Do Swindon need momentum to mount a successful play-off campaign?

Swindon Town are guaranteed a play-offs finish, so Ron Smith looks back over the previous 10 League One play-offs to understand whether momentum ensures promotion success..?

Building momentum towards the League One play-offs has been a prominent concept in almost every interview with Mark Cooper in recent weeks. However, Town’s manager has made his view clear, as Cooper wants to “marry the two [momentum and fitness] together and have a little bit of good form going into the play-offs and making sure everyone is in mentally and physically top condition”.

Cooper is clearly being realistic by outlining early on that Town don’t need to win games. Instead he’s seeking to have a fully fit squad of players on May 7th with ‘energy’. Perhaps this is an admission that the lack of mental and physical fitness probably contributed to Town’s play-off semi-final defeat to Brentford two years ago – rather than a run of two wins in eight matches.

But in downplaying the importance of winning games 41-46 to securing promotion through the play-offs and fielding a weakened XI for this weekend’s 3-0 drubbing at Preston North End, is Cooper underestimating the role of momentum in carrying a team to the Championship via Wembley?

Over the previous 10 seasons, the League One play-offs have thrown up a variety of form that contributes to eventual promotion. We’ve looked back at these 10 seasons in detail to understand the link between momentum and success, by reviewing the results in the final six league games plus the three game play-off mini-season…

Play Off Key

Play Off 1

Play Off 2

Play Off 3

Lets start with the Blackpool side of 2006/07 who demonstrated that momentum does work. They won a staggering 10 consecutive games (including the final seven league games and the three play-off games) to show everyone how catapult yourself to promotion. The Tangerines have also been the only unbeaten side in these 10 surveyed seasons that has gone onto win the League One play-offs.

However, at the other end of the scale, momentum certainly didn’t help Huddersfield Town in 2010/11. Their unbeaten run in games 41-46 and the semi-finals was stopped by Peterborough United; who had lost twice in that period.

Using this sample over the past 10 years, the record in games 41-46 doesn’t accurately predict the play-off winner. There is a 50% probability of the team with the best record in the final six league games being semi-final losers, 20% beaten finalists and 30% winners. This contrasts with a 10% chance of promotion at Wembley when having the 2nd strongest points per game record, 30% for 3rd strongest and 30% for the weakest record.

In reviewing the past 10 League One play-off campaigns it does surprise that, other than that magnificent Blackpool side, Barnsley in 2005/06 have been the only other unbeaten side in games 41-46 that has then won promotion.

In-fact, there are also a distinct lack of unbeaten sides in those final six league games anyway. Only six of the total 40 League One play-off entrants have not lost once in games 41-46 (Blackpool, Barnsley, Brentford, Nottingham Forest, Huddersfield and Stevenage). Also, only Blackpool (2006/07) and Yeovil (2012/13) won consecutive games in the final six league matches and then won the final. This highlights the competitive nature of the division and the pressure on teams fighting for promotion.

A bad run in the final games doesn’t always harm promotion chances. Huddersfield Town (2011/12) lost consecutive games in matchdays 41-46, but then won at Wembley. The Terriers were perhaps helped by experience that season, which followed two previous failed attempts at promotion in 2009/10 and 2010/11.

As for Swindon Town in 2014/15, supporters should not be overly concerned by a current run of three winless games and a return of 4 points. Over the past 10 seasons, an average return of 8.8 points (1.47 per game) has been secured in the final six league games by the eventual play-off winning team. If Sheffield Wednesday can win at Wembley after securing just five points in games 41-46, then why can’t anyone who is limping across the line?

There’s also the ‘magic’ of 4th place. Each of the previous four League One play-off winners have finished 4th. In this 10 season period, three winners finished 3rd, two finished 5th and one 6th placed team. Also, that those four recent finals have been played by those finishing 3rd and 4th. The odds of winning at Wembley clearly favouring those who are placed higher.

With Town having already guaranteed 4th place and set to face relegation battlers Colchester United and Leyton Orient – who have plenty to lose – Mark Cooper can stick to his guns to keep everybody fresh.

The weekend’s trip to Preston provided the first opportunity for Cooper to practice, rest and experiment, which he did with gusto – having made seven changes and giving full-debuts to Will Randall, Lee Marshall and Jermaine Hylton. To those who complained that “Cooper should’ve told us he would field a weakened side” having made a 390-mile trip to witness a 3-0 defeat, I do sympathise. However, the manager has been making hints of his intentions this week that this he’s in a pre-season friendly mode and players would be rested.

The two remaining games also present the perfect opportunity for Cooper to practice (competitively) his tactics and test new players, not for the opponents on that day, but instead looking ahead to the likely play-off opponents. As its not Colchester United and Leyton Orient who Swindon must now beat, as this season really starts from 7th May…

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