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.
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.
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?
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…