Leeds cling to promotion hope as play-off myth is dispelled

Luke Ayling Leeds TEAMtalk

Leeds will have to settle for a play-off place this season – but the record of third-placed finishers in the Championship offers them encouragement.

Norwich wrapped up automatic promotion with victory over Blackburn on Saturday evening, while Sunday’s controversial draw with Aston Villa meant Leeds cannot catch second-placed Sheffield United.

They need just a point against relegated Ipswich to make sure of finishing third – and history shows the value of securing that spot.



PA Sport has looked back at the history of the play-offs to track how often the third-placed team – or the highest-placed if a different system is in operation, for example fourth in League Two or second in years when the divisions have been re-aligned – have won promotion.

The footballing truism says a team coming with late momentum to snatch the final place then goes on to win promotion – but it has simply not been borne out.

The highest play-off finisher in the second tier, under its various different names since the first promotion play-offs in 1987, has been promoted on 11 occasions out of 32 – significantly more than the other three positions, which all have similar success rates to each other.

Highest play-off finisher – 11 promotions

Second play-off spot – 7 promotions

Third play-off spot – 7 promotions

Final play-off spot – 6 promotions

The second and third play-off spots have produced seven winners apiece, while the supposed form team in the final slot have been successful only six times.

That comes in two fewer attempts, as the 1987 and 1988 play-offs instead featured the last team above relegation in the division above – Charlton won the play-offs from that spot in 1987 to survive.

If anything, the trend is even more pronounced in recent years – since 2006, seven of the 13 Championship play-off winners have come from third place, including Fulham last year.


Lower leagues

The pattern is similar in League Two, where the highest qualifier – always fourth place at this level, except in the 1990-91 and 1994-95 seasons when the Football League divisions were re-aligned – has been promoted 14 times out of 32, though not since 2014.

The third play-off spot has produced eight winners, including Coventry last season, with four from the second and six from the lowest qualifying place.

League One is the one exception to the overall pattern, with the second qualifying spot producing the most winners – 12 out of 32 after Rotherham’s success last year.

The top and bottom play-off places have yielded eight and nine promotions respectively while Charlton, who look set to finish fifth barring a meltdown from Portsmouth and Sunderland ahead of them, will have to buck a trend which has seen only three teams promoted from the third play-off spot.