Once viewed with suspicion and reluctance, the Football League play-offs have now become an integral part of the English game, responsible for spicing up what otherwise would have been a much duller season’s end, as GLENN BILLINGHAM explains.
May can be a blissful time of year. As the football season hits the business end, spring begins to flirt with summer, and holiday plans are fine tuned. However, just as league champions are crowned, relegations are confirmed. For every open top bus parade, there is a sacking and solemn slip out the back door. For football folk of all roles and responsibilities, May is a defining month.
Since the 1986/87 season, many of us have been on May’s unique rollercoaster of the Football League Play-Offs. The short but intensive ride only serves to dramatically enhance the month’s sense of delirium, or its nauseating notion of complete despair. For in the play-offs, there’s little in between.
As a lazily obvious metaphor, the rollercoaster is at least highly appropriate. In the two or three matches squeezed in after the season, there are thrills, spills, ups, downs, twists, and turns. However, the hurtling and stomach churning route through the Football League play-offs can be more extreme than that. Theirs is a rollercoaster made of wood, greased with oil and banana skins, and often plotted with scant regard for health and sanity.
This month will see the 30th anniversary of the Football League play-offs. Despite the landmark, though, it should be noted the concept is almost as old as the Football League itself. For every hero, villain, and moment of drama, there is William McGregor to thank.
Having conceived and founded the Football League in 1888, McGregor was a staunch admirer of the play-off system used in American sport. When he extended his new Football League back in 1892, he applied some quintessentially British thinking to the notion of play-offs.
Rather than deciding an outright league champion, McGregor declared that the play-offs should define movement between two divisions; all at once, a noble, refined, yet chaotic concept, and one which didn’t mollycoddle the ‘bigger’ clubs. The Americans must have been horrified.
In pitting the bottom three teams of Division One against the top three of Division Two, 1892-1898 saw England’s first play-offs labelled as test matches. The games were entertainingly effective, and provided a much-needed fluency to an embryonic league.
However, scandal and outrage arrived in 1898. In the final match Burnley and Stoke City colluded to play out a 0-0 draw. The stalemate ensured Burnley’s promotion, secured Stoke’s top-flight status, and became league football’s first major controversy. Subsequently, promotion and relegation became automatic, and it would be decades before anyone mentioned play-offs again.
Briefly mooted by Football League secretary Alan Hardaker in the late fifties, it was a little under three decades till talk of reviving the play-offs got serious.
During the sixties and seventies, Hardaker saw two of his significant ideas through to reality. Firstly, he was responsible for implementing the League Cup in 1961. Secondly, Hardaker increased the number of teams promoted and relegated from two to three. Though, in championing the notion for play-offs, he met stern opposition.
Fast-forward to the mid-eighties, and football was a game in severe decline. There existed a significant swell of public opinion that England’s national game was entirely irksome. Blighted by increasing hooliganism, outdated infrastructure, and declining spectator numbers, football was at its lowest ebb.
The Football League were at something of a loss as to how to reverse the worrying trend. Subtle changes, such as awarding three points rather than two for a win, had little effect. Inspired by William McGregor’s legacy and the play-offs’ continued success in America, Hardaker’s persistence helped to gain momentum and support.
In Ron Noades and Martin Lange, Chairmen of Crystal Palace and Brentford respectively, the Football League found two staunch supporters of the play-offs idea. Their enthusiasm was infectious, and committee members became convinced.
The play-offs represented an injection of zest for a stagnant national game. Something fresh to stir the imagination, provide some excitement, and give more teams something to play for during the season’s final third. Above all, they represented a gamble.
Another prerequisite was to slightly reform the league make-up. The Football League had long wanted to reduce the top flight to 20 teams, and level each of the 3 lower tiers at 24 teams. The play-offs would help achieve that, and if they were otherwise a failure, they could easily be scrapped thereafter.
As part of 1985’s ‘Heathrow Agreement’, the play-offs were to be part of a ten-point plan for improving league football, and introduced for the following season.
Skimming newspapers of the 1986/87 campaign reveal the expected and plentiful highlights, yet little mention of the play-offs. After sacking Ron Atkinson, Manchester United controversially appointed Aberdeen manager Alex Ferguson. Merseyside claimed first and second place in Division One, with Everton holding off Liverpool to win a second league title in three years. 17-year-old Matt Le Tissier made his Southampton debut, and the FA Cup Final between Coventry City and Tottenham Hotspur was a peach.
Quietly ushered in at the end of the campaign were the play-offs. Bolted on almost apologetically to the end of the Division Two, Three and Four campaigns, minimal fuss was made.
If the Football League were quietly hoping for some spectacle, their prayers were answered. Each of the three divisional play-offs immediately showcased a bewitching ability to marry high octane excitement on the pitch with intriguing subplots and drama off it.
