the play-off lottery

What Becomes of Play-off Final Winners in the Premier League?

A club promoted to the Premier League via the play-offs is usually hot favourite to go straight back down. But does it always pan out this way? We delved into the history books for a clearer answer.

by Jim Weeks
26 May 2016, 10:52am

Blackburn celebrate promotion in 1992. Note a breathless young Timothy Sherwood on the far left // PA Images

This article was originally published in May 2016

The team going up via the play-offs must be considered the weakest prospect in the Premier League. After all, they have finished below the other two promoted sides – sometimes by a few places and plenty of points. Historically, what are their chances of survival? To try and answer that, we've looked at how play-off winners have fared during their first campaign in the top flight.

Limiting our analysis to the Premier League era – not because it's better, but because it makes the job a little more manageable – we've seen 24 clubs win promotion via the play-offs since 1992. Still, a shout out to Charlton, Middlesbrough, Crystal Palace, Swindon Town and Notts County, who won the first five play-off finals from 1987 through 1991 and earned a spot in the old Division 1.

But the first to do so and reach the Premier League were Blackburn Rovers, who beat Leicester City 1-0 at Wembley on 25 May 1992. A Mike Newell penalty was all that separated the teams.

After winning promotion the Lancashire side set the bar high, finishing fourth in their first Premier League campaign, as runners-up in their second, and then becoming champions in year three. They were thus the first (and to date only) side to be promoted via the play-offs and go on to win the Premier League during their top-flight spell (Leicester and Manchester City are both products of automatic promotion).

Blackburn's fall was almost as fast as their rise: four years after winning the title they were relegated, which also makes them the only former Premier League champions to subsequently drop out of the division. Not all records are fondly remembered.

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Unsurprisingly, relegation is a far more common theme among play-off winners than title challenges. Swindon Town won the play-offs in 1993 but were relegated a year later, never to return to the top flight. After them came Leicester City, who also went straight back down, before Bolton Wanderers met the same fate. In 1996 Leicester confirmed their status as a yo-yo club by again winning the play-offs, though this time they stabilised in the top flight for six years.

A club even more befitting of the "yo-yo" tag at this time was Crystal Palace, who hold the distinction of having won promotion to the top flight via the play-offs more than any other side. They first did it pre-Premier League, in 1989, then beat Sheffield United in the 1997 final courtesy of a 90th minute David Hopkin goal. This was followed by relegation, as was their season in the Premier League after winning the play-offs in 2004. Their current spell in the top-flight also came via the play-offs and, despite a horrendous run of form this year, will enter a third season in August. It's the Eagles' best run in the top tier since the early nineties.

Palace's promotion in '97 was followed by fellow south London side Charlton a year later, but they too managed just one season before relegation. In 1999 Watford also went up only to go straight back down, but Ipswich broke the cycle by winning the first play-offs of the new millennium and then finishing a fantastic fifth in the Premier League. It couldn't last, however, and they were relegated just 12 months afterwards. A steadier ship was to follow: in 2001 Bolton came up with Sam Allardyce and stayed there for 11 seasons. This remains the record consecutive seasons in the Premier League for a play-off winner. The Trotters beat Preston North End 3-0 in what was the first play-off final to be staged at Cardiff's Millennium Stadium.

Led by a comparatively fresh-faced Steve Bruce, Birmingham City made it to the Premier League for the first time in 2002, winning the play-off final against Norwich City. It began a steady run for the club, who finished 13th in their first season and hung around in the Premier League for four years.

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The following season their Midlands rivals Wolves won promotion via the play-offs but didn't fare as well, dropping straight back down again. Crystal Palace did the same the next season, but West Ham were far more successful after their narrow play-off win over Preston in 2005, finishing ninth and remaining in the league for six years. (As an aside, Preston are one of two sides that have contested a play-off final but never reached the Premier League). In 2006 Watford were promoted via the play-offs, again, and went on to finish bottom of the Premier League, again.

