After all the fun and games of transfer deadline day (I’m actually more disappointed over the fact that we were unable to top up the coffers by getting money for Marcus Bent or Amady Faye - if they had been sold on we might have been able to resist Sunderland’s offer for Reid – as well as the news about Chris Dickson) I thought it was time to do some work on the numbers, the sort of post that others do so well. Or to put it another way, this sort of thing takes a little time rather than the rambled, unconnected stuff that comes more naturally to the fundamentally bone idle (a club that I’m proud to belong to). So, on the basis of Championship tables for the past 10 years, what do we need from the remaining 17 games to get promoted, one way or another? Of course, past performance is not a guaranteed pointer to the future, but crystal balls aside it’s the only guide we have.
Champions: In the 10 years three teams have managed to top 100 points: Reading, Fulham and Sunderland (who might have been a little peeved during 1998/99 having been trounced in the play-off final the previous season). The lowest points total for the champions is 88 (last season as it happens), so that’s realistically the bare minimum to get the pot. The average number of points is 97 and the overall spread 88-105. In five of the 10 years the champions have had 94 points or less (lies, damned lies … of course that means in five of the 10 years more have been required, but let’s not lose the train of thought). Nobody looks like running away with it this season and it’s likely to stay tight at the top. So 90 could well be enough and the way things are shaping up 95 would be virtually assured of getting top spot.
Runners-Up: The points spread here is 86-92, which is relatively narrow. It doesn’t seem to make any difference for this spot whether one team runs away with the league. Arguably it’s more important to look at the total for third place, to see what you can be confident you need to clear. That range is 79-90, although if you exclude Sunderland in 1997/98, who were just edged out for an automatic spot with three teams getting 90+ points (and who went on to be trounced in the play-off final) the upper end drops to 87. So 90 points would be pretty safe for an automatic spot (again, perhaps as champions). Getting second place with 80 points would be exceptional but not impossible, missing out with 85 would be unlucky. So I’m inclined to assume that 85 is the target for second spot.
Play-Offs: Very tight range here. In the 10 years the lowest points total for getting sixth place is 73 and the highest 76. There seems to be consistency such that getting 75 points ought to be enough to enter the lottery, while anything below 70 is virtually assured of missing out.
We have 47 points from 29 games. That average extended over a full season would leave us with 75 points (74.55 for fellow pedants), ie pretty confident of making the play-offs but probably some way off the top two spots. That might seem strange as we are at the moment only four points (and a bucketload of goals, making it 4.5 really) from the top. West Brom, with 51 points from 29 games, would seem to be on course to win the league with only 81 points, which would fly in the face of the evidence of previous seasons.
Maybe this season will be the most competitive in recent history and these stats will not apply (I don’t have the time to go back through league tables for 10 years for this stage of the season and do the comparisons). But it’s more likely that the best teams will come through in the run-in and more points per game will be secured by those which end up getting promoted than they have to date. Overall it looks to me like more evidence to suggest that 90 points would be safe for automatic promotion and that 85 could well be enough.
I’m inclined to assume that our points per game average will be higher over the remainder of the season than to date. After all, our performance has not been consistent so far. There was the ‘false dawn’ period of the first nine games (up to Hull away and an international break). We secured 18 points, ie an average of two per game and pointing to a season’s total of 92. Arguably since then we have been in relative decline and holding on to a play-off spot by our fingernails. Some 20 games have produced only 29 points, an average of 1.45 per game and only 67 points over a full season. Even if you extend this average to the end of the season and include the better start you arrive at a points total of 72. That could be enough for the play-offs but would be more likely to produce the heartache of seventh spot – and that’s reserved for Palace.
However, we are playing better now, the team spirit is good, and we have a better strike force than at any time since Todorov was injured. I’m inclined to assume that over the remaining 17 games we will match our points return of the first nine, ie two per game. That’s not going to be easy, given the tough home games we have. But these are the ones we need to win, or at worst sometimes not lose. If we manage that we would end with 81 points, clearly good for the play-offs but maybe not enough for an automatic spot (no team has gone up from this division in the past 10 years with less than 86).
What has to be factored in here is the effect of us beating those around us at home. It does drive home the point, if it needed to be, that our season stands or falls on these home games, which is why Stoke was such a big game. But having what amount to four more cup ties at home and a couple away is a double-edged sword. It gives us a greater opportunity to move into the top two if we win these games. By the same token poor returns from these games and we’re all but out of the running for automatic promotion.
Let’s take another route. What of the remaining fixtures? Away from home we play, in order, Scunthorpe, Sheffield Wednesday, Blackpool, Sheffield United, Burnley, Ipswich, Plymouth, QPR and Barnsley. There are bound to be hiccups, but you have to say that each game is winnable. From the nine games we should be targeting a return of at least 18 points, which would mean winning five, drawing three, and losing just one. It’s a tall order, but to go up automatically that’s the sort of return that will be required.
The eight remaining home games are Palace, Watford, Bristol City, Preston, West Brom, Wolves, Southampton and Coventry. To get at least 16 points from these games we would need to win at least four, probably at least five. Five wins and two draws, with one defeat would give a return of 17 points. To get an automatic spot that’s probably the bare requirement.
We have a maximum points total of 98 if we win all 17 games. If 85 is the target for automatic promotion (again, every team in the top two in the past 10 years has managed more than 85, so this is the minimum to aim for) we need 38 points from 17 games, ie an average of more than two points per game but with not much in it. That means winning perhaps 11 games and drawing five, with only one defeat (or of course 12 wins and at least two draws). To get 90 points and be fairly sure of a top-two finish clearly requires 43 points, which would mean winning 13 and drawing four, with no defeats.
Basically, to have a good chance of automatic promotion it’s not a case of us winning every other game; we have to win two out of three. The season could end with low (by recent standards) points totals for those promoted, with a number of clubs in the frame until the end. But we can’t rely on that. The head says the play-offs but everything else says we can do it – and that it all really started against Stoke.