The TRUTH about the play-offs: late charges, relegation-form winners, 20% chaos

What determines a play-off winner: form, big-match temperament, timing your run or sheer luck? Mike Holden crunches the numbers to bring you the maths behind the climax...

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Arguably English football's greatest innovation of the past 30 years, the Football League Play-Offs remain unrivalled for drama. Barring a tweak to the away-goals rule, the format hasn’t changed since 1990 – and why would it? The conditions are perfect for ding-dong battles and those breathtaking moments that punctuate the nerve-shredding tension. Year upon year, they deliver.

But so fine are the margins between success and failure, it’s easy to buy into the notion that there’s no rhyme or reason to who goes up and who stays down. “The play-offs are a lottery”: it’s one of football’s biggest cliches and biggest myths. Yes, chance plays a significant part. But the probabilities are never equal.

Over the past 27 seasons, there have been 81 play-off campaigns, involving 324 teams, playing 405 matches. And FFT has scrutinised the data to bring you the underlying patterns that indicate why some teams have a much better chance of promotion than others.

Consider the four participating teams as A, B, C and D (from highest league position to lowest), here’s what you need to know…

80% order, 20% chaos

In the early years, a school of thought developed that teams who finished highest would invariably underperform – most probably because, while the sample size remained small, each instance of Team A failing to win promotion was highlighted as an injustice compared to the way things used to be.

In fact, the opposite is true: on the whole, Team A wins promotion roughly twice as often as everybody else. In 81 campaigns, Team A has triumphed 31 times (38.2%) compared with 18, 14 and 18 promotions for the other three teams respectively. Broadly speaking, that’s a 40-20-20-20 distribution. For every five campaigns, Team A will be promoted twice, everybody else once.

(Key: Team A is in the highest play-off position, D the lowest. Green: winners, amber: runners-up, red: semi-finalists)

Promotion positions

What percentage of each play-off position gets promoted?
A: 38.3%
B: 22.2%
C: 17.9%
D: 22.2%

The 80/20 principle is another way of framing it, whereby we might conclude that the play-offs are 80% chaos and 20% order. If we take the 40% of Team A successes, you could argue that half of them (20%) are simply the upshot of Team A being overwhelmingly superior, while the other half (20%) are the result of chance (matching the probabilities of triumph for Teams B, C and D).

Which means that sides who have seen the automatic places locked up early - as in this season's Championship and League Two - have more to play for than just maintaining momentum and securing a second leg at home. It might also mean that Scunthorpe's last-day leapfrog over frustrated Fleetwood is more than merely academic.  

Fleetwood 0-0 Vale suited neither side - and the Cods lost the top slot

NEXT: How important are previous meetings? You might be surprised...