Who Has What it Takes to Get Promoted to The Premier League via The Playoffs?
The EFL Championship wrapped up its 46-game season last weekend, and at the end of May, two teams will have the opportunity to face off for play-off glory. Naturally, this has led each club’s fanbase to speculate as to how their team would fare in the Premier League.
We start here with the favourites, Leeds United, who negotiated their playoff against Derby with relative ease, and have reached the Championship promotion playoff final for the first time in thirteen years.
Currently the high-buy on Sporting Index to go up via the playoffs, Marco Bielsa’s men have shown great psychological strength to get this far.
This was certainly the case in the difficult slog that was their 1-0 victory at Pride Park in the first-leg, which gave them the psychological momentum necessary to press on and reach the final. Leeds have never gone up via this route, and their last appearance yielded a 3-0 defeat to Watford at the Millennium Stadium.
Given that Leeds lurched into a fresh financial crisis and dropped into League One the following season, that is probably a blessing in disguise, though the sense of disappointment lingers nonetheless. After all, a fifteen-year absence from the Premier league is far greater than a three-year one, and the pressure to gain promotion can only grow year-on-year for a club of Leeds’ stature.
There is plenty of fresh talent being well-guided by Bielsa, but there is no denying that a minor spending spree – a responsible one – is the only way that Leeds could have a hope of survival. Loan signings are another potential way to go for Leeds, as are potential bids for older former players that may want a fresh challenge.
Ex-players such as Fabian Delph and boyhood fan James Milner could be fair game in that regard, and either man would be a guaranteed driving force behind any successful survival campaign.
Aston Villa recovered from a terrible start to the regular season to finish in fifth place, after Dean Smith took the helm when they were stuck in the lower regions of the table. Despite making such drastic progress under Smith, theVillans are, without question, the team that is shouldering most of the pressure.
The club’s parachute payments, from the Premier League relegation of 2016, will stop this summer. With a failure to gain promotion inside the three-season window of payments comes an uncertain future, and Villa’s sheer size versus the money (not) coming in could well be the club’s undoing.
Should Villa ever grace the Premier League again, the club would be able to utilise its reputation as a real pull factor for new talents. Pundits doing their own take on the Championship playoffs are united in their agreement that the club is too big to stay where it is.
Again, expenditure would be required for survival in the event of promotion, but there are already men on the roster, who have the potential to make the transition to the top-flight a relatively easy one. In Jack Grealish, for instance, the club has a player that is ideally placed to act as a literal nucleus between the front man, the deeper midfield and the wide areas.
On a personal level, Grealish has enjoyed a magnificent season, and demonstrated that he has grown as a person as well as a player during his stay in the Championship.
West Bromwich Albion
The stewardship of Darren Moore ultimately came to nothing, but there is still plenty of time for West Bromwich to regroup, no matter how the club’s short-term fate unfolds. Like Leeds, West Bromwich have never gained promotion from the Championship via the playoffs.
Notably, they were stunned by Derby County in 2007, despite being favourites – though the two clubs swapped divisions the following May.
Perhaps one of West Bromwich’s most useful traits is the presence of players that boast true staying power throughout matches, particularly at home, where the bedrock of any successful promotion campaign lies.
Tellingly, Dwight Gayle went into the home finale (vs Rotherham) having scored five goals across West Brom’s last two home wins, single-handedly gaining five points by that time. His previous three Championship home goals had also come inside the final half-hour of matches, making him a good representative of the Baggies’ staying power on home turf.
While the squad was not as decimated as it could have been following relegation, a number of players with the creativity that was lacking throughout the disastrous 2017/18 campaign would be required.
History of the playofffs – and aftermath
The Football League playoffs date back to 1987, to offer a more open playing field and greater promotion opportunities than ever to up-and-coming teams. It was a natural accompaniment to the abolition of election to the Football League, ensuring that teams progressed on merit, not their existing stature, resources and facilities.
In the Premier League era (1992-present), teams that have gone up from the second tier as playoff winners have gone on to experience mixed fortunes. The first team to join the Premier League as a playoff winner was Blackburn Rovers, and they finished fourth in their first Premier League campaign, and then second, before finally lifting the title in 1995.
The next team to go up via the playoffs (at the end of 1992/93) was Swindon Town, but in sharp contrast to Blackburn, the Robins were instantly relegated with a meagre thirty points, and in last place after conceding a century of goals.
More recently, teams that have gone up via the playoffs have mostly endured tough campaigns the following year – despite being the victors of what is supposedly the most valuable promotion playoff in world football.
This spring saw 2018 promotion playoff winners Fulham drop straight from the top flight after just one season. 2017 winners Huddersfield joined them after just two seasons of Premier League action, while that same year saw 2016 playoff winners Hull also drop from the Premier League after a single season.
Ultimately, recent years have made the winners’ trophy something of a poisoned chalice. Yet, with the resources offered to playoff winners ever-growing, it is only a matter of time before a playoff winner experiences the same longevity and successes as the likes of Blackburn under Kenny Dalglish, Bolton under Sam Allardyce or Swansea City under Brendan Rodgers.