WE’LL know who’s contesting the League One play-off final next Monday night but can Mark O’Haire (@MarkOHaire) find us a slice of value before the semi-finals kick-off?
Preston North End 15/8 (Boylesports)
- Home Record: W13-D9-L1 (3rd)
- Away Record: W12-D5-L6 (2nd)
- Last 8 Record: W4-D3-L1 (3rd)
- Record v Top-Half: W11-D7-L4 (3rd)
- Record v Play-Off Rivals: W2-D2-L2 (2nd/4)
Oh, Preston! You total dingbats. You had it all in your hands and once again you’ve blown it. No, I’ll say what everybody else is saying… you bottled it!
The Lilywhites went into the final day of the season unbeaten in 18 League One fixtures (W12-D6-L0) but having drawn five of their nine before taking on relegation-threatened Colchester, were already racked with the anxiety and fear more reserved to a 21-year-old virgin approaching a sexual rendezvous for the very first time.
We all know how that story ends and yes, Preston failed to score for the first time since 4 November and went down to an 86th minute winner to leave them in third and facing another bash at their old enemies; the play-offs. North End have participated in more play-off competitions than any other club and in their nine previous attempts have never clinched promotion. Gah!
I’m going to be particularly nasty now and say it’s been another season of failure for the Deepdale club. Yeah, it’s sour grapes on my part after backing them to win the league but with the squad available and a talented boss in Simon Grayson, Preston should have been fighting it out with Bristol City but instead they’re back in the bloody play-offs.
The £50,000 deal to bring midfielder Daniel Johnson in from Aston Villa should be deemed the Football League signing of the season. His pace, energy and goalscoring ability gave the Lilywhites real thrust going forward and also lifted the burden when striker Joe Garner was missing for 10 weeks through injury. Garner still finished the campaign as the league’s top goal-getter and alongside Jermaine Beckford, Preston surely boast the best attack.
So what went wrong? Well Grayson’s troops scored first in 32 of their 46 League One fixtures (that’s 70%) but failed to record three points in nine of those matches. The aforementioned run of draws saw North End leak late goals in each and it’s absolutely paramount that the group refocuses ahead of the next leg of the season.
Encouragingly, 13 of the past 20 teams to finish third in League One have reached the play-off final but Millwall (2006) are the only side to go on and claim promotion from that position over the past six seasons. In fact, only three teams have done the business in the end-of-season lottery from third place over the previous 14 years and with Preston’s pathetic play-off record too bleak to ignore, I’m just not prepared to touch them at 15/8.
Sheffield United 11/4 (Bet365)
- Home Record: W10-D7-L6 (10th)
- Away Record: W9-D7-L7 (6th)
- Last 8 Record: W2-D4-L2 (12th)
- Record v Top-Half: W9-D4-L9 (5th)
- Record v Play-Off Rivals: W2-D2-L2 (3rd/4)
Now here’s a really peculiar side. Forget coughing. Forget spluttering. How about retching? Can you retch over the line? Yeah, why not. Sheffield United have been pure vomit once again in League One and somehow managed to saunter into fifth without any real challenge. Now it’s time to deliver.
The club tops the average attendance charts in League One by more than 6,000 – United boast an average home gate of 19,583, while the league average remains shy of 7,000 – and unsurprisingly, those supporters are getting rather sick of life in the third tier. Having failed to win promotion in five previous play-off campaigns (including four defeats in the final), the Blades faithful are dreading a potential fifth season in League One.
Nigel Clough’s men have been far from convincing. Bar a 4-0 trouncing of Scunthorpe towards the end of March, it’s fair to say the red side of Sheffield have failed to convincingly outplay any of their league opponents this season. It’s even more befuddling when you inspect their record in cup competitions under Clough.
United have won 14/21 cup games under Clough’s watch and the United boss has even admitted his team would be more likely to perform better in the Championship than the third tier. Since his arrival at Bramall Lane, the Blades have beaten Premier League opposition in five of their nine duels, four of which came away. They’ve only lost two of those fixtures.
So why haven’t they transferred their knockout form to league success? The Blades just haven’t coped with the pressure or expectation as one of the league’s big fish. And with plenty of opponents happy to sit with 10 men behind the ball against the Blades, United have struggled to break them down, preferring to play on the break.
So will the play-offs give them a chance to express themselves? Could the technical and fleet-footed talents of Louis Reed, James Wallace, Florent Cuvelier, Jose Baxter, Ryan Flynn and Stefan Scougall come to the fore across the semi-finals? Perhaps. Their knockout record suggests so but it’s nine years since a fifth-placed team won the play-offs and five since a final was even reached. It’s a tall order for a team struggling for confidence and momentum.
Swindon Town 3/1 (BetVictor)
- Home Record: W12-D5-L6 (4th)
- Away Record: W11-D5-L7 (4th)
- Last 8 Record: W2-D3-L3 (14th)
- Record v Top-Half: W13-D2-L7 (2nd)
- Record v Play-Off Rivals: W4-D0-L2 (1st/4)
Just when you sensed Swindon needed a win most, boss Mark Cooper made the strange decision to make nine changes to his team for the final game of the season against Leyton Orient. The reserves fought valiantly, picking up a point after falling two goals down early on but whether Cooper’s decision was vindicated is likely to be determined by the Robins play-off fate.
You see, Swindon arrive in faltering form. With three games to play they were still (just about) in the hunt for an automatic promotion place. But a run of W3-D3-L4 in their final 10 fixtures saw the Wiltshire club finish fourth. In truth though, successive 3-0 defeats at fellow high-flyers MK Dons and Bristol City ended their automatic dreams in early April.
