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Never fear, third-placed Championship team

29 April 2011

Cardiff and Norwich are vying for automatic promotion this season (Flickr: joncandy)

Perhaps the biggest myth perpetuated about Championship football is that the third-placed team in the division generally struggles to earn promotion through the play-offs.

The theory goes that having gone through the emotional turmoil of missing out on automatic promotion to the Premier League, teams aren’t in the correct frame of mind to tackle the end-of-season mini-tournament.

It’s a belief I heard again on the BBC’s Final Score programme on Monday, where Gabby Logan and former Ipswich midfielder Matt Holland discussed the battle between Norwich and Cardiff to join (in all likelihood) QPR in the Premier League.

Holland made reference to coming third with the Tractor Boys in 1999 as a damaging influence on their chances, as they lost to sixth-placed Bolton in the play-off semi final. Ipswich had missed out on automatic promotion by only a point to Bradford City.

The history of the play-offs, however, paints a different picture to the myth. Since 1989, when the play-offs took its current form of four teams in the division competing in two semi-finals and a final, the team in third place has been promoted more times than anyone else:

In all but two years the third to sixth-placed teams in the division took part in the play-offs. In the years where this was not the case (1991: 4th – 7th & 1995: 2nd – 5th), I’ve simply reappointed the teams into the positions of third to sixth.

Statistically, there is no significant difference in the promotion likelihood between any of the teams; meaning promotion via the play-offs can be explained almost entirely by factors other than league finish.

Of course that’s not to say where a team finishes doesn’t matter, it simply means it’s not the principal factor in determining promotion from the play-offs in the Championship.

Not all third-placed teams narrowly miss out on promotion; Nottingham Forest (2010) and Sheffield United (2003) finished 12 points off automatic promotion. Amongst third-placed teams, does coming within a few points of automatic promotion have a detrimental effect on a team’s chances? Not at all; regardless of how many points constitutes ‘near miss’, there was no statistical evidence to suggest that third-placed teams who came close to automatic promotion were less likely to earn promotion via the play-offs.

So whoever misses out on automatic promotion between Norwich and Cardiff shouldn’t fear; if they fail via the play-offs it’s unlikely to be because of the inability to get over the line during the league season.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Adam permalink
    29 April 2011 11:32 pm

    Interestingly, the Sun could have also gone with the same title for their piece on qpr’s near-certain points deduction. Which, unfortunately as a qpr fan, I believe will still happen. If it did, it would be interesting to see if this ‘rollercoaster ride’ would have an effect on the Championship leaders.

    My thought was always that the on form team going into the play-offs would generally win it – but having looked this up, over the last 4 years the team (out of the 4 in the play-offs) with the best form has never been promoted. In fact, when Derby were promoted they’d only gained 8 points out of their last 6 league games. Of course this data doesn’t take into account the difficulty of opponent’s faced in the final run-in, but does show that the play-offs, like the championship itself, are completely unpredictable.

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