THE BLOG

Relegation Play-Offs Would be a Shot In the Arm for English Football

16/01/2015 16:34 GMT | Updated 18/03/2015 09:59 GMT

The promotion play-offs are a keystone in the Football League, year in, year out. Without them, if the leagues went with automatic promotion and relegation only, 98.5% of the season's fixtures would carry no meaning (percentage is entirely arbitrary).

However, there are certain ways in which this winning formula can be improved even more. There is the saying that if it ain't broke don't fix it, but cast this aside for now, and instead cast your eyes north of the border for inspiration.

Scottish football has come under criticism and ridicule for being unbalanced and uncompetitive, but one thing it has got right has been the introduction of play-offs - in 2005 in the lower leagues, and since last season to and from the Premier League.

What has made the Scottish play-offs so interesting has been the added dynamic of them being relegation play-offs at the same time - the side one place above the automatic drop-zone joins the three below the league champion, in what beats penalties as football's most exciting shoot-out. This makes the Scottish play-offs carry more zest than their English counterparts - the added factor of not only scrapping for the last promotion spot, but what us the greater instinct for many in football. The need to survive.

Relegation can be the death knell for the careers of players, managers, sometimes for the future of entire clubs. To see this played out in play-off form - knock-out, no second chances, do or die - would be theatrical football of the grandest scale.

The Scottish argument is most clearly framed by the SPL play-off in 2014, reintroduced for the first time in 17 years. The drama of Hibernian's relegation at the hands of Hamilton, shows how much passion exists when not only promotion, but also survival are on the line. This would add a new dimension to the end of season shoot-out in any country.

In the same season their fellow Edinburgh giant and great rival Hearts went down, it seemed in conceivable that Hibs would join them. Even when they went 13 games without a win to end the season and wind up in 11th and a play-off against Championship runners-up Hamilton Academical, nobody had any doubt that Edinburgh would avoid the fate of being the only capital city in Europe without a football team in the national top tier. Especially when the favourites won 2-0 at New Douglas Park.

But the return leg at Easter Road shows why we need a law change in England. Hamilton took the lead in the 13th minute through Jason Scotland, and played with remarkable fire, while Hibs did something that would make a relegation play-off south of the border doubly interesting - under pressure, they froze, and folded.

A deserved 93rd minute second goal for Accies took it to penalties, and in this shoot-out within a shoot-out, the underdogs carried the day, and Hibernian, having started the season in the Europa League, were relegated for the first time in 16 years.

What makes the introduction of relegation play-offs to England's professional leagues more than a pipe dream is not only in keeping up with the neighbours, nor in how easy it would be to implement - either turn one of the auto-relegation slots into a play-off spot and reduce the number in the league below to three; or add an extra slot on top of the three or four auto-relegated and under the current play-off spots - but in the fact it has existed before, and was a real, if somewhat accidental, success.

When the play-offs first came about in the season 1986/87, they included a team from Division One in order to help with the restructuring of the league into the form we recognise today - creating a top tier of 20, with the three other leagues being increased from 22 teams to 24. It was not introduced for the sake of entertainment. But that is what it provided.

When they were fought out in the late 80s, there was exceptional drama - Charlton Athletic preserved their top flight status against fallen giants Leeds United in 1987, thanks to extra-time in a replay, where Leeds led at neutral St. Andrews, only for centre-back Peter Shirtliff to score twice in the dying minutes of extra-time and win the game.

In 1988, Middlesbrough beat Chelsea, to confirm their comeback for the verge of extinction, while Chelsea were relegated from the top flight. In May 1986, third tier Boro had been officially wound-up by a liquidator. In May 1988, they were promoted to the top flight by beating a Division One team, holding on to a 2-1 aggregate advantage at Stamford Bridge. The play-offs had officially found their magic. It seems very strange in retrospect that this formula was altered by the Football League, to do away with the relegation play-off. Although it does mean that Chelsea remain the only top flight team in England relegated by play-off - essential pub quiz knowledge.

The largest European league that uses relegation play-offs currently is the German Bundesliga (sorry Scots), with the team finishing 16th of 18 fighting it out against 2. Bundesliga's third-place finisher, since the 2008/09 season. If you know anything about German football, you will know the introduction of this two-legged fixture has added remarkable spice to the end of season - particularly with the destination of the title now a foregone conclusion, with Bayern's only challenge being trying to wrap it up before the Christmas break.

In 2009, any accusations of the upper side having clear dominance were blown away when lower league Nuremburg crushed Energie Cottbus 5-0 on aggregate. With the gap between quality at the bottom of the Premier League and top of the Championship looking tighter than ever, a similar story couldn't be ruled out over here.

Capital club Hertha Berlin were the next to succumb in the play-offs, losing to Dusseldorf in 2012. Try telling the crowd on that day that this type of fixture doesn't inspire passion like few other domestic encounters in Germany.

Last year, Hamburg avoided the first relegation in their history by holding off Greuther Furth on away goals in the play-off. Imagine Aston Villa, Newcastle, Everton or Spurs fighting for their lives in a play-off against a pumped-up Bournemouth, Ipswich, Watford or Brentford. That is a night we all want to experience.