It was a frustrating time for Cooper who had led his team to three successive victories before an international break seemingly disrupted their momentum. And as I already alluded to, this play-off campaign could well have a big effect on the club’s longer-term plans. Should promotion not be secured, expect a raft of the impressive young players (either on loan or not) to be heading out of the County Ground this summer.
The Swindon manager must also make big selection decisions. Star man Massimo Luongo has been struggling with injury and fitness in recent weeks, a number of players appear fatigued and then there’s the call on who will lead the line. Michael Smith and Andy Williams have dipped whilst Jonathan Obika has contributed plenty but without goals.
I’ve cooled my stance on Cooper since Sunday and inclined to think he might just have something up his sleeve. Swindon collected 40 points against top-half teams this season including wins in 8/11 at the County Ground. The talent is there to negotiate a route to Wembley and at 3/1 (BetVictor), the Robins look the pick of the bets in League One.
There’s a decent recent omen behind Swindon’s challenge too with the previous four play-off winners all finishing fourth with 60% of teams also reaching the showpiece final across the past 20 League One play-off competitions. The Robins themselves have had success and failure in equal measure in six previous appearances; triumphing in their first three campaigns before disappointment in their most recent three. But I’ve faith they can reverse that recent trend.
Chesterfield 5/1 (BetVictor)
- Home Record: W12-D4-L7 (5th)
- Away Record: W7-D8-L8 (9th)
- Last 8 Record: W4-D3-L1 (4th)
- Record v Top-Half: W9-D4-L9 (6th)
- Record v Play-Off Rivals: W2-D1-L3 (4th/4th)
We hear the word momentum banded around when it comes to play-off football and are we right to assume Chesterfield hold all the aces in this regard? A final five of W1-D3-L1 suggests probably not but the defeat was against champions Bristol City, the victory a 6-0 hammering of Colchester and well-earned points at Sheffield United, Oldham and Barnsley. Over nine games, that record reads W5-D3-L1…
It’s been an impressive turnaround from Paul Cook’s charges. Four defeats on the spin in February suggested the January sale of Eoin Doyle would have a big impact on the Spireites season but the team has recovered well, stayed true to their beliefs and now appear a stronger unit without their top scorer.
Cook’s been linked with a move to Portsmouth, threatening to destabilise the club at the most important period of the year and I have to admit, I have grave concerns about their ability to front up against the leading lights of League One. Chesterfield lost five of their six home fixtures against top-seven clubs, failing to even score in each defeat.
However, the Spireites will be looking to wipe that slate clean and they’ll be gunning for a Preston side still weeping in the aftermath of another bottle job. Cook’s stayed loyal to the players who led Chesterfield to the League Two title last year and been rewarded. They’re a close-knit group with plenty of talented ball-players sprinkled across the midfield; they're well capable of hurting teams.
Attacking the play-offs with a positive, never-say die attitude really could make all the difference, especially in a home semi-final first up against Preston. To progress, Chesterfield will need to overhaul a record that’s seen only one sixth-placed team reach the League One play-off final in the past eight seasons – Scunthorpe went on to clinch promotion in 2009 and I wouldn’t write off the Spireites repeating that trick at 5/1 (BetVictor).
League One Play-Off Trends
Below is a full list of the past 20 League One play-off positions and how they've played out. I adore statistics and whilst the table can make interesting reading, it's worth taking the trends with a pinch of salt. This is the play-offs and this is the Football League after all…
|1994/95||Brentford||Crewe||Bristol Rovers (RU)||Huddersfield (W)|
|1995/96||Blackpool||Notts County (RU)||Crewe||Bradford (W)|
|1996/97||Luton||Brentford (RU)||Bristol City||Crewe (W)|
|1997/98||Grimsby (W)||Northampton (RU)||Bristol Rovers||Fulham|
|1998/99||Man City (W)||Gillingham (RU)||Preston||Wigan|
|1999/00||Gillingham (W)||Wigan (RU)||Millwall||Stoke|
|2000/01||Reading (RU)||Walsall (W)||Stoke||Wigan|
|2001/02||Brentford (RU)||Cardiff||Stoke (W)||Huddersfield|
|2002/03||Bristol City||QPR (RU)||Oldham||Cardiff (W)|
|2003/04||Bristol City (RU)||Brighton (W)||Swindon||Hartlepool|
|2004/05||Tranmere||Brentford||Sheff Wed (W)||Hartlepool (RU)|
|2005/06||Brentford||Huddersfielf||Barnsley (W)||Swansea (RU)|
|2006/07||Blackpool (W)||Nottm Forest||Yeovil (RU)||Oldham|
|2007/08||Doncaster (W)||Carlisle||Leeds (RU)||Southend|
|2008/09||MK Dons||Leeds||Millwall (RU)||Scunthorpe (W)|
|2009/10||Millwall (W)||Charlton||Swindon (RU)||Huddersfield|
|2010/11||Huddersfield (RU)||Peterborough (W)||MK Dons||Bournemouth|
|2011/12||Sheff Utd (RU)||Huddersfield (W)||MK Dons||Stevenage|
|2012/13||Brentford (RU)||Yeovil (W)||Sheff Utd||Swindon|
|2013/14||Leyton Orient (RU)||Rotherham (W)||Preston||Peterborough|
|Reach The Final||65%||60%||40%||35%|
(RU) = Runners-up