Derby's 2007-08 season was a prime example of a team who were never good enough for the Premier League sneaking up via the play-offs and then being systematically found out for nine months. A number of unwanted records followed: fewest points in a season (11), fewest wins (1) and most consecutive games without a win (32). Some fans are grateful to the redemptive possibilities offered by the play-offs, but 32 games without a win surely robs you of any faith in football and humanity.

Some feared a comparable fate for Hull City – managed by Phil Brown, led by Dean Windass – after they beat Bristol City in the 2008 final (the Robins join Preston in having never played Premier League football).

Despite the predictions of doom, the Tigers started the 2008-09 season in fantastic form, including back-to-back wins against Arsenal and Spurs. They fell apart after Christmas and were relegated the following season, but the Tigers will always have North London.

Blackpool went up in 2010 thanks to a 3-2 win over Cardiff City. In doing so, the Tangerines became the first (and to date only) club to have earned promotion via the play-offs in all three tiers of the football league, going from the fourth tier in 1992 and 2001, the third tier in 2007, and from the second to the first in 2010. It only lasted a year, however, and they're back in the Football League basement next term.

In 2011 Swansea City became the first Welsh side to earn promotion to the Premier League. They've since been a genuine success story, never finishing below 12th in the top flight over five seasons. They are also the longest standing play-off winners currently in the top flight.

Though they've recently won the Olympic Stadium lottery, West Ham United have had to rely on the play-offs more than once. The most recent was in 2012, when Big Sam inched past Blackpool thanks to an 87th minute winner from Portuguese journeyman Ricardo Vaz Tê. As well as being bloody impossible to relegate, Allardyce also has a strong play-off record.

Next came Palace's latest play-off promotion – which, for once, they survived. 12 months later QPR came up with another veteran piece of the English football furniture, Harry Redknapp, but looked wholly inept in the Premier League and were relegated, Harry having stood down with a dodgy knee. Norwich were deserving winners over Middlesbrough in 2014-15, but never look fully equipped for the Premier League this term. Relegation followed.

The Canaries became the 14th of 24 play-off winners to be relegated immediately, eight of them as the league's bottom side. The maths on that are pretty simple: one in four play-off winners have been bottom of the pile 12 months later.

That ratio seems about right – perhaps even a little low – given the mix of clubs that the play-off system sees promoted. There are those who just miss out on automatic promotion, and others who got there on second-tier players and a good run of late-season form.

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There's no question that there have been success stories. Be it Blackburn a quarter of a century ago, Ipswich's run to fifth or Swansea's sustained Premier League stability, going up via the play-offs does not doom a side to struggle in the top flight. It can be the building block for something bigger – at least in the medium term.

But the Premier League is never a safe place for this stripe of club. Bolton came up via the play-offs and seemed to establish themselves for the long haul, staying in the top flight for more than a decade. But when relegation did hit they failed to adapt adequately and will play League One football next term. The situation has been even worse for Blackpool, who have recently slipped into League Two amid complete fallout between their fans and a hugely unpopular owner.

Happy times for Blackpool fans. They seem a lifetime ago now. // PA Images

And even the time spentin the Premier League is not necessarily all days out at Old Trafford and Gary Lineker quips on Match of the Day. Derby's subsequent fortunes have been less disastrous than Blackpool's – they've spent almost a decade in the Championship, nearly coming back up on a few occasions – but their year of hell was a scarring experience for the club. 32 league games without a win will do terrible things to a person.

The teams who have made this year's final are better equipped than this. Hull have recent Premier League experience and a number of players who've been there before. Manager Steve Bruce is an increasingly battle-worn character, but he's also bloody good at this level.

Sheffield Wednesday are a different proposition. Out of the top flight since 2000, their boss Carlos Carvalhal has no experience of the Premier League, while their team mixes the likes of Barry Bannan and skipper Glenn Loovens with a few Portuguese additions, and Englishmen like Kieran Lee and Tom Lees who've risen through the divisions. Their fate if they go up is harder to map.

But, given the huge increase in TV revenues next term, this is clearly as vital a play-off final as there has been. The winner will hope to establish themselves with Premier League riches; for the loser, the Championship could remain home for some time to come.