2014/15 Sky Bet League One Playoff Final Preview

So after nine months and 556 games, on Sunday we’ll find out who will be promoted to the Championship and might be facing Hull or Newcastle rather than Southend or Wycombe at some point in 2015/16. Don’t forget the match has a 5:30pm kick off and will be live on Sky Sports 1 after a meaningless Premier League game.

Sunday’s game is the fifth consecutive final between teams that finished third and fourth, but that’s a mixed blessing for Preston. Although¬†the lower placed team has won the last four, half of the last ten finals have been won by the higher placed side and North End could become the first club from Lancashire to win promotion via the playoffs since Blackpool in 2007. It’s been five years since Swindon reached the League One playoff final (they lost to Millwall) but two years ago the Robins were defeated in the semi finals by Brentford.

It’s fair to say that neither side has a particularly good record in the playoffs – between them they’ve never been promoted in fourteen attempts. Swindon should have gone up in 1990 but Sunderland took their place after the Robins were found guilty of illegal payments.

Preston

The Lillywhites have been one of the better teams in League One over the past couple of seasons: they’ve managed consecutive top five finishes with an overall improvement in the three seasons since they finished 15th in 2012 following their relegation from the Championship. Only Bristol City lost fewer games this season, but only three teams – none of whom finished in the top half – drew more. North End occupied a top five place from the beginning of October, but never spent any time at the top of the table and blew their chance of automatic promotion on the last day. However, there are obvious reasons why they’ve not become one of the best sides in the competition.¬†If you want to look back at some of the recent posts about the Lillywhites, the theme that keeps recurring is that the reason they didn’t win automatic promotion is that they couldn’t win games they took the lead in. In five of their nine draws at Deepdale that happened, including the 3-3 draw against Chesterfield in September when they blew a three goal lead. If a couple of those draws had been converted into wins, I wouldn’t be writing about them in the context of the playoff final.

Having written that, the final isn’t at Deepdale and Preston’s away defence was the best in League One last season. In 2015, only Crawley, Port Vale and Sheffield United have scored more than once at home against the Lillywhites and Preston were the only team to beat Bristol City at Ashton Gate in the league without conceding a goal. They’re probably also over reliant on Joe Garner and Jermaine Beckford, who scored almost 40% of Preston’s goals this season, but that’s not really something to worry about at this point. It will be if PNE go up though.

Key player: Tom Clarke. The 27 year old Yorkshireman and former England youth international has been a mainstay in defence since joining from Huddersfield almost two years ago.

Swindon

This season’s fourth placed finished is Town’s best league position for a decade, but despite having been a top ten side since promotion from League Two in 2011, Swindon seem to have acquired the habit of falling short when it comes to automatic promotion from the third tier. Losing more than ten games normally won’t guarantee promotion and their defensive shortcomings (nine teams conceded fewer goals this season) were exposed in the incredible semi final second leg against Sheffield United. Before that match it seemed to neutral observers that Mark Cooper was happy to limp into the playoffs just to see what happened but the win at Bramall Lane in the first leg was entirely consistent with the Blades’ poor home form against the top ten this season rather than Swindon suddenly turning into supermen. Somewhat ignored amidst the euphoria, the fact was that Town also scored five against United at the County Ground in September.

The truth of the matter is that Swindon had only won three of their last ten away games before the win in the first leg and only one of those successes came against a team that finished in the top half of the table. Although Preston only gained three more points on the road that Swindon, Town had a phenomenal start to the away part of their season with just two defeats in thirteen games between August and January. In that ten game streak that I started the paragraph with, they kept two clean sheets (at Crewe and Port Vale) and conceded three at Bristol City, Preston and Scunthorpe. Unlike Sunday’s opponents, the Robins have goals throughout the team: three players reached double figures with another two notching more than five.

Key player: Andy Williams. The joint third leading scorer in League One was arguably in the form of his career during the winter after missing most of last season through an injury picked up whilst on loan at Yeovil last season. The 28 year old striker has not been scoring as regularly since then, but even if he starts on the bench he’s a potential match winner.

Head to head

Preston have won almost half of the 32 encounters between the sides since they first met in a Fourth Round FA Cup tie back in January 1935. The initial meeting in the league was a 1-0 win for Preston at Deepdale in October 1963; Swindon recorded their first home victory against the Lillywhites almost seven years later. Since Preston’s relegation in 2012, all but one of the six league games between them in League One have been won by the hosts; the other was a draw.

General League One Playoff Final Facts

There has been an average of 2.9 goals in the last ten finals, both teams scored in six of the last ten.

Only one 0-0 draw (2012, the epic between Huddersfield and Sheffield United) and three penalty shoot outs over last decade but two of those occurred in last three seasons. It’s a similar story with extra time: four times in last decade but half of those have been in the last two seasons.

