The Championship/First Division/Second Division (delete as appropriate) play-off final has provided a large number of English football’s most memorable games and moments since the inception of the play-offs in 1987. Styled as the most valuable game in the world, even more so this season thanks to a massive increase in TV revenue, a combination of the importance of the event, fatigue caused by the rigours of a long season, and an end-of-term atmosphere often contribute to an attacking, free-flowing game (with a few exceptions, I’m looking at you Birmingham 1-1 Norwich in 2002). So, with this season’s final finale of many just around the corner, let’s have a look at some of the more memorable ones.
Leeds 1-2 Charlton 1987
A cursory search of the Internet throws no light on the question of who it was that came up with the idea of the play-offs, but whoever it was, a doff of the hat and a tug of the forelock to you. They were introduced for the 1986-87 season, with a slightly different format to now, in that the fourth-bottom team in the First Division would take part to avoid relegation. To be honest, the first few years of the play-offs were a little over-complicated – for some reason the fourth-bottom team of the First Division would have to take part, but only the third bottom team of the Second Division, and the final was held over 2 legs, with no penalties or away goals rule, leading to several replays on neutral grounds. The oddest occurrence came in the 1987-88 Second/Third Division play-offs, when after drawing 3-3 on aggregate over the two legs of the final, Walsall and Bristol City had a penalty shoot-out, not to decide who would win promotion, but to decide who would win the right to host the replay. Bizarre.
Charlton finished fourth-bottom in the First Division in 1986-87, back in the days when they ground-shared with Crystal Palace, while an attractive Leeds side under Billy Bremner had finished 4th in the Second Division, while also losing a belting FA Cup semi-final 3-2 to Coventry. Both teams narrowly won their semi-final, Charlton beating Ipswich 2-1 on aggregate, while a last minute goal from lower league goal machine Keith Edwards put Leeds through at the expense of Oldham. Goals from Charlton’s Scottish striker Jim Melrose, subsequently famous for having his cheekbone fractured by Chris Kamara leading to the SkySports ‘pundit’ being found guilty of GBH, at Selhurst Park, and then Leeds’ Brendan Ormsby, from all of 3 centimetres, at Elland Road meant a deciding match, at St Andrew’s, would be required.
Leeds had a reasonable team that season – former PFA Young Player of the Year Mervyn Day in goal, Mark Aizlewood, recently signed from…you’ve guessed it…Charlton, in defence, the smooth passing of John Sheridan in midfield, Micky Adams’ energy down the left and Ian Baird as a classic number 10. Charlton, in their first season after promotion, had done rather well to avoid relegation considering the financial uncertainty surrounding the club, but they also had one or two useful players, a young Rob Lee providing goals and bustle from the right wing, Colin Walsh scheming from midfield, and in Paul Miller and Peter Shirtliff a couple of centre-backs who would find themselves (along with Malcolm Shotton and Brian Kilcline) near the top of a hard-bastard central defenders of the 80s list.
To be frank, the game itself wasn’t great. Leeds probably shaded it, but there wasn’t much in the way of clear chances. However, the drama was still to come in extra-time. Ten minutes in, Miller was rather harshly penalised for handball as Edwards ran in on goal (nowadays he’d probably be sent off), and John Sheridan, with almost Federer-esque insouciance, curled the free-kick over the wall and in. Advantage Leeds, but with seven minutes left, a typically English football in the 80s bout of penalty-area pinball, ended with Shirtliff, an irregular goalscorer to put it mildly, sweeping the ball in with his left foot from 15 yards with Rush-like efficiency. A penalty shoot-out loomed, but Shirtliff, who scored more than 10% of his career goals in these 5 minutes, popped up once more, heading home Andy Peake’s outswinging free-kick. Not the most scintillating football, but for drama and the throwing up of an unlikely hero, it’s right up there.
Swindon 4-3 Leicester 1993
Swindon had been denied promotion to the First Division in 1990 when, having won the play-off final against Sunderland, it became apparent they had been breaking all sorts of financial rules over the last 5 years, mainly involving illegal payments, but also including chairman Brian Hillier and then manager Lou Macari betting on Swindon to lose an FA Cup game against Newcastle in 1988. There was therefore a whiff of catharsis in the air for the Robins, under the management of Glenn Hoddle; there was also unfinished business for their opponents, Leicester City, who had lost the final to Blackburn the previous season thanks to a very soft penalty. Again the semi-finals were close – Leicester edging out Portsmouth 3-2 on aggregate, and Swindon beating Tranmere 5-4, but the final started cagily. As you would expect from a team containing the passing and playmaking ability of Hoddle, John Moncur and Micky Hazard (although Hazard was only a substitute here), Swindon were easy on the eye, while Leicester were more direct, relying on the pace of Julian Joachim and Lee Philpott, and the physical presence of defender-turned-striker Steve Walsh. Shortly before half-time Swindon took the lead when Nicky Summerbee whipped in a mediocre cross, Craig Maskell controlled it well, before playing a neat back-heel into the path of Hoddle who placed a first time shot just left of Kevin Poole. So far, so unremarkable.
