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The Play-Offs – pie in the sky or viable moon to shoot for?

Wednesday’s form transformation has reignited purpose, joy – and hope – among the players as well as fans. As the saying goes, it’s the hope that kills you. After dispensing with two fine footballing sides in Swansea and Brentford, Bruce has brought hope back big time. How far can we go this season that most, if not all, had  already written off?

After his appointment Steve Bruce has echoed Dejphon Chansiri’s continued insistence that the Play-Offs is what we’re going for. When Luhukay left we were 12 points behind 6th. 12 matches later that gap is now 6 points – with another 12 matches still to play.

Before we turn our attention to Monday’s nail-biter, then, it’s worth taking a look at the likelihood of our unlikely gate-crashing of the Play-Offs.

Unlikely, but not unheard of

Using data from (data) for the last 20 seasons of the Championship, 1998/1999 to 2017/2018, we can put Wednesday’s current position, points total and gap of 6 points into perspective.

If we first look at the points total, only three teams in our current position, with 47 points from 34 matches, have ever ended the season by making the Play-Offs:

Blackpool, in 2009/10, won promotion via the Play-Offs after being on 47 points from 34 matches, but they’re the only one out of 277 teams in a similar or worse situation.

On average Play-Off contestants had 58 points after 34 matches, meaning we lag 11 points (and more than 2 standard deviations) behind.

We can also look at the size of the gap the Play-Off contestants had to 6th after 34 matches:


Only one team (Bolton in 1999/00, knocked out in the semifinals) had a bigger gap than Wednesday have now and still made the Play-Offs. We can see as well that Blackpool actually had one fewer point to make up on their way to winning promotion via the Play-Offs in 2009/10. More than 8 out of 10 teams in the Play-Offs were already inside the top 6 at this point of the season.

Finally we can look at the league position as well:

No team in 12th or lower after 34 matches has ever made the Play-Offs.

All the above indicates how unlikely reaching the Play-Offs would be, which is why the bookies have us on odds of around 150-1 for promotion (the same odds you can get on Mars bars being the first food to be rationed by the UK government in 2019!).

Points target for the Play-Offs: 23-27 points

If we were to defy those odds, though, what exactly are we aiming for? On average, in the past 20 seasons, the team in 6th has finished on 74 points. This season’s Championship doesn’t have any teams running away with it, though, with Norwich’s, the current leaders, points per game at this point being lower than that of 16 of the leaders after 34 matches in the last 20 seasons.

Bristol City, in 6th at the moment, have a points per game haul equal to 72 points over a full season. So the target is likely to be lower than the historical average.

From here on in of the season the points per game of whoever is in 6th doesn’t change much: In 16 of the 20 seasons it’s by no more than 2 points in either direction. The biggest change in that period was 4 points.

We can thus be reasonably sure that the team finishing 6th this season is likely to do so with between 70 and 74 points. Reaching that total would require Wednesday to win between 23 and 27 points in the final 12 matches.

Only 7% of the Championship teams of the last 20 seasons managed 23 or more points in their final 12 matches and only 1% managed 27 or more points. All of that 7% of teams were already inside the top 6 at this point.

The 6 (1%) teams, that won 27 points in the run-in, were all league leaders and half of them finished the season with more than 100 points. Hardly a realistic yardstick for us.


5th toughest run-in

The fixture list has been mostly kind to us since the turn of the year. Relative to other teams, the fixtures we’ve completed have been the joint-easiest in the division, when looking at the points per game record of the opponents. It also means our run-in is the 5th hardest on paper.

Other than United at home on Monday (who scarily have the joint-easiest run-in) we also have to go away to both Norwich and Leeds as well as our bogey team Derby.

A good omen?

A points target of 24-27 points means we need 8-9 wins from the last 12 matches. That’s a very tall order, but not unheard of: When we pipped United to automatic promotion in 2012, we actually won 10 of our final 12 games.

Back then, as I’m sure we all recall, we also played a certain Sheffield United just as Winter was ending and (according to the calendar at least) Spring was upon us – let’s hope the rest isn’t just history!



About the author, Peter Løhmann

Born on a Wednesday way too many years ago in Denmark. Loves sifting through copious amounts of numbers trying to make sense of what they're saying. Peter's the undisputed brains of the operation.

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