This is the first League One playoff final that hasn’t featured a team from either Yorkshire or London since 2007. Yorkshire sides have won half of the last ten finals: good news for the four Yorkshire teams in next season’s competition perhaps?

Verdict

Preston are favourites to return to the Championship for the first time since 2010/11, but that depends almost entirely on which Swindon team turns up. As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, although the Robins are capable of raising their game for big matches, they lost four of their six away games against the sides that ultimately finished in the top six, whereas Preston won at Bristol City, Milton Keynes and Chesterfield (twice) without conceding. The stats indicate that this could be a tight game with no more than one goal in it (which would suit Preston down to the ground) but if you combine North End’s inability to close games and show a big match mentality when it counts and Swindon’s occasionally over the top gung ho style it’s also possible that we could end up with a game that resembles last year’s 2-2 draw or the Barnsley/Swansea game in 2006.

However, I’m going to stick my neck out despite my record in these games and Preston are my choice. There’s one final thing to note: the winner may be the team with eleven men left on the pitch at the end of it. Swindon were bottom of the Fair Play table in League One…with Preston and Scunthorpe just behind them.

Update: one of the most one sided finals for years saw Preston return to the Championship with a 4-0 win over Swindon. Jermaine Beckford scored a hat trick in less than an hour.

In other news: Nigel Clough is no longer Sheffield United manager…Southend will be joining Burton, Bury and Shrewsbury in League One next season…I’ll be back in the middle of the month with the first day games for 2015/16…

Play Off Preview 2014/15

It’s that time of year again and to be honest I’m expecting this season’s playoffs to be potentially the weirdest yet. Three of the potential candidates for the last promotion place for Championship have terrible records in the playoffs whilst there’s a chance for a newly promoted team to take another step up the Football League ladder.

The problem I have is that it’s May, which is the usually when family birthdays start coming in thick and fast. Unsurprisingly, I have them for the next few weeks, so rather than individual game previews, I’m going to have to write an overarching preview.

Chesterfield

Last ten games: 5-3-2

Record against the other playoff contenders: 1-2-3

First ever appearance in the playoffs

The Spirites’ highest league position in almost two decades combined with their role as underdogs indicates that they might be a surprise package for promotion to the second tier for the first time since the mid 1930s, but there are a couple of worrying trends. They lost all but one of their five home games against the teams that finished above them without scoring and although they won at MK Dons at the start of March, Paul Cook’s side failed to keep clean sheets against the top five on the road. The experience they gain in the post season will be vital for 2015/16, but if they go up they could really struggle.

Preston

Last ten games: 4-5-1

Record against the other playoff contenders: 2-2-2

playoff record: losing semi finalists 1988/89 (third tier), 1993/94 (fourth tier) 1998/99 (third tier), 2005/06 and 2008/09 (second tier), 2013/14 (third tier)

losing finalists 1993/94 (fourth tier), 2000/2001 and 2004/05 (second tier)

Preston’s unenviable record in the playoffs has to end some time, but if their recent form wasn’t good enough to retain the runner’s up spot they’d held since the start of March then it’s not really good enough to inspire confidence in their post season ambitions. The Lillywhites only lost twice to the other clubs in the top six this season (neither of the promoted clubs beat them) but they drew an astonishing seven of their nine games against the eventual top six and bottom four sides at Deepdale, which indicates to me there’s some kind of problem when the pressure is on them or their opponents. Additionally, they have actually been underperforming this season compared to 2013/14. The bookies have made them favourites to go up: you never see a bookie on a bike.

Sheffield United

Last ten games: 4-4-2

Record against the other playoff contenders: 2-2-2

Playoff record: losing finalists 1996/97, 2002/03 and 2008/09 (second tier), 2011/12 (third tier)

Losing semi finalists 1997/98 (second tier) and 2012/13 (third tier),

The Blades have a couple of advantages over the competition: they’ve reached the semi finals of both the FA and Capital One cups over the last couple of seasons and have experienced the big match Wembley atmosphere. All of which sounds great, until you look at their playoff history – which in some respects is worse than Preston – and they lost those semi finals. They were unbeaten at home against the other three clubs mentioned here, but their only away victory against the top six was at Bristol City in February; the win took them into fifth place, where they’ve been stuck for the rest of the season. Have also failed to win any of their last five games.

Swindon

Last ten games: 3-3-4

Record against the other playoff contenders: 4-0-2

Playoff record: losing semi finalists 1988/89 (second tier), 2003/04, 2012/13 (third tier)

Losing finalists: 2009/10 (third tier)

Winning finalists 1989/90 (second tier) but not promoted due to illegal payments.

