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