that in the same way, if there are three promotion places, they should go to the three teams who accumulated most points during the regular season.

But I don't think anybody here is arguing against the play-offs. The original article admits that they have made the end of the season more interesting. And they would continue to do so if teams knew that by continuing to take points, they might avoid them altogether. It would happen very rarely, but those who support the Italian model think that it should be a possibility. The Hereford / Shrewsbury case is cited because it is the most obvious in support of their argument.

Incidentally, I too write as a one-time Shrewsbury fan, but back in the days of the late, great Arthur Rowley!!

Comment by geobra 2011-12-06 17:58:25

Whoops!! Should of course read 'Sunderland and Inter scored more goals than their opponents'......

Comment by Coral 2011-12-06 18:00:51

"You can't compare the Hereford / Shrewsbury case with Leeds v Sunderland and Inter v Barcelona"

I can I did because in both cases the teams that lost out felt aggrieved at losing because they were the better teams but such is the rules, they lost. Same with Hereford, they were in their eyes the better team but because of the rules, they lost out. And again Hereford would have been fully in favour at the start.

I would contend that if they are so far and away the best side, as with Real Madrid in Spain as per an earlier example, they should be able to get through and promoted.

Comment by geobra 2011-12-06 19:21:26

@ Coral

Hereford were not the better team 'in their eyes'. They were the better team because over 42 games they accumulated 17 points more than Shrewsbury. That's a fact.

Leeds and Barcelona say they were the better teams in their games, but as their opponents scored more goals than they did, that's an opinion.

In any case, teams that feel 'aggrieved' at losing games where they played better should either stop playing or agree to award to their opponents games which they won despite their opponents playing better.

As for the fact that Hereford should have been able to win the play-offs, I agree. But we all know that once the play-offs begin everything that went before them counts for nothing. In any case, no team is immune to an off-day.

Comment by Grimmer 2011-12-06 19:28:54

No one ever said it was meant to be fair!

Comment by Cavalry Trouser Tips 2011-12-06 20:40:55

@geobra

"But I don't think anybody here is arguing against the play-offs."

I am. They're an abomination that were put in place for all the wrong reasons. Teams should put the effort in throughout the season - like they have to do in the Premier League.

Why don't we have play-offs for relegation?

Comment by sw2boro 2011-12-06 20:47:55

We probably should do. And why have points at all? It should all be done on goal difference.

Comment by Janik 2011-12-06 23:34:29

Any system that sets the number of promotions in advance is arbitrary.

Take, for example, Division 1 in 97/98. The top four that season were Nottm Forest (94 points), Middlesbrough (91), Sunderland (90) and Charlton (88), with a decent gap back to fifth. Charlton were the fourth best side that season but with a points haul that suggested they were significantly better than the usual standard of that Division, and one that would have left them in the top two in almost any other season. If promotion was something that could be awarded on merit, rather than via a pre-arranged system, they would have had a very good case. Especially as the Premier League that season had a noticeable gap between Sheff Wednesday in 16th (44 points) and Everton and Bolton (both on 40, Everton stayed up, Bolton went down). Charlton did eventually go up anyway, beating Sunderland in the epic 4-4, 7-6 on penalties play-off final. Some will argue they took a place that Sunderland merited more, but I would contend that Everton were in the place that would have been best filled by Sunderland.

However there is absolutely no reason why it ought to be as neat as this, and unsurprisingly it often isn’t. And when it isn’t, you are into political arguments about who is more deserving (I suggest you look into any discussion on who plays in which College American Football bowl game if you want an idea how much of a ball-ache this can be). So the only really sensible solution is to fix on a system before the season begins, communicate that system clearly to all participants and accept the outcomes, whatever they may be. 2 direct promotions from the round-robin stage and a 3rd promotion from an additional play-off stage is but one arbitrary method for doing so, and as it’s based purely on results is a completely fair and perfectly reasonable a way of selecting your sides.

Comment by martin8 2011-12-07 09:58:57

For the extreme example of play-off unfairness, I give you the Ryman League Division one south 2010-11.
Bognor Regis Town missed out on promotion by just one goal (96 points, 61 to 96 points, 60) and then lost in the play-off semifinals to Dulwich Hamlet who finished a massive THIRTY-ONE points behind them!

Comment by Sheds 2011-12-07 13:27:52

Having lived through relegation play-offs in the 80s supporting Charlton I have to say I am not in favour of them. It may be entertaining for everyone else but it is the worst experience I've had as a supporter. Yes, Charlton won through but the overwhelming feeling was of relief not joy. At least for teams trying to get promoted they lose out on something they never had or get the elation of a promotion. If you get relegated, then that should be that.

Comment by geobra 2011-12-07 13:53:21

If teams 'need' the play-offs to keep trying till the end of the season, what happens in the Highland League, for example, where nobody goes anywhere except when a team (not necessarily the champions) gets 'promoted' to the Scottish League? It used be the same in the various 'amateur' leagues - Isthmian, Athenian, Northern etc - before the pyramid was introduced and I don't remember any particular lack of commitment as the season came to a close, just perhaps tiredness.

Does the Highland League show us that competitive football can still be played and watched just for the sheer enjoyment that it offers?

Comment by Coral 2011-12-07 16:37:49

"If teams 'need' the play-offs to keep trying till the end of the season"

Yet I thought the idea of awarding automatic promotion to a team who are more points ahead than a specified amount was to make them carrying on pushing to get the promotion and not playoffs and keep them fighting?

Either have the playoffs or don't.

Comment by geobra 2011-12-07 21:56:36

'Needing the play-offs' includes trying to avoid them, if possible, when without them promotion might already be secured.

Comment by Max Payne 2011-12-09 09:12:39

I like the playoffs. Actually quite liked the cruelty of the older system where a team from the league above also fought relegation with 3 from the league below.

Expand it I say. Let's have playoffs for the last play-off place! All the way to 10th!

Okay, maybe the second one's crazy but I do like the playoffs, winning promotion to the Football league in 2008 at Wembley was epic and laid the foundation for automatic promotion from League 2 the season after. But if Plymouth Argyle go down I think the BSP should scrap 'em. Flawed, y'see, can't have 3 Devon clubs using 'em. Unacceptable, that.

Comment by smcgiffen 2011-12-10 22:11:24

The playoffs transformed football. The idea that 'the league table never lies' is ludicrous, and in any case, what does it matter? I remember seasons and seasons of meaningless end-of-season games through the pre-play-off years. I'm a 57-year-old Boro fan and playoffs would have transformed my adolescence, which I spent in Whitby being tormented by Leeds fans (we were all one or the other, none of that 'supporting' teams from London or wherever in them days). As the arithmetically gifted amongst you will have worked out, I was 13 when we came back up into the 2nd division in 1967. In 68 we finished 6th. 69, 4th, 70, 4th. Bitter disappointments. Of course, if there's been playoffs we'd have walked the second of them (to avoid 'going up too soon') and I would have been watching John Hickton scoring for fun in Division One, my O level results would have been better, Alf Ramsey would never have taken Bobby Charlton off in that game in Mexico against West Germany and so England would have won the 1970 World Cup, girls would have been swarming all over me and Leeds would have gone been shut down for being violent bastards.

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