In a throwback to the test matches of almost a century ago, the format included teams from two divisions. Therefore, the Division Two play-offs of 1986/87 were contested between 19th placed in Division One – Charlton Athletic – and 3rd, 4th, and 5th in Division Two – Oldham Athletic, Leeds United and Ipswich Town respectively.
Leeds had suffered quite a fall from grace. Having appeared in three European finals throughout the seventies, and been crowned top-flight champions in 1974, the new-fangled play-offs represented a chance of returning to the top flight.
In the semi-finals, Oldham provided stern opposition. It took last minute goals in both legs to prod Leeds through to the final via away goals. With two 1-0 home victories, the two-legged final couldn’t yield a winner, so a replay was needed. Inevitably, the replay was also a tense affair. Eventually, Leeds’ John Sheridan broke the deadlock nine minutes into extra-time. With Leeds trying to shut up shop, and their fans discreetly dreaming of a top-flight return after six years’ absence, cue the first of many unlikely play-offs heroes.
Peter Shirtliff – Charlton’s journeyman defender and an ex-Sheffield Wednesday player born in Barnsley – averaged less than a goal a season. In the second half of extra-time in the first Division Two play-off final, he scored twice in four minutes. Charlton became the first English club to preserve their divisional status via the play-offs.
Drama was thrust all over the menu in the Division Three play-offs, too. Another big club trying to halt an alarming slide, Sunderland, entered after finishing 20th in Division Two. Swindon Town, Wigan Athletic, and Gillingham (3rd, 4th, and 5th in Division Three) made up the draw.
A plethora of goals and a cardiac arrest-inducing 6-6 aggregate score line saw Gillingham prevail over Sunderland on away goals in the semi-final. In a match that swung like a wild pendulum, Tony Cascarino scored five of Gillingham’s six. Surprisingly – or completely logically – the final proved a step too far for Gillingham, who went down 2-0 to Swindon in another final which required a replay.
Division Four’s 1987 final between Wolverhampton Wanderers and Aldershot was also highly noteworthy. Completing a hat-trick of bigger clubs enduring torrid times, Wolves were keen to snatch at any opportunity of possible glory. Millions of pounds in debt, and perilously close to going out of business, Wolves had missed automatic promotion by a single point.
Aldershot were understandably cast as minnows. Wolves finished nine points clear of Aldershot in the final table, and had beaten them home and away. Aldershot did, however, have form after despatching of Bolton Wanderers (who finished 21st in Division Three) in their semi-final.
Evidencing a truism that the play-offs care little for form or prestige, Aldershot soundly beat Wolves 3-0 across two legs. Post-match frustration boiled over as fans clashed outside the ground. 41 of 42 arrests were Wolves fans and regrettably, the drama didn’t end there. Three Aldershot players were hospitalised following a car-crash on their way home. Defender Darren Anderson reportedly drove his car into a tree just hours after the final.
A devilish precedent for electrifying football, late goals, drama and intrigue, had been set.
In capturing the imagination, the first year of the play-offs could be deemed a resounding success. The aim of giving more teams something to play for come the end of the season was undoubtedly accomplished. Most supporters were enthusiastically receptive. As were the players, but it took a while before the majority of managers and chairmen found the same warmth.
After losing their semi-final on away goals, Oldham manager Joe Royle was particularly aggrieved. “We finished seven points clear of Leeds”, he bemoaned to local press, “and so to go out on away goals to them means there is something unjust. I welcomed the play-offs but possibly hadn’t considered the long term ramifications.”
If Royle was the first manager to feel the empty heartache of the play-offs, Swindon manager Lou Macari had a taste of their head spinning drama. “I never want to go through a night like that again. The play-offs are unfair and should be scrapped”, he declared after his team's final against Gillingham, a match they won.
Most supporters could probably empathise with both Royle and Macari. For teams such as Oldham, who were denied promotion by teams who finished below them in the regular season, the first edition of the play-offs were harsh. However, it is also true they had another chance to display their superiority, and blew it.
Logistically, the system remained unchanged for 1987/88. Inclusion of the lowest-placed team from the division above was scrapped in 1989, and Wembley became a one-off final venue from 1990. Other than that, little has changed.
In culminating the short yet thunderous play-offs route at Wembley, the Football League’s Andy Williamson completed a masterpiece. This tweak took away the onus of a two-legged final, and in the form of a Wembley Bank Holiday weekend date, provided a fitting finale for the winners and losers.
Defining winners, losers, and the fine margins involved, the 1993 Division One Play-Off final between Leicester City and Swindon Town was particularly spectacular.