The second half, on the other hand started out like a house on fire. Moncur tried to dribble his way through the middle, got a lucky rebound and managed to poke the ball through to Maskell, who tonked a left-footed strike across Poole into the top corner. Then Moncur headed a loose ball into the penalty area following a corner, and Shaun Taylor braved Poole’s flying fists to nod the ball over the line. 3-0, and Swindon were surely strolling into the Premier League.
But not for long. Three minutes after Taylor’s goal, Philpott and David Oldfield played a nice one-two down the left, Walsh headed Philpott’s cross against the post, and Joachim walloped the rebound home, nearly decapitating Swindon ‘keeper Fraser Digby in the process. Ten minutes later, with Swindon’s defence looking petrified, Gary Mills’ cross from the right was retrieved by Philpott who stood up a 9-iron of a cross. Digby waved a hand in the general direction of the ball, and Walsh, whose physique suggested he should have been playing with an oval ball at Welford Road instead, headed home. Almost inevitably, Leicester equalised, when Mike Whitlow took the ball off Moncur with the brutal ease of a school bully relieving the school weed of his lunch money, went on a barnstorming run down the left, and cut the ball back across the penalty area. Steve Thompson arrived late, dummied two defenders with a first touch of almost inhuman calmness, and touched the ball past the onrushing Digby.
Received wisdom suggests momentum is a crucial concept in sport. According to the laws of momentum, Leicester should have gone on to win the game. However, there were still 20 minutes left, giving Swindon time to recover themselves and keep things simple. On 84 minutes, Hoddle played a delightful lofted through ball over Colin Hill into Steve White’s path. The substitute knocked the ball past Poole with his first touch, realised Hill had recovered and threw himself to the floor in a rather unconvincing manner. Convincing enough for David Ellery who, presumably practising for the two penalties he’d give at the next season’s FA Cup final, awarded the penalty. In an era when full-backs seemed quite often to be regular penalty takers (Julian Dicks, Lee Dixon, Stuart Pearce, Denis Irwin), left-back Paul Bodin stepped up and sent Poole the wrong way. Success for Hoddle, who joined Chelsea in the close season, and would become England manager just over 3 years later, and a case of history repeating itself for Leicester.
Bolton 4-3 Reading 1995
The Reading team of 1994-95 are one of the unluckiest of all play-off losers. Under the guidance of joint player-managers Jimmy Quinn and Mick Gooding (back in the times where such things were fashionable/possible), the Royals had been unexpected challengers for promotion, having won the Second Division the season before. Challenge they did, though, ending up in 2nd place, 3 points behind champions Middlesbrough. Ordinarily, 2nd place would have been enough to gain promotion, but with the football league going through another restructuring, reducing the number of teams in the Premier League from 22 to 20, only two promotion places were available. Reading swallowed their disappointment and defeated Tranmere 3-1 in the semi-finals, while a John McGinlay goal in extra-time took Bruce Rioch’s Bolton past Wolves.
In the final, Reading started like a house on fire. Aussie full-back Andy Bernal bombed down the right and scuffed a cross in towards Lee Nogan. The striker somehow managed to wriggle his way past Alan Stubbs, dummied Scott Green and fired the ball past Keith Branagan. That was after four minutes – eight minutes later a quick free-kick from Simon Osborn found the Bolton defence asleep, and centre-back Adrian Williams poked home. On 34 minutes Michael Gilkes tricked his way into the penalty area and drew a rash tackle from a baby-faced Jason McAteer. Joint player-manager Quinn was the regular penalty taker, but had selected himself on the bench (surely part of the point of being player-manager is to pick yourself at every available opportunity), so Stuart Lovell took on the responsibility. Although, as has been seen, a 3-0 lead is in no way impregnable, surely were Lovell to score, Reading would have one foot, a heel and the best part of an instep in the Premier League. Instead Branagan (keeping a little-known veteran named Shilton out of the team) dived the right way and kept out the striker’s well-hit penalty.
