The Play Off Race: What history tells us

We’re moving deep into the so-called business end of the season, but now is perhaps a good time to take a breath and survey the scene in front of us. As Lincoln City fans, it is clear how far we’ve come when being seventh in the table is drawing criticism from some quarters.

Those dissenting voices are few and far between, but they’re there. To a degree, they have valid points too. Danny Cowley himself suggested he would have liked a fourth striker and injuries are beginning to mount up exposing a threadbare squad. Still, we’re well in the hunt for a place at the play-off table and, despite some believing it to be pointless, we’re also off to Wembley.

One comment that really riles me, whilst we’re on the subject, is that somehow our Checkatrade Trophy heroics have cost us league points. That simply isn’t true. Love or loath the competition, that is fine, but do not deride it for being the reason we drew against play-off chasing Swindon or Cambridge, a side with play-off form at home. To suggest we would have won either of those games if we hadn’t played Chelsea is speculation and when the financial are announced next season, you’ll see how much Wembley means to this club in real terms.

Anyway, as a taster I thought I’d pick a couple of seasons from history and show you the tables on February 19th of that season, compared with the end. It’ll be interesting (for me also) to see if the teams in the top seven, as we are now, retained that placing. I’m also throwing in two Imps play off campaigns from the past too, for context.


Our achievements recently have been superb, our club has been rebuilt from the bottom up and climbed from the depths of despair to the fringes of the play off race. In 2002/03, Keith Alexander did something that it could be argued was similar. He took a side in administration and third from bottom and turned them into play off finalists. It was a different kind of success, built on less funds but a significantly different transfer policy. Danny Cowley is pensive, he won’t commit to buying a player until it is absolutely necessary. He picks through the manure, looking for a diamond to extract. Keith was different, once he had the bare bones of a squad he’d throw handfuls of manure at a wall and sign anything that stuck. Who is to say either method is wrong?

In our play off campaign we’d played two games fewer at this stage than we have now, but we were two points off the pace. Scunthorpe were in the same boat as us also, meaning two of the play-off sides came from mid table to spoil the party. Two games later we had 49 points, so we’re a win and a draw better off than back then. Interestingly, the top seven weren’t performing anywhere near as well in 2003 as they are in 2018, fourth placed Mansfield currently have 59 points, ten more than their 2003 counterpart Kidderminster Harriers.


If the first play off season was an achievement, the third must go down as a missed opportunity. By now Keith’s side were well versed in what they did, we had some of the finest centre-halves ever seen at Sincil Bank in McCombe, McAuley and Paul Morgan, and we had Gary Taylor-Fletcher up front. Sadly, we fluffed our lines on the big day, we missed our cue and ended up consigned to two further semi-final defeats before our adventure came to an end. Looking back, it seems a golden age of Imps history in which we just failed to deliver on our potential. At the time, many called Keith’s sides not good enough to take the next step. Criticism it seems, never subsides.

This campaign was unique in that the top three in February all finished there and the play off hopefuls all retained their places too. We were fifth at this stage but only had one more point than we do now. In both seasons, 72 points was enough to qualify and in both seasons, no side with 53 points from 33 games failed to earn a top seven spot. Remember, we currently have 53 points from 33 games.


Just two seasons back now and this league table is taken from March 3rd. It seems this season has seen more matches played before February 19th than ever before, most sides had played two less than we have now on the same date two years ago.

33 games and 53 points was enough to see you in fifth place two years ago, again showing the competitiveness of the division we’re in currently.

Also, once again the top eight was pretty much a closed shop, the same teams filled those spaces after 33 games and at the end of the season. What does perhaps give weight to the critics of today is that in all three seasons I’ve chosen, only once had a team been top seven having only scored 45 goals, which is our position now. That may point to us currently having a resolute defence though, statistics can be made to tell pretty much any story you want, within reason.


There was only one league table that mattered to Imps fans last season, the one that put silverware in our trophy cabinet. However, life went on without us in the Football League and another tightly fought play off campaign

Once again, no side had scored as few goals as us but still been in the top seven, 53 points from 33 games would once again have had us higher in the table and no side with our current record after 33 matches failed to make the top seven at the end of the season. These tables only serve to demonstrate how tight this season is compared to previous campaigns.


The last team to miss out on the play offs having amassed 53 points from 33 games was Newport County in 2014/15. Like us, they were seventh with that record and went on to finish ninth with 65 points, Plymouth pipping them to seventh with 71. It wasn’t a strong season though in 2014/15, the five teams from fourth to eighth had all scored less than 45 goals after 33 matches. Of those sides, Bury were promoted automatically and Southend, having scored just 38 goals, won the play off final against Wycombe.

History tells us nothing we need to know, the only action that counts happens between now and May, but by looking back we can see that usually sides around the top eight remain in the top eight. There’s never been such a cataclysmic collapse that a side has been on 53 points from 33 games and dropped out of the top ten, something for our current critics to think on.

As for Wembley derailing our promotion hopes, the last League Two side to lift the trophy were Luton Town in 2009. They couldn’t defend it the following season as they were relegated from the Football League having suffered a 30-point deduction!

The last League Two side to reach the final were Oxford United in 2015/16 and guess what? They were promoted in May. In 2013/14 Chesterfield made the final and guess what? They were promoted in May. In 2012, Swindon also made the final. I’m sure I don’t need to tell you what happened.┬áIn fact, only once in the last ten years (bar Luton with their unique circumstances) has a League Two team made the final and not been promoted. That was Southend in 2013, they were five points outside the play offs on February 19th of that season and they finished eight points away in eleventh.

All these stats are great, but we’re writing our own right now. Anyone who has posted on social media this weekend “we’re not good enough to go up”, think on. 72 points seems to be the bench mark for promotion meaning we need seven wins from our remaining 13 games. In our last 13 games we have won six, but with draws we’d amass enough points. The stats say if we keep doing what we’re doing, we’ll break the threshold of points needed. The last time a team needed more than that to end up in the top seven was 2008 when 78 points saw Wycombe finish just inside the play offs. In our last 13 matches prior to Saturday we gathered 26 points, meaning if we showed the same form again, we’d end the season on 79 points. Here’s a fact for you: no side has ever missed out on the play offs with 79 points.

We’ve as much chance as anyone else and with Danny and Nicky at the helm, I feel as confident as possible. I think 75 points will be the threshold this time around, the league is so close to call and everyone can beat anyone on their day. We just need to make sure we’re behind the lads, loud and proud, at all of those remaining home games and as many away matches as we can get to. It’s still on, it’s all to play for and we can do it.




  1. Good article , think people need to have a reality check just look at the table in 2002/3 and look where some of those clubs are now .
    National league north to the Premier league , Rushden out of existence .
    We should embrace and give our full support to what we have on every level at our club .
    On the up and sustainable, new training facilities and a first ever visit to Wembley .

  2. Good article….I remember the two visits to Cardiff…..but the telling point of the article is how many of the club’s are now in non league and I know what there supporters must be going through. I think if we where in tenth position we would be happy but keep being around the play off places puts expectations higher..I don’t think we have played well since Xmas and have ground out results…I just hope we are through are bad form the injured players recover and we can get the results against the team’s around us….still been a good season UTI

  3. 6 games in 19 days and people say the team looked tired at Crawley. Of course they were. The fact we rallied and had an excellent start to the second half does not change that. If we consider our recent fixtures: Swindon….best away record in the league…….Cambridge …fantastic home record….Crawley…won 5 in 6 I think….not been beaten at home since October and now won a club record of 5 at home on the bounce. Throw a well known crap ref into the mix and what do you get? I was sorry we could not sustain our good spell but was not downhearted

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