The Play-Off Palaver

This article originally appeared in the Prescot Cables v Colne Programme, 9th February 2019. It is reproduced here because the play-offs at Step 4 are an issue that will affect clubs around England.

Picture the scene: the final whistle has just blown in the play-off final following a thrilling victory away from home. The team’s supporters are all massed behind the goal in which a last-minute winner was hit. The players are embracing the fans and each other.  The party starts out on the pitch and continues with a huge celebration when everyone gets back to their own ground…

Then imagine learning a couple of days later that the promotion everyone thought had been secured; earned the hard way through two nerve-shredding knockout matches, was not going to happen. And the reason had nothing to do with any breaches of rules, or problems with the stadium but was more to do with the fact that five other clubs were going up instead.

But, of course, that’s ridiculous, isn’t it? Actually, no, it isn’t…

For this season, and next, it is possible that the team that wins the West Division play-offs will not be promoted. This is because The Football Association has decided to only relegate 12 teams from the four divisions at Step 3. However, there are seven divisions at Step 4, so for all of the Champions and play-off winners to be elevated, there would need to be 14 clubs coming back down.

With more clubs eligible for promotion than they are places available, The FA has decided to rank the play-off winners using their Points-Per-Game ratio, or PPG. The five clubs with the highest PPG will go up; the other two will have to wait and see whether a space opens up for them through a club requesting voluntary demotion or hitting financial difficulties.

With both Prescot Cables and Colne looking to fight their way into the play-offs, PPG could provide a clue as to what might lie ahead.  As of last Sunday (February 3rd), Cables had a PPG of 1.66, while Colne’s was 1.78.  Given that both clubs are outside the play-off places at present, those ratios would improve if either or both was to reach the top 5. By contrast, the fifth-placed club in the East Division – Tadcaster Albion – presently has a PPG of 1.70, Whyteleafe of the Bostik League South East Division sit fifth in their division with a PPG of 1.72 while in the Evo-Stik League South, neither fifth-placed club can muster a PPG higher than 1.71.

While the statistics suggest that the club that wins the play-offs in our division will be promoted, the idea that two clubs might not strikes me as unsatisfactory. It’s even possible that, if the play-off finals are staggered across a long weekend, one might take place where both clubs know before kick-off that the winning side is not going up.

That idea is terrible and undermines the work being done by clubs to try and win promotion; I would have suggested an alternative arrangement. In my view, it would have been better to relegate the bottom four clubs in each Step 3 division, so 16 clubs in total. (This is what will happen from the 2020-21 season anyway, once the eighth division at our level is in place.) Sixteen clubs come down and are replaced by the champions and play-off winners from the Step 4 competitions. This leaves two vacancies; these could be filled by the two losing play-off finalists with the best PPG, thus rewarding consistency over the regular season. Alternatively, the two relegated clubs with the highest average over their matches might be reprieved.

Either choice is, to my mind, preferable to allowing clubs to work hard all season, then battle through an additional two games only to be told ‘yeah, sorry, you’re stopping where you are’.

The situation isn’t much better at the next level up, although at least all of their promotion issues are settled on the pitch. Again, things should be simple. At Step 3, there are four divisions, each promoting two clubs if four clubs come down from the two divisions above them. Yet, The FA has agreed to relegate just three clubs from the National League’s North and South Divisions. As a result, the four play-off winners have to face off in “Super Play-Offs” which will reduce four teams to two.

I accept that, while there are seven divisions at our tier of football, The FA has a difficult task in making the mathematics of promotion and relegation work. But denying two clubs the opportunity to step up to the next level simply because they appear on a spreadsheet a bit lower down than their peers cannot be right.

It simply makes every match even more important for those clubs chasing the play-off spots. While it is a cliché to describe Cables’ remaining League programme as ’16 Cup Finals’, that’s basically how the matches will be approached by our squad, Colne’s and all of the clubs around us.

Win enough of those Cup Finals and spreadsheets won’t matter.

© 2018 Gareth Coates