It’s the time of the season where all attention turns to the play-offs. A brief-flurry of excitement capped by what is billed as the most valuable game in football, the Championship play-off final, but how did the play-offs come about and just how have they grown so much in stature since their introduction just over quarter of a century ago, and just what happens to the winners…
Play-offs have been used to decide promotion between divisions in the football league since the 1986/87 season. Their introduction to English football thanks, in large part, to then Crystal Palace chairman Ron Noades and his Brentford counterpart Martin Lange who met to discuss how additional funds could be generated for lower league clubs to offset the share of income about to be conceded to the top tier clubs as part of a deal to prevent a breakaway. The plans were put to a meeting of the football league 48 hours later and accepted, though with one modification which Noades had not envisioned; The wider-restructuring plans had called for the top-tier to be reduced in size from twenty-two to twenty clubs, however, according to Noades, no agreement could be reached on how to go about this, relegating more teams from the top division, or promoting fewer from the second-tier.
The play-offs provided a way out of this conundrum and for the first two seasons followed a format where the three highest finishers outside the automatic promotion slots were joined by the lowest placed club above the relegation positions from the division above. This format meant that the first ever play off for a position in the top-flight did not see the victors gain promotion with Charlton retaining their first division status after three matches against Leeds, winning the decider 2-1 at Birmingham City’s St Andrews following two games which had both finished 1-0 to the respective home sides. The use of the play-offs in this compromise however, led to some cynicism about the new system, but some quarter of a century on the play-offs are an established part of English football reaching far beyond the football league to the lower levels of the non-league pyramid.
One reason for their success is that the play-offs make the league a more enthralling prospect with more clubs having something to play for over a longer period, as Noades pointed out in answer to critics at the time the play-offs would mean
..it was possible for over half the clubs in a Division to be interested in promotion right up to the final matches, consequently providing a great deal of interest for the fans, increased gates and the opportunity for many more teams to have a successful season rather than just the lucky few as at present
Replacing the two-legged final with a single game was also instrumental in the continued success of the play-offs. In the first Wembley final in 1990 over 70 000 people watched Swindon Town and Sunderland play for a place in the top-flight – this compared to around 18 000 who had seen the Leeds/Charlton decider at the less glamorous St Andrews just a few years before and whilst it may be said these days that cup football has become less fashionable than league football the play-offs have built their success by successfully combining elements of the two; The pinnacle of a league season, a winner-takes-all cup-final at Wembley with all the pomp and spectacle that entails, including the winning side climbing the stairs to receive their trophy. But the trophy is, of course, largely for show – the real prize is the place in a higher and more prestigious league.
The Championship play off in particular has been elevated to one of the biggest games in domestic football, arguably on a par with if not the FA Cup final then certainly the League cup. This is overwhelmingly due to the financial importance placed on the match; While the commentators back in 1987 were speculating against Charlton v Leeds that the ‘prize’ of a first division place was worth half a million the figure talked about in advance of West Ham and Blackpool’s meeting in 2012 was an astonishing £90 million. By comparison the winners of this years FA cup can expect to pocket something in the region of £3.4 million in prize money The reason for the riches on offer in this one game? The reorganisation of the league which gave birth to the play-offs was only successful in delaying a breakaway by the top tier clubs who went on to form the Premier League in 1992 a league which with the aid of escalating broadcasting deals subsequently became the highest revenue generating league in Europe with a revenue of €2.5 billion in the 2010/11 season
The growing inequality between the leagues is something of a paradox for the play-offs. The bigger the gap between the divisions, the bigger the prize, and therefore the bigger the game, but at the same time the lower the chance of survival in the higher league. Unsurprisingly it is the between the Championship and Premier League where survival rates are the lowest; Between 1986/87 and 2009/10 of 23 teams promoted to the top-flight via the play-offs fifteen were relegated in their first season, over twice the rate of clubs who were promoted as league champions. After just two seasons some 73.9% of clubs found themselves back where they began, a much higher rate than for clubs promoted to the Championship from the play-offs, where 20.8% were relegated after the first two seasons, and higher than the figure for League One where 37.5% of play-off winners failed to make the cut.
Curiously though the lack of success in holding onto a place in the Premiership is another crucial ingredient in the play-offs success. Like the publicity generated by Willy-Wonka’s golden ticket promotion the furore around the spectacle of the play-offs only serves to add to the mystique and allure of the top league and even if its winners find themselves unceremoniously booted out almost instantly they can at least return to their hum-drum lives with memories of rubbing shoulders with the stars.