Should the Premier League Introduce Relegation Play-offs?

Ryan BaileyFeatured ColumnistFebruary 5, 2014

LONDON, ENGLAND - MAY 14:  Wigan Athletic players walk off dejected after being relegated following their defeat in the Barclays Premier League match between Arsenal and Wigan Athletic at Emirates Stadium on May 14, 2013 in London, England.  (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)
Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

This is, without question, one of the most competitive Premier League seasons in recent memory.

At the top, just two points separate the top three sides, with traditional powerhouse Manchester United lingering on the perimeter of European qualification. 

At the bottom, things are even more interesting: Aston Villa in 10th place currently have just five more points than West Ham in the relegation zone. Six teams are within one loss of falling into the drop zone, and the entire bottom half of the table is in danger of the Football League Championship next season. 

There is no mid-table in 2013-14!

This isn't wonderful news for half the teams in the league, but it is a testament to the parity within the English top flight. And, of course, it will prove to be a thrilling run-in for the neutral.

In most seasons, however, the relegation and title fights aren't teed up like this. In 2012-13, only one relegation place was decided on the last day, and Manchester United had won the title with a few games to spare.

The previous year, only one relegation place was up for grabs on the final day, with Bolton suffering and QPR surviving by the skin of their teeth.

Most of the time, a few teams are doomed long before May. Usually, at least one team is dead and buried by the end of January. 

WIGAN, ENGLAND - MAY 15:  West Ham United fans look dejected following their relegation at the end of the Barclays Premier League match between Wigan Athletic and West Ham United at the DW Stadium on May 15, 2011 in Wigan, England.  (Photo by Chris Brunsk
Chris Brunskill/Getty Images

There is absolutely nothing wrong with the English relegation system, but what if it could be improved? What if there were a way to combine the stomach-sickening drama of avoiding the drop with the thrill of promotion in one single event? 

Perhaps the Premier League could take a leaf from the Bundesliga's book and introduce a relegation play-off.

In Germany's top flight, the bottom two teams are automatically relegated at the end of the season, but the 16th-placed team is not. They are entered into a two-leg play-off with the third-placed team in the 2. Bundesliga. If they win, they retain their league status. If they lose, they switch places with the lower-league side.

The system was in place between 1981 and 1991 and was reintroduced for the 2008-09 season. It is generally viewed in high regard by a German public who don't take to gimmicks lightly.

Last season, 1899 Hoffenheim managed to retain their top-flight status with an aggregate victory over Kaiserslautern. In 2011-12, Hertha Berlin traded places with Fortuna Dusseldorf when they were defeated in the home leg at the Olympic Stadium and unable to bounce back in the away one.  

Those who think the top-flight side would always have the upper hand are mistaken: In the five seasons since the play-off was introduced, the Bundesliga side has retained their status three times and lost it twice. 

The main benefit of the play-off game is that it offers a lifeline to the 16th-placed club who would normally drop straight down. In a game where the financial consequences of relegation can be catastrophic, this is a pragmatic idea.

It also helps sort the second-tier wheat from the chaff.

In England last season, Crystal Palace won promotion despite heavy reservations that they were ready to play top-flight football. If they had had to play Wigan in a play-off, their ascendance may have felt more justified, if not more vetted.

LONDON, ENGLAND - MAY 27:  Crystal Palace players celebrate victory with the trophy after the npower Championship Play-off Final match between Watford and Crystal Palace at Wembley Stadium on May 27, 2013 in London, England.  (Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty I
Mike Hewitt/Getty Images

The Championship play-offs in their current format would be very hard to part with, but the German system could provide an even more exciting end to the season.

From a business perspective, a relegation play-off would also be a big money-spinner.

Not only would a struggling Premier League side get a boost from two extra games (especially if they survive!), but a play-off final involving a Premier League team—rather than two Championship ones—would be much more marketable on a global scale.

And if the Premier League aspires to anything, it is to be even more marketable on a global scale. 

We already know that German football has it right when it comes to ticket prices, ownership structures, standing areas, cheap beer in stadiums and the general treatment of fans. Perhaps we can also add relegation play-offs to that list.  


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