Sixth equals third? Re-thinking the play-off format

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The Championship play-off final is one of the highlights of the footballing calendar in England, but is it fair to the team that finishes third in the league? Birmingham City fan Steve Walcott shares proposals to make the play-offs more equitable...

With just one game remaining of the regular 2014-15 Football League season it’s inevitable that fans’ attention is starting to turn towards the play-offs. An exciting finale is in store too, with issues still to be settled in all three Football League divisions.

However, it seems that every season there are umpteen articles, blogs and phone-ins questioning the play-off system and whether it’s fair, or indeed whether it should exist at all.

Over the years the play-offs have often provided a very exciting climax to the regular season and they are certainly popular with fans (so by extension club chairmen and owners, who see the pound signs mounting up).

As a supporter of Birmingham City my team have been involved in the play offs five times – including four seasons in succession from 1999 to 2002, so I know all too well the mixture of excitement, anticipation, jubilation, heartbreak and despair they can bring.

With that in mind I am a fan of the play-off system in principle. The fact that a team finishing in sixth place (Championship and League One, seventh in League Two), still has a chance of going up, means clubs for whose seasons would have long since fizzled out still potentially have something to play for right to the end.

With each passing year however, it is questioned. Can it really be right that a team that finishes sixth gets equal footing to a team that finishes third? Shouldn’t the 46 games of the regular league season count for something?  Critics will say everybody knows the rules at the start of the season, but this still does not address the fairness issue.

What are the alternatives? Some argue that the third placed team in the Championship should play a one-off game against the third bottom team in the Premier League at a neutral ground. When the modern play offs came into being for the 1986-87 season this was the case with the then first division Charlton Athletic beating their second division opponents Leeds United  2-1 at St. Andrew’s,  Birmingham. As a consequence Charlton remained in the first division.

At that time the play-offs were inaugurated to provide additional revenue to clubs in an era long before multi-billion pound television deals. From that viewpoint alone a one-off game of such nature would not be popular with club chairmen and owners.

Other alternatives are the fourth and fifth placed teams play each other over two legs, as is the case currently, but the third and sixth placed sides meet in a one-off game at the home ground of the third place team. This system does hold some credence, but it would mean the possibility of two games for the third placed side to get promoted and the sixth place side might get to the final having played just one game.

Here is another option which would be a little more complicated but crucially, it would still provide revenue to the clubs and it would be much fairer, particularly for the third placed club. It is a system conceived with the idea of taking account of the previous 46 games. Basically it would be a series of one-off games.

Firstly the fifth and sixth placed teams would meet in a one-off game at the home ground of the fifth placed team, who are rewarded with the home tie for finishing the higher of the two.

The winner of that game would then face the fourth placed team again in a one off game at the home of the fourth placed side. Again the fourth placed team is rewarded with the home tie for finishing the higher of the two.

The winner of that game then earns the right to meet the third placed team in a one-off final to decide who gets promoted.

Rather than stage this game at the home of the third placed team, it would be played at Wembley Stadium. Obviously the much bigger capacity of Wembley would allow more fans access to such an important game and it would continue the long held tradition of play-off finals being staged at the “venue of legends”.

This system has several advantages:

  • It rewards teams according to their league finish and gives recognition to the 46 game regular season; therefore it gives clubs an incentive to finish third. With the current system such an incentive does not exist.
  • The third placed team is rewarded by qualifying directly for the final. This could be a crucial rest period. As in the previous point this gives an incentive for clubs to finish third.
  • The fourth and fifth placed sides are rewarded with home games
  • If the sixth placed team gets promoted, it will have done so having beaten the fifth and fourth placed sides away from home and the third placed team in a Wembley final. Who could argue that they didn’t deserve it?
  • If any of their players have crucial injuries, it gives the third placed team in particular a little extra time to get them fit.

The main disadvantages are:

  • The play offs would be reduced from five games at present to three, meaning reduced revenue for the sixth placed team who would not get a home game. Would this go down well with the club owners? The broadcast partners? Or indeed the fans of the club?
  • The third placed team not being involved for a while could also be a disadvantage in so far as they are out of action. Could the inactivity work against them?

This system would place more emphasis on where you finished in the regular season, thus making that in itself more relevant to the play offs.

And nobody could accuse me of being biased, Birmingham City have never finished third, they have either gone up automatically or finished fourth or fifth, emphasising that it’s essentially about fairness while retaining the drama, excitement and passion more than anything else.