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Revealed - statistics: EFL Christmas Day league positions

22 December 2016

Newcastle United, Scunthorpe United and Plymouth Argyle are the three league leaders in the Sky Bet EFL on Christmas Day this year.

The trio have teams on their coat-tails, but is history on the side of those who have set the pace by 25th December, or does fortune favour the chasing pack? And is it all doom and gloom at the bottom of the table?

We’ve crunched the numbers and had a look back over the past 20 seasons to find out how Christmas Day league positions have translated into end-of-season performance…

The league leaders

Around half (47%) of the sides sitting top of a division on Christmas Day have gone on to lift the coveted crown come the end of the campaign, with two-thirds at least securing automatic promotion.

Newcastle are among the 50% of previous Championship festive table-toppers to continue their form and lift the title, when they romped to first place in 2009/10.

Scunthorpe were top of League Two in 2004/05 but were pipped to first place by Yeovil Town, however they made up for it in 2006/07, overturning Nottingham Forest’s advantage to claim a second promotion in three years.

As for Plymouth, no side has led the way at Christmas more often in the past 20 seasons than Argyle. The Pilgrims successfully maintained their League Two title push in 2001/02 with a divisional record 102 points, and won League One two seasons later.

However, last season, it was third time unlucky as they dropped off the pace and fell short in the Play-Offs. It remains to be seen which way this season will go…

Sky Bet Championship

Christmas Day leaders to win the title: 50%
Christmas Day leaders to claim automatic promotion: 65%
Christmas Day leaders to claim at least a Play-Off spot: 90%

Sky Bet League One

Christmas Day leaders to win the title: 50%
Christmas Day leaders to win promotion: 70%
Christmas Day leaders to claim at least a Play-Off spot: 100%

Sky Bet League Two

Christmas Day leaders to win the title: 40%
Christmas Day leaders to win promotion: 75%
Christmas Day leaders to claim at least a Play-Off spot: 100%

Nothing is guaranteed

The stats show, however, it does not always turn out rosy for the Christmas Day leaders – twice in the last 20 years has the side top of the Championship table on 25th December dropped down the table to miss out on even a Play-Off spot (Huddersfield Town in 1999/00 and Burnley in 2001/02).

The race for automatic promotion

In the Championship and League Two this season, a points gap has developed somewhat between the automatic promotion places and the chasing pack, but all is not lost.

Across the three divisions over the last 20 years, 39% of teams promoted automatically have been outside of the automatic promotion spots at Christmas. Last term, Burnley, Wigan and Bristol Rovers rose from the Play-Off places to go up at the first time of asking — the former pair securing the title in the process.

In the five Championship seasons from 2010/11 to 2014/15, Norwich City, Reading, Leicester City and Watford all climbed into the Championship’s top two from a Play-Off spot (or in Reading’s case, outside the Play-Offs), with 2012/13 the only exception when Cardiff City and Hull City fended off all comers beneath them.

Of the current Sky Bet League One hopefuls, Peterborough United were seventh in 2008/09 before finishing as runners-up to Leicester City and earning a second straight promotion, while last season’s champions, Wigan Athletic, sat in fifth place on Christmas Day.

Rotherham United and Burton Albion are among the 40% of League Two sides to have made a charge in the second half of the season, with both clubs going on to enjoy further success, now plying their trade in the Sky Bet Championship. In fact, not since 2004/05, when Scunthorpe United, Yeovil Town and Swansea City went up, have all of the top three in League Two at Christmas held on to the automatic promotion spots.

Outside the automatic spots at Christmas but promoted automatically

Sky Bet Championship: 35%
Sky Bet League One: 43%
Sky Bet League Two: 40%

An outside chance

Mid-table obscurity is no bad thing at this time of the season; just ask Sunderland fans about the 2006/07 campaign.

The Mackems were sitting 11th on Christmas Day 2006 yet went on to not only earn promotion, but win the title. Although that’s a feat unlikely to be repeated often, it shows what is possible, and there’s still higher than a one-in-four chance that a club sitting in the Sky Bet Championship will take a Play-Off place. Things don’t always go up however, and four seasons after Sunderland’s achievement, Doncaster Rovers were in 11th place in the Championship at Christmas, going on to just avoid relegation with a 21st-place finish.

Although not quite as dramatic as Sunderland’s title win, Yeovil Town in the 2012/13 League One campaign also sat in 11th place in their division at Christmas but went on to climb to fourth to seal a Sky Bet Championship place with Wembley Play-Off glory. That same season, eventual runners-up AFC Bournemouth had only sat two places above the Glovers in ninth on Christmas Day.

