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How Play-Off Winners Have Fared In The Premier League


How Play-Off Winners Have Fared In The Premier League

Coventry City and Luton Town meet in this Saturday’s SkyBet Championship play-off final, with the winner of what will be the 19th play-off final to be held rewarded with a place in the Premier League next year.

A place in English football’s top-flight comes with the promise of a lot more money for whoever emerges victorious from the final, and it is why the play-off final is often regarded as one of, if not the, most lucrative games of football in the world (Deloitte have stated that promotion to the Premier League can see an increase in revenue of between £135m-£265m, depending on if the club can avoid relegation straight back to the Championship in their first season).

The play-offs were introduced to the English Football League in 1987, but here, we will solely be looking at results since 2004/05, which is when the second division was rebranded as the EFL Championship. So with that in mind, we thought that we would take a quick look over the history of play-off winners, and how they have done once they make it to the top flight.

Championship Play-off final

Play-off Winners in the Premier League

So first of all, let us take a look at the fortunes of the winners of the play-off match itself, before we then look into the 1st and 2nd-place sides. Now there have been 18 play-off finals since 2004/05, and the winners of those play-off matches have had mixed fortunes in the Premier League. Exactly half of the 18 winners have survived their first season back in the top flight, while the other nine have not managed to survive and have gone straight back down to the Championship after just a single season.

Of those nine surviving teams, just five (Swansea, Crystal Palace, Aston Villa and West Ham twice) have managed to stay in the top-flight for a period of at least the following three years since being promoted, with Brentford set to join that group if they manage to stay up in 2023/24, which looks likely based on their showing in the top-flight already, as well as their ability to retain their best players and their smart additions in the transfer window.

Depending on what position the play-off winners finished in the regular Championship season, we can gain some insight into what their fortunes might be like in the Premier League. For example, the play-off winners who finished 3rd in the Championship table were, in most cases, often sent straight back down to the Championship after one season.

We can see that in the performances of Watford in 2006/07, Derby in 2007/08, Norwich in 2015/16 and Fulham in 2018/19, who were all relegated in their first season back in the Premier League after a 3rd-place finish. Hull were somewhat of an exception to this, with the Tigers just about staying up in 2008/09 as they pipped Newcastle to 17th place by a solitary point.

The trio of Swansea, West Ham and Brentford are total exceptions to this, with all of those clubs enjoying memorable spells in the top-flight. Swansea stayed up for seven years, while West Ham have remained a Premier League mainstay ever since, and Brentford have performed admirably in their two seasons and looks like they will be a consistent presence in the top flight for the next few years.

What is the Best Position to win the Play-Offs From?

Finishing third and winning the play-offs is not a good omen on the whole, but there have been some historical exceptions to this, which current third-placed side Luton can take some solace in.

Finishing in fourth place is also a very bad sign, with three of the four teams who have finished in that position being relegated (2014/15 QPR, 2016/17 Hull, 2020/21 Fulham). Only Nottingham Forest this year have managed to beat the fourth-place finish curse for play-off winners, with Steve Cooper’s men just about securing their survival with only a game left to play in this year’s campaign.

Historically, finishing fifth in the Championship and winning the play-off final is the best sign, because of the four teams to have done so, just one has been relegated (2009/10 Burnley) while the other three teams have enjoyed prolonged stays in the Premier League (Aston Villa have now stayed up for a fourth consecutive season, Huddersfield enjoyed a short but memorable two-year spell at the top, while Crystal Palace have not been relegated since).

For Coventry City who currently are in fifth, this is a very good sign, and were they to win on Saturday, then the club could potentially see a prolonged stretch in the top-flight, if history is anything to go by. Now just two teams have finished 6th and have been promoted, so the data sample is small, with West Ham enjoying a 6-year stay after their promotion in 2004/05 after finishing 6th. However, Blackpool did the same in the 2009/10 campaign but would last just a single season in the Premier League.

Ultimately, a fifth-place finish and then winning the play-offs is historically the best route to a prolonged stay in the Premier League, while doing the same after finishing in third place is also somewhat of a good way to guarantee safety, but less so than finishing fifth, based on performances over previous years. Clubs such as West Ham, Brentford, Swansea, Aston Villa and Crystal Palace have all had sustained stays in the Premier League after finishing in either of those positions in the Championship.

Another trend that is consistently followed by play-off winners is that they subscribe to the “40-points-equals-safety” mantra that has become imprinted on the Premier League. nine of the 18 play-off winners have been relegated with less than 40 points, while just three have got less than 40 but have managed to stay up (Nottingham Forest could make this four), showing that there is some truth to that famed statement. And for the teams who managed to break the 40-point mark, that is a good sign because all 5 of the teams to have done that in the past have all gone on to have long stays in the Premier League, with West Ham and Crystal Palace (and potentially Brentford) being mainstays since, while Brentford could go on to replicate this in future years if they can carry on performing how they have been.