Had a very good record at home against the top half of the table (eight wins in eleven games) but didn’t do half as well against the bottom half at the County Ground (four wins in twelve), so this looks suspiciously like a side that can be motivated by big games against tougher opponents but is incapable of lifting themselves against lesser lights. On the road it’s a different story: Swindon won at Chesterfield in mid January but were 0-0-4 with a minus ten goal difference against the other teams in the final top six. Part of the reason for that was Mark Cooper’s selection policy, but another part of that was because Swindon weren’t as good as they thought they were. To put it another way: they picked up one point against Crawley and none against Yeovil and are still in the playoffs: expect a playoff hangover if they don’t go up.

Both of this evening’s playoff games are on Sky: Chesterfield v Preston is on SS5 at 7:30pm, whilst Sheffield United v Swindon is on SS2 at the same time. There’s me thinking that SS5 was the home of European football…

Update: Preston are through to Wembley after a comprehensive 4-0 aggregate win over Chesterfield, with Spirerites boss Paul Cook leaving immediately to take over at League Two Portmouth. Swindon won at Sheffield United in their first leg; the return is this evening.

Extra update: Swindon 5-5 Sheffield United. Town will meet Preston at Wembley in the final.

Almost Everything To Play For

It’s a tribute to all the teams in League One that we’ve reached the last game of the season and a lot of issues are still undecided. Half the teams in this season’s competition still have something to play for today and although most of the attention will be focussed on who finishes in the automatic promotion spot, it’s the bottom of the table where the drama will occur.

At The Top

Preston cannot afford to drop any points at Colchester. If the Lillywhites and MK Dons both draw then Preston will go up, but as I mentioned last week, the Dons have been lethal at home against the strugglers this season and could put their game against Yeovil to bed before half time.

There are also implications for Chesterfield and Sheffield United, who play each other. As it stands, the Blades will entertain Swindon at Bramall Lane in the first leg of the playoffs, but if the Spirerites win then they’ll avoid whichever team that fails to win automatic promotion.

What To Look Out For

Preston’s win at Colchester last season was the first time they’d won there in the league since December 1986 and those are their only wins in fifteen meetings in all competitions over the last forty years. Today’s game between MK Dons and Yeovil is only their seventh meeting and the Dons have only lost once at home in the previous six encounters.

Verdict

Preston have only lost once this season to a side in the bottom half of the table but they’ve drawn half of their last six aways and could easily blow the chance of automatic promotion if they perform their party trick of not being able to close games that they’ve taken the lead in. They don’t have a good record at Colchester and so I’m going to back MK Dons for automatic promotion. Warning: I’ve been wrong before!

At The Bottom

Goal difference may be the crucial difference between salvation and disaster. Despite having only conceded ten more than they’ve scored this season, Leyton Orient are in big trouble; with the exception of Yeovil, Crewe have the worst goal difference in the competition in 2014/15 but are currently outside the bottom four. Looking at the same issue but from an entirely different perspective, both Crewe and Notts County have improved since last season (the Magpies were a top half team at the end of January) but Orient have collapsed to the extent that relegation looks inevitable.

Other than the Colchester/Preston game I mentioned earlier, the two crucial matches are Crawley v Coventry and Swindon v Leyton Orient. Despite losing three of their last four (including throwing three points in the bin at Peterborough last weekend), since Christmas the Red Devils have only lost three home games. The Sky Blues haven’t lost on the road since the start of March and have kept four consecutive clean sheets so this game looks like a case of irresistible force meeting imoveable object and could be one of the better fixtures. Coventry have drawn three of their five away matches with the clubs currently below them and a point would ensure survival; Crawley need a win to stay up, but even that might not be enough.

Swindon have only won two of their last six games at the County Ground and haven’t won any of their last four matches, so although Orient are drinking at the last chance saloon it’s as good a time to play the Robins as any. Unfortunately, the same could be said of the Os; four defeats in their last six aways is pretty poor form, but three of those reverses were 1-0 defeats.

What To Look Out For

In the five previous games between Crawley and Coventry, the away side has never won…Swindon have played seven games against the bottom four and have won once (at Orient) and since the turn of the century, Town have only beaten Orient once at the County Ground in all competitions…if Crewe manage to stay up, 2015/16 will be the first time they’ve ever played in the non-regionalised third tier for four consecutive seasons…

Verdict

Too close to call. The bookies have Colchester, Orient and Crawley at short prices to go down, but as you can see there’s a compelling case that both the Us and the Os might pull off surprise results.

The current plan is that I will be updating this post at some point this afternoon. But for now, congratulations to Bury, who will join Burton Albion and Shrewsbury Town in League One next season.

Latest update ever: MK Dons did exactly what I thought they’d do and were 4-0 up at half time. Preston lost at Colchester, which means the Dons are up, the Lillywhites go into the playoffs and the Us stay up. Crawley and Notts County both lost and are relegated; Leyton Orient join them in League Two after blowing a 2-0 lead at Swindon.