Back in 2003/04, Crystal Palace were 19th in the Championship at Christmas, yet promoted to the top-flight via the Play-Offs, but it’s in League Two where the late push is most common, and most successful.

The likes of Crewe Alexandra (14th - 2011/12), Stevenage (11th - 2010/11), Stockport County (12th - 2007/08) and Bristol Rovers (11th - 2006/07) have all risen up the standings and gone up in the post-season showdown.

Earning a Play-Off place when outside the Play-Off positions at Christmas

Sky Bet Championship: 27%
Sky Bet League One: 28%
Sky Bet League Two: 31%

No room for complacency

Mid-table safety is a commonly used term – but it is not always the case.

Though no side placed in the top half of the Championship at Christmas has gone on to get relegated, a few have come close. In addition to Doncaster Rovers in 2010/11, Queens Park Rangers (1997/98), Millwall (2003/04) and Crystal Palace (2009/10) have all been in the top 12 in the division at Christmas but gone on to finish just one place above the relegation zone.

The tale of post-Christmas woe continues in League One, with four sides from the last 20 years having been in the top half at Christmas but going on to get relegated at the end of the season. By far the most dramatic fall was that of Notts County in 2014/15. The Magpies sat just one place outside the League One Play-Off places in seventh when the presents were opened in 2014, but found themselves relegated to League Two at the end of the campaign with a 21st-place finish. Other Christmas top-half teams to have suffered the drop in League One are Shrewsbury Town (12th-22nd, 1996/97), Walsall (11th-bottom, 2005/06) and Northampton Town (12th-21st, 2008/09).

In League Two, two clubs in the past 20 years that were placed in the top half of the division in the Christmas Day tables have actually gone on to finish bottom of the pile. In 2000/01, Barnet were 12th but fell away, winning only four post-Christmas games to succumb to the drop. The 2003/04 season saw a similar fate for York City, with their Christmas Day ninth spot turning into a bottom-placed finish after winning their Boxing Day game and first match of the New Year, but then only getting a return of five draws from the remainder of the season.

Beating the drop

One word… Barnsley.

Last season (2015/16) produced the remarkable story of the Tykes making their way out of the bottom four and up the Sky Bet League One ladder, climbing 15 places and sealing their spot in the second tier with a second Wembley win of the season, in the Play-Off Final. The Tykes’ amazing last 12 months has seen them go from 21st in League One to a current position of 12th in the Sky Bet Championship.

Not every club is likely to see such a turnaround, but 42% of clubs in the relegation zone at Christmas do avoid the drop, so there’s no room for complacency for the teams above them.

In 2009/10, it was a full house as Sheffield Wednesday, Peterborough and Plymouth all fell out of the Championship, but at least one club in the drop zone has survived in the six seasons since.

Despite four teams dropping from League One, there is a 41% survival rate. In 2013/14, Notts County, Crewe and Bristol City all escaped the drop, with only Stevenage failing to survive, while two of the four strugglers have ensured their safety in the two previous campaigns.

As for Sky Bet League Two, 55% of clubs have avoided relegation despite their lowly December position. Between 2010/11 and 2013/14, none of the eight clubs in the bottom two at Christmas ultimately ended up falling through the relegation trapdoor.

Prior to 2002/03, only one club was relegated into the National League, and while that couldn’t save Doncaster in 1997/98 or Halifax in 2001/02, it did give Brighton – bottom of League Two on Christmas Day in 1996 – the chance to keep their head above water.

They’ve come a long way since!

In relegation zone at Christmas but avoiding the drop

Sky Bet Championship: 35%
Sky Bet League One: 41%
Sky Bet League Two: 55%

Post-Christmas performance in numbers

    •    47% of teams top of their division at Christmas in the last 20 years have gone on to win the title
    •    45 of the last 60 teams to top one of the EFL divisions at Christmas have gone on to earn promotion (16 of the last 20 Championship leaders, 13 League One and 16 League Two)

    •    28% of top 6/7 spots at the end of the season have been claimed by clubs outside Play-Offs at Christmas

    •    42% of clubs in the relegation zone at Christmas have managed to avoid the drop

    •    The biggest post-Christmas gain in places was the 15 spots climbed by Barnsley last season

    •    The biggest post-Christmas drop in places was the 16 places plummeted by Chester City in 2007/08

Note: Stats are based on the current allocation of automatic promotion, Play-Offs and relegation places across the three divisions.

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