How Sides That Earned Automatic Promotion Have Fared in the Premier League

Now let’s take a brief look at the records of the teams who didn’t participate in the play-offs because they were automatically promoted - the two clubs who finished first and second. By a slim majority, the team who finished first in the Championship tended to survive in the Premier League more often than the team who finished second.

This makes sense, because the club who finished first in the Championship were obviously the better club out of the two competing teams, and so were more likely to stay up in the Premier League due to their superiority and quality out of the two. Out of the past 18 Championship seasons, the team who has finished first survived their first season in the Premier League 12 times, whereas the team who finished second survived their first season 11 times.

Therefore, the team who finished first ended up being relegated back to the Championship six times, with the second-place team tasting relegation seven times. As you can see, it is very close when it comes to separating the first and second-place teams like this. But ultimately, whichever club finishes first in the Championship is destined for somewhat of a longer stay in the Premier League than whoever finishes second, with more first-place teams staying in the Premier League both overall and for at least a three-year period more than second-placed Championship teams do.

Interestingly though, teams who end up finishing second in the Championship seem to enjoy longer stays in the Premier League than the clubs who finish first. Taking into consideration the combined total length of the stays in the top-flight that each second-place Championship team has who has survived for at least one season since 2004/05, those teams tend to spend an average of 5.27 years in the Premier League, which is more than the 4.75 years that first-place teams tend to do.

This data is ever so slightly distorted by the fact that second-place finishing sides like Wigan, Stoke, Southampton and West Brom all spent a minimum of eight years when they made it to the Premier League, whereas just Sunderland and Leicester have had stays of a similar length from the collection of first-place teams.

Longest-Serving Promoted Sides

And as we have briefly touched on, some of the promoted teams have gone on to become Premier League mainstays, and we will quickly run through the top five longest-serving teams from both the play-off winners and automatically-promoted sides. From the play-off winners, West Ham currently have the longest streak having spent the last 11 seasons in the top flight, and they will be in it next season to make that 12 years.

Just behind the Hammers are Crystal Palace, who have spent the last ten seasons in the Premier League, and will be in it next season to make that 11 years. That cult Swansea side of the early 2010s players such as Michu, Pablo Hernandez and Michel Vorm is next on the list, spending seven seasons in the top flight from 2011/12 to 2017/18.

West Ham make a second appearance in this list in fourth place, with a 6-season streak from 2005/06 to 2010/11, while Aston Villa’s current run of four years comes in at fifth place having stayed up every year since 2019/20. From clubs who have finished in the automatic promotion spots, Southampton have the longest streak with 11 years in the Premier League – a run that did come to an end this season, however. Stoke City are next up with a ten-year run, with Sunderland joining them with their own ten-year stay from 2007/08 to 2016/17.

Next up is Leicester City, whose current run of nine years puts them in the middle of this list, and if they can avoid relegation, then they would equal both Sunderland and Stoke’s records. After Leicester are both Wigan and West Bromwich Albion, who both spent eight years in the Premier League after being automatically promoted. And there are one or two current Premier League clubs who could join these two lists very soon, with Wolverhampton Wanderers (5 years), and Newcastle and Brighton (both 6 years) could overtake some of the aforementioned teams in just a few more seasons.

Does High-Spending Correlate to Success?

In relation to this Saturday’s meeting between Coventry and Luton that will provide a huge financial boost to whichever side comes out on top, it seems like common sense that once a club has made it to the top flight, then spending big is the best way to guarantee their survival.

However, this has not been the case historically. For example, Nottingham Forest spent in excess of over £150m in the summer, and while they have managed to just about stay up, it has still been a tough season for them, only securing their safety on the penultimate gameweek of the season.

The best example of a side spending big but failing to stay up is Fulham, who spent a reported £100m in the summer of 2018 but finished the season with just 26 points to their name and were unceremoniously relegated.

Aston Villa also spent heavily when they returned in 2019/20 with big-money moves for striker Wesley, defenders Tyrone Mings, Ezri Konsa and Matt Targett, alongside other fairly big fees spent on other players. The Villans did initially struggle but seem to have now stabilised.

Further recent examples include Huddersfield Town, who spent big fees on players like Terence Kongolo, Adama Diakhaby, Steve Mounie and Alex Pritchard but only lasted two seasons in the top-flight, while Hull spent fairly big but not as much in 2016/17, with their loan signings also failing to pay off.

Other clubs including QPR and Norwich have also been in similar positions, where they have spent big in a bid to stay where they have got to but have failed to do so. Instead, as we all know but many clubs fail to do so, smart signings that fit a club’s system work more often than not in comparison to splashing big money on a single star player who is expected to save the team. Better examples of this are Brentford, Brighton, Bournemouth, Wolves, Sheffield United and Leeds (initially at least), who all made smart signings that fit their team, played good, eye-catching football with said players, and had good runs in the Premier League.