The Football League Playoffs: A Historical Analysis


Who will win the first leg of the Championship, League One and League Two playoffs? How successful have away clubs been in the opening leg since the format's inception? Today on the blog Mark Taylor takes a look at some historical Football League playoff trends.


One of the most imaginative additions to the Football League agenda occurred in 1987 when the playoff system was introduced in England. Initially the format involved home and away ties between the three highest placed sides which missed out on the automatic promotion places from the lower division and the side occupying the place immediately above the automatic relegation position in the higher division. Away goals were also part of the heady end of season mixture, as the four teams fought out a winner takes all, seeded mini knockout tournament.

Ironically, the inaugural contest for elevation to the top flight saw Charlton maintain their status at the expense of their three lower league challengers after a replay, complete with extra time against Leeds United. Seven extra games saw the status quo maintained, but Sunderland and Bolton fared less well in their lower league playoff campaigns and they respectively slipped into the old third and fourth divisions.

The inclusion of a potentially relegated side in the format was quickly dispensed with and by 1989 the prize was fought out solely between the four teams which finished immediately below the automatic promotion line. In addition, the final was contested over a single game either at Wembley, the Millenium Stadium or very occasionally at Old Trafford. Away goals also were quietly removed from the final reckoning.

The attractions of the format are obvious. It means that many lower league sides play more meaningful games later into the season. Currently Cardiff are guaranteed Premiership promotion with Hull and Watford contesting for 2nd place, but the prospect of promotion also remains very real for one of at least five other Championship teams. Few would argue against the 26 year old innovation and indeed come August very nearly half of the current Premiership sides will have experienced at least one promotion through the pyramid by way of the playoffs. Chelsea even managed to slip out of the old first division via a two legged playoff final in 1988 at the hands of Middlesbrough. The innovation has helped shape the leagues and mobility between divisions, such as Swansea’s passage from the fourth level to the top division has probably been hastened.

The matches provide a final chance to take a view about domestic football before the brief summer break and compared to regular season matches, playoff games appear to have a distinct character of their own. The most noteworthy difference is that first legs are typically lower scoring than either regular season league matches or the subsequent return legs.

Defining Regular Season Quality

Higher placed sides are obviously superior to those below them in the table, but this superiority varies. In 1998 Sunderland in 3rd were 16 points ahead of 6th placed Sheffield United at the beginning of the playoffs for the Premiership. By comparison, but a single point separated 4th placed Morecambe from 7th placed Dagenham in 2010’s shootout for promotion to Division one. So before we look at the post season records of playoff sides, we need to better define regular season quality. Finishing position ignores point differentials. Point totals arbitrarily award three times the amount for a win as for a draw, so success rate, where draws are counted as half wins are usually a simple and more representative compromise. For example, a team with 20 wins and 16 draws from 46 games would have a success rate of 0.609, from (20+(16/2))/46.

The First Leg: ”A Cagey Affair”

The cliché of first legs being cagey affairs is borne out in the Football League playoff numbers. The average number of goals scored in such games has been around 2.1 goals and over 65% of the matches have contained 2 or less goals. These figures if repeated in 2013 have implications for outright match results. The likelihood of fewer goals in an already low scoring sport such as football leads to an increased likelihood of drawn games. A game with pregame goal expectancies of 2.1 would expect to end stalemated well over 30% of the time and the reality of previous playoff 1st legs is that almost 40% have finished all square. We can further use regular season success rates of the respective teams to profile the conditions most likely to produce 1st legged drawn games.

The lower placed side always hosts the first leg of the playoffs and almost always, they will have inferior season long success rates compared to those of their opponents. The ability of both sides in a matchup is a big factor in determining the final outcome, but in this instance, the ability of the visiting side, denoted by their regular season success rate appears to heavily influence the prospects of the match ending all square. Small sample size and the unusual nature of the contest and the size of the prize may contribute towards the conclusion, but the trend is strongly for greatly superior visitors to play drawn 1st leg matches in the playoffs.

The 20 playoff matches featuring the highest rated visiting team over the lifetime of the playoffs saw 13 drawn (65%). If we stretch the sample to 30 matches, 18 were drawn (60%). The regular season success rate of the visiting team was in excess of 0.64 in all cases. This isn’t a trend to blindly follow, the connection is significant, but the overall sample is still only in the region of 150 games. Small sample sizes often lead to extremes of outcome, which may not persist. However, it is a trend to be aware of. In short, standout teams, which just fail to gain automatic promotion have traditionally been difficult visitors to overcome in the post season’s first round of games.

How The Quality Of The Visitors Alters The Chance Of A Home Win In Playoff 1st Legs.

Regular Season Success Rate Of Away ClubHistorical Chance Of A Home Win
68.0% 23.0%
66.0% 27.0%
64.0% 31.0%
62.0% 36.0%
60.0% 41.0%
58.0% 46.0%
56.0% 52.0%

For those who prefer to side with a decisive 1st leg result it is again wise to pay more scrutiny to the visitor than the host because historical results appear to indicate that this is where the influence is greatest. When entertaining the very best of opponents with regular season success rates approaching 0.70, the chance of a home win is historically not much better than 20%. It is only when opponents with success rates in the region of 0.57 come visiting that the home side is a better than 50% to take a lead into the second leg. Typically such games involve the number three seed entertaining the number two ranked team.