Despite the fact Reading held out until the 75th minute, there was something almost tragically inevitable about Bolton’s comeback. First Owen Coyle emphatically headed in a right-wing cross, then, with four minutes left, Alan Thompson played in substitute Fabian DeFreitas , who (just) beat the offside trap and shot in across Shaka Hislop. Extra time was practically a foregone conclusion. Big-boned Finn Mixu Paatelainen nodded in from 6 yards, before treating the Wembley crowd to a forward flip that presumably could be felt back home in Helsinki, and then, with the Reading defence barely bothering to walk let alone defend, McGinlay crossed, DeFreitas stuck out a leg, saw the ball hit the post and rebound into his forearm, looked around guiltily and prodded the ball in. There was still time for Quinn to lash in a consolation with the frustration of a man who has watched his dreams of top flight football slip away, but this was a missed opportunity for Reading who would have to wait another 12 years before attaining promotion to the top flight.
Leicester 2-1 Crystal Palace 1996
Leicester City went on an impressive run of appearing in 4 out of 5 play-off finals in the early-mid 90s. After defeats in 1992 and 1993, they had finally won at Wembley, undeservedly beating Derby County in 1994, and, following relegation, were back again, facing another side relegated from the Premier League the year before, Crystal Palace.
Martin O’Neill was starting to build the Leicester team that would win the League Cup the following season, and establish themselves in the Premier League. Most of the midfield and attack from the previous season’s Premier League disaster had been replaced, with Garry Parker (surely far too good for Division One), Scott Taylor and Neil Lennon being signed, and Muzzy Izzet arriving on loan from Chelsea. A strong left-sided attacker named Emile Heskey was breaking through, and just before the transfer deadline, O’Neill had paid over £1 million for journeyman striker Steve Claridge. Palace, under Dave Bassett, had also made some important signings, including top scorer Dougie Freedman from Barnet, and Britain’s ginger-est man David Hopkin from Chelsea.
Palace went ahead early in the game, a perceptive pass from Ray Houghton finding Andy Roberts on the edge of the area whose shot hit a bobble and jumped over the unfortunate Kevin Poole’s outstretched arm. For the remainder of the game, however, it was pretty much constant Leicester pressure. Parker and Lennon probed away from the middle of the park, Izzet, playing on the left, was busy and tricksy, while Heskey did what Heskey always did best – make a nuisance of himself, run defenders around, create space for others, and resolutely fail to score. Claridge hooked wide from 10 yards as the ball came over his shoulder, and Steve Walsh had a shot cleared off the line, although Poole had to be at his best to stop a tremendous long-range effort from George Ndah. With 15 minutes to go, however, time was running out for Leicester. Then Walsh played a terrific ball down the left for Izzet, who cut in towards goal. Despite the fact there were three other Palace defenders around, with barely a Leicester player in sight, Marc Edworthy dived in to try and win the ball, a tackle as ill-judged as Phil Neville’s against Romania in Euro 2000. A clear penalty, which Garry Parker put away with no trouble, and Leicester had the equaliser they deserved.
And so we had extra-time again. Leicester continued to dominate, but failed to create any real chances, and the game drifted inexorably towards penalties. Then after 119 minutes O’Neill played his masterstroke. Looking over to the bench, most were surprised to see Leicester’s reserve (and future Milan) goalkeeper Zeljko Kalac ready to come on. Apparently he had talked O’Neill into bringing him on, reasoning that his 6’8’’ frame would render him more likely to save penalties. A rather odd decision in retrospect, especially given that Kevin Poole, who looked gutted to be taken off, had a reputation as a shot-stopper. However, on he lumbered, and as Palace’s players watched this behemoth take to the field, Leicester launched a last minute free-kick upfield. Ndah won the ball but could only nod it down towards the edge of the penalty area. Claridge ambled onto the bouncing ball, and swung a tired right leg at it. Now, Steve Claridge, admirable footballer though he may have been, was never one of the great technicians. Here at the end of 120 minutes of one of the most important matches of his career, it is sad to report that Claridge’s technique deserted his exhausted body. The ball hit his shin and went off at an improbable angle. This improbable angle happened to be towards the left-hand corner of Nigel Martyn’s net, in a perfect curving arc. The gobsmacked ‘keeper could only watch the ball loop into the goal, as Claridge wheeled away, scarcely believing what he’d done. To be fair to the striker he had the good grace to admit he’d shinned it in the post-match interview.
There are several other finals I could have chosen, and I am aware that I am extremely biased towards my childhood. For example, there was Palace coming from 3-1 down after the first leg to beat Blackburn after extra time in 1989, thanks to a brace from Ian Wright; or the famous 4-4 draw between Charlton and Sunderland in 1998, complete with Clive Mendonca hat-trick, and Michael Gray being responsible for one of Wembley’s worst penalties (tied with Gary Lineker’s against Brazil in 1992); Ipswich finally breaking their play-off hoodoo with a 4-2 win over Barnsley in 2000, with Britain’s craggiest man Tony Mowbray scoring on his last ever appearance; or Blackpool beating Cardiff 3-2 in 2010, with all the goals coming in the first half. Anyway, I hope that this season’s game lives up to its illustrious predecessors.