Garry Haylock: Should the league consider taking the top four teams and making them play off to win the Championship?

Thu, Jun 15 2017

Would the destination of the title be better decided with a rugby-style play-off round? Credit: Michael P Ryan (ETPhotos)

Last month I had the pleasure of a visit to Wembley Stadium to take in the League Two play-off final between Exeter and Blackpool.


Bearing in mind that I spent over three years as first team coach at Exeter, and having been Blackpool’s main opposition scout this season, my allegiances were a little mixed.


The whole play-off situation is one that is now firmly entrenched in English football and is deemed by pretty much everyone to be an unmitigated success.


Nowadays, more clubs have something to play for in the final few weeks of the season, resulting in far fewer meaningless games that players and fans alike hated.


Having managed a team to play-off success back in 2009 I am an advocate of the system but there have been suggestions that the knock-out format reduces a whole season's work down to one game that could become dependent on a poor refereeing decision or a star players injury.


While I can see that argument, teams know the rules when they start the season and good management does come in to play.


If you know that you will be in the play-offs, resting players who may be susceptible to injury and ensuring the team is correctly motivated are just parts of being a manager.


I was delighted to see that the team with which I started my career and with whom spent nine years made it to the Premier League on the day after my visit to Wembley.


The Huddersfield manager, David Wagner, was roundly criticised towards the end of the regular season for dropping key players in matches that could still affect other teams.


The end result, though, was that his team won the 'richest game in football' and a wonderful club is back in the big time.


Going back to the League play-off and in particular Exeter City’s involvement, the football team weren’t the only side from the city to have a big game that weekend.


The rugby team won their Premiership title to become the English Champions, a remarkable achievement given where they were in the Pyramid ten years ago.


What is interesting about this is that they didn’t finish top of the table following the end of the regular season. They only finished second and yet are now regarded to be the best team in the country.


Digging a little deeper, it is clear that this is not a new phenomenon. Only four times since the start of the play-off system in 2002/03 have the team that finished at the top of the table gone on to win the knock-out stage.


Wasps have become champions on four occasions but for not of those wins did they finish first in the league standings.


Going back to the League Two play-offs, the winners could only finish seventh in the league table, seven points behind the team that finished third, Luton, who they beat in the semi-finals.


Indeed, in the last ten years in League Two, the team that finished in the last play-off place went on to achieve promotion on five occasions.


In the past, there have been a multitude of innovations to try and increase interest in the League of Ireland.


That included, as I recall, a three-way play off between Cork, Bohemians and ourselves, Shelbourne in the 1992-93 season after all three teams finished level at the top on 40 points.


After playing each other twice in the play-off round, we were still level and had to go through another round of games.


The League went on for so long, we actually won the FAI Cup before the end of the league season. We then lost 3-2 at the RDS to Cork, which meant the men in green won the title.


My worst memory of the whole season was having to attend the PFAI dinner that night and sitting on the table next to Declan Daly, Dave Barry and current Cork manager John Caulfield as they celebrated – I left early!


My question is, should the league consider taking the top four teams at the end of the season and making them play-off to win the Championship and, more importantly, gain entry to the following season’s Champions League?


My view is that if I’d finished fourth, it would be the best idea in the world. If I had finished first, there is no way I would want to have to go and win it again.


However, just imagine Dundalk, Cork, Shamrock Rovers and Derry City taking part (sorry Bray!): packed stadiums, live on TV and, hopefully, thrilling football. Something to ponder on.


Garry Haylock is a former professional footballer and manager. During his playing career he represented Shelbourne, Dundalk, Linfield and Glentoran, winning the Premier Division twice and the FAI Cup three times, as well as two titles in Northern Ireland and 2 IFA Cups.