The first legs of two legged ties across all competitions invariably see fewer goals scored in the first match, but this trend is exaggerated in Football League playoff matches and the scarcity of goals may not be fully reflected in prices available.

Certainly the first legs are very different beasts to the games played during the 46 game league season. I’ll follow up this post with a look at the second legs as well as the finals as the season finally reaches a conclusion and the identities of the protagonists are finally known for sure.

The Second Leg: The Comforts Of Home

Once we progress to the second legs of the playoff matches, we begin to see games which are more typical of the regular season. Goal totals are much closer to the kind of values seen from August through to May. The average number of total goals in the return ties approaches 2.5 and a shade over 51% of such ties have three or more goals scored. So the lopsided bias towards miserly score lines doesn’t persist into the second leg, although scoring levels are still slightly below usual league averages.

The perceived view is that the home side in the second leg has a format related advantage over their opponents that persists even when the different abilities of each side is accounted for. In short, teams prefer to be at home for the second leg. The results of two legged, randomly drawn ties from year’s gone by, such as the English League cup ties do appear to support this view. Certainly the second leg allows each side a clearer idea of what they need to do to progress and elevated home advantages in the order of a few tenths of a goal which are apparent in unseeded second legs in England’s league cup matches seem to show that home sides benefit more from this added certainty.

In addition to being seeded and therefore the likely better team over the season, the second leg home team also potentially have and extra half hour of home field advantage and familiar surroundings in which to take any penalty shootout. European two legged ties attempt to balance these apparently inbuilt advantages by allowing the away side the opportunity to score an away goal in extra time, but away goals if the scores are level at the conclusion are discounted in the Football League playoffs.

Therefore, sides hosting the second leg are more likely to progress to the final. Firstly, because they have a better league record, but also because of historical trends and a format that neglects to count away goals in the event of a tie. Viewing the tie as a whole, nearly 60% of such teams go on to contest the final. Even when the difference in quality between the two teams is virtually zero, the second leg host has around a 54% chance of qualifying before a ball is kicked in either leg. In matches where the gulf in class appears large, this figure jumps to just shy of 70%.

So What Are The Odds?

I’ve illustrated the historical relationship between each side’s end of season record and their likelihood of progressing at the outset in the plot below. Cheltenham and Northampton finished 5th and 6th respectively in League Two following Saturday’s games. Cheltenham’s 20 wins and 15 draws earned them a success rate of (20+(15/2))/46 or 0.598 and Northampton’s record of 21 wins and 10 draws was good enough for a success rate of 0.565, leading to a difference of 0.03. If we now refer to the graph below, this equates to around a 57% chance for second leg hosts, Cheltenham to overcome the Cobblers in the tie and reach Wembley.

Currently bookmakers are unable to really split the two and odds of 4/5 and even 10/11 about Cheltenham qualifying may have been framed based purely on their very similar points record compared to Northampton and may have neglected the added benefits which second leg hosts potentially and historically have enjoyed.


The bookmaker’s pricing divergence from historical trends is even more evident in the other match from Division One. 4th placed Burton has a superior success rate to opponents Bradford, yet they are the outsiders of the pair to qualify. The reasons are easy to spot. Bradford’s cup exploits may have impacted negatively on their league performance and they have already demonstrated an ability to overcome a much higher ranked side over two legs in Aston Villa in reaching this season’s first domestic cup final. Those whom prefer long term trends as opposed to unusual, isolated, but memorable performances will stand by Burton as opposed to the cup warriors and much more established league club in Bradford City.

Once we reach Wembley, average goal totals are very similar to those seen in the second leg playoff matches. Totals are slightly below comparable league amounts, although a couple of atypically high scoring contests have elevated these averages. As a consequence nearly 57% of matches have ended with 2 or fewer goals scored in the 90 minutes. Therefore, closely fought, low scoring games have predominated in playoff finals.

Victory on the day will inevitably live long in the memory of the winning team, whether it is achieved in normal, extra time or after a shootout. Unfortunately little about the likely winner can be gleaned from the 70 plus finals. The pregame match ups are typically very tightly matched, an equivalent average of just one win over a 46 match season separates contestants and there appears to be little to suggest that the superior side over the season has any advantage in winning promotion to the higher division.

As Brentford and Doncaster amazingly demonstrated on Saturday, promotion, decided on the outcome of a single game compared to even a slightly longer two match format can sometimes be decided by outrageous fortune, be it good or in Brentford’s case, unbelievably bad.


The Odds: In League One, Brentford are at odds of 2.40 with Bet365 to defeat Swindon today, with the visitors at odds of 3.30 with Paddy Power.

In terms of qualification for the final, Brentford are favourites at odds of 1.60 with Sportingbet while Swindon are at odds of 2.50 with William Hill.



Read more of Mark's work on his The Power Of Goals blog

And follow Mark of Twitter: @MarkTaylor0

NFL and football fan. I've seen my two favourite sides, Stoke and the San Diego Chargers play at the new Wembley....and both lost.