Pulling Swindon’s strings from midfield, player/manager Glenn Hoddle was instrumental. 3-0 up by the 53rd minute, Swindon looked home and dry. However, goals from Julian Joachim, Steve Walsh, and Steve Thompson bought Leicester back level with 20 minutes remaining.
With Leicester in the ascendency, the pendulum swung once more, and after a contentious penalty decision, Paul Bodin stepped up and smashed Swindon into the Premier League. Leicester suffered consecutive play-off final defeats to late penalties. Just days later, Hoddle would be confirmed as Chelsea manager, and John Gorman oversaw Swindon’s difficult and solitary season in the top flight.
Regrettably, the modern Championship play-offs, those which promise financial windfalls of over £100million, have somewhat stifled all that free-flowing football. In its place, a tentative and panic-stricken game of slow chess evolves. Though perfectly understandable, it is perhaps one of the only gripes to be levelled at the play-offs, which is harsh, as it’s basically all Richard Scudamore’s fault.
1999’s Division Two play-off could arguably be heralded as the making of modern Manchester City. A year after falling to their lowest ebb (relegation to what is now known as League One), City scrambled for a reprieve.
After finishing in 3rd place, and squeezing through a semi-final against Wigan, pre-riches City went into the last minute of the final 2-0 down against Gillingham. Kevin Horlock’s last minute goal made it 2-1, yet appeared little more than a consolation. Appearances, though, can be deceiving. Into the fifth minute of injury time, Paul Dickov registered the latest goal scored at old Wembley.
Incidentally, the Gillingham keeper picking the ball out the net was Vince Bartram, the best man at Dickov’s wedding.
With no further goals in extra-time, Manchester City won on penalties. Their trajectory has been on an upward curve ever since. Gillingham returned in the 2000 final, and beat Wigan to eventually secure their own path to promotion.
Personally, and in entirely biased fashion, the Division Three play-offs of 1998 encapsulate everything that makes them great.
Northampton Town, perennial strugglers only famed for their rapid rise and faster fall through the leagues in the sixties, snuck into the Play-Offs. Theirs was a head of steam steadily maintained to burst with perfect timing. Again, evidence of the play-offs’ favouring form and momentum over points tally and stature.
In a tight run-in Northampton confirmed their spot in 4th, yet just three points separated the four teams in the play-off places. As Swansea City romped past Chester City in their semi-final, Northampton relied on a heady combination of grit and drama to squeeze past Cardiff City.
A delightfully deft chip by Sean Parrish gave the Cobblers a precious away goal, which was protected, thrown away, and then secured as a crucial factor in confirming a Wembley date. Northampton’s Wembley debut looked like it had overawed an over-achieving side, yet somehow the score remained 0-0 in the 90th minute.
With extra-time and penalties looming, John Frain lined up a free-kick with a sense of modest hope. Naturally, the free-kick was spurned into the wall. However, the planets aligned and the free-kick was ordered to be re-taken. With an almost palpable sense of confusion, Frain stepped up again. Swansea goalkeeper, Roger Freestone, inexplicably stepped left before diving right and Wembley’s box net burst and rippled.
In John Frain, the play-offs had created another unassuming cult hero. In lending the Cobblers heartbreak 12 months later in the Division Two final, the play-offs confirmed they’re actually quite fair. Ecstasy and heartache cannot exist without each other.
The basic attraction of knock-out cup football is that there are winners and losers, joy and despair. It is the very essence of sporting competition. The play-offs conjure up such emotion because they have such extremes at stake. Their Wembley date is more than a showpiece final.
Winning the Champions League final is considered the pinnacle of club football success. Yet even triumph to the backdrop of UEFA’s special corporate partners has it’s ceiling. Point being, other than the trophy, the bragging rights, and a bonus or two, there is no more.
The play-offs tick all the above boxes, though admittedly at something of a different standard, but they also propel the winning team to different heights for the next campaign. Equally, losing in the play-offs after a marathon season, knowing that you’ll be back where you started after being so close to the promised land, feels like a body blow and a relegation of sorts.
It is, therefore, not an entirely unrelated coincidence that the significance of the FA Cup began to diminish as the play-offs came to prominence. Admittedly, many other factors are involved. However, for many teams in the lower three tiers of English football, a serious run for the play-offs is far more beneficial than a modest run in the FA Cup. In the world’s oldest cup competition, the fielding of weakened teams isn’t something confined to the biggest clubs.
So much rides on a play-off final that scenes of wild desperation, end-to-end football, and some wonderfully ridiculous scorelines are inevitable. The competition encapsulates cup football in its purest form, and should be celebrated for it.
In the Football League play-offs, as in life, the only certainty is that the adventure will end. Exactly when, how, or indeed how it will all feel, will remain untold, but a conclusion will come. Though at times it's easier said than done, it’s best to try and enjoy the ride.
GLENN BILLINGHAM - @glennbills