The Play-Offs

All or Nothing
Often credited as one of The Football League’s most important inventions, Richard Foster explains how the Play-Offs have changed the domestic game.

The Football League Play-Offs have developed into a well-established and much cherished institution within the English football calendar. The unparalleled success of this laudable innovation has received the acclaim of players and managers, supporters and club owners. Indeed the redoubtable chairman of Leyton Orient, Barry Hearn once described them as “the best invention ever.” Considering Hearn’s customary hyperbole came in the wake of his team’s defeat in a Final underlines the deep affection and respect inspired by the Play-Offs.

Alongside this depth of feeling, there is also a breadth of experience, with a broad swathe of clubs involved. Up to and including 2012/13, 94 clubs have participated in well over 400 Play-Offs matches from the lowly and fallen to today’s high and mighty clubs. From Maidstone United to Manchester City, from Chelsea to Chester, the history of the Play-Offs encompasses both ends of the football spectrum. Their roots stretch back to the days of William McGregor and the ‘test matches’ of 1890s, which were introduced to determine relegation and promotion after the addition of a second division.

Their impressive current standing belies the humble origins of the idea, which lay in the troubled times of the mid 1980s when football was out of favour and in serious decline. In 1985 a league management committee was convened to address the serious problems facing football as attendances had plummeted to a post war low, with crowds of only 7.5 million watching the three lower divisions. The resulting Heathrow Agreement, as it became known, was drawn up as a 10 point rescue plan to stabilise the sick patient that was English football and return it to health.

Martin Lange, then chairman of Brentford and representing the  3rd & 4th Divisions, led the initiative to introduce a series of Play-Offs that would facilitate a reduction in the 22 club First Division, whilst compensating the lower league clubs for loss of income as the First Division clubs had succeeded in taking a larger slice of League revenue. The wording of the agreement was not exactly a wholehearted endorsement, nor was there much expectation of a lengthy future. “Initially the Play-Offs would operate for two years, but if they proved popular with spectators they could become a permanent part of the calendar.”

Even the man responsible for bringing the idea to the table did not hold out too much hope for an extended run. “I couldn’t see them lasting for twenty years, ten years, probably not even five years,” Lange admitted. As an unobtrusive and largely ignored component of the Heathrow Agreement, the Play-Offs arrived under the radar and in the early years did not attract too much attention. In the very first year, The Times of May 1987 carried  more column inches on a Minor Counties cricket match against Glamorgan than any of the Play-Offs matches. But at least the press did acknowledge their existence whereas there was no television coverage save for the odd local sports bulletin. The fact that a pool tournament from Dartford warranted an hour’s worth of broadcast time puts things into perspective.

But in this inaugural year there were precedents aplenty of the thrilling and dramatic action, which would come to characterise the Play-Offs. The Third Division semi-final between Sunderland and Gillingham was a pulsating 6-6 aggregate draw that Sunderland lost on the away goals rule, leading to their only season in the third tier of the league. So Sunderland were one of the first clubs to suffer the agony of Play-Offs heartbreak and rue their significance. Whilst the Black Cats were to be on the receiving end of further rough justice, their next encounter showed that fate could deal a fair hand as well as foul.

With so much excitement and tension wrapped up in the early years, there was an issue of how such momentum could be maintained. The solution came from Andy Williamson, now Chief Operating Officer of The Football League and with more than 40 years of service to the organisation.  Williamson had the inspirational idea of switching the Finals from two-legged games to a single match played at Wembley, with all three matches staged on Bank Holiday weekend. From 1990 onwards, the Finals became a showpiece, creating a sense of occasion, bringing an elevated status to proceedings and providing a rich seam of memories as legends were born.

Dion Dublin scored the very first Play-Offs goal at Wembley  for Cambridge in their 1-0 victory against Chesterfield. Despite going on to play for numerous bigger clubs such as Manchester United and Celtic, as well as being Premier League top scorer for Coventry City in 1998 and representing England, Dublin still considers this Play-Offs goal as the highlight of his illustrious career. As an England international with over 100 Premier League goals to his name, the significance that Dublin attributes to his Play-Offs experience is a telling one.

Cambridge United's Dion Dublin celebrates scoring against Chesterfield in 1990

If Dublin left his mark on the pitch, events off the field provided a strange baptism in another Final in 1990. Sunderland were back, this time with a tilt at gaining promotion to the top division. Their opponents were Swindon who had also been involved in the first year of the Play-Offs, and unlike Sunderland, had managed to conquer Gillingham (only after a replay). Sunderland were again thwarted, losing 1-0 to Swindon, who were set to enjoy their first season in the top division. However, there were complications off the pitch, which then threw everything out of kilter. Swindon were under investigation for illegal payments to players and when the charges were admitted the ultimate sanction was imposed and the club’s promotion was rescinded, Sunderland gained an extraordinary reprieve and it was they who were promoted.

Whilst this was harsh on Swindon, the irony that the first series of Wembley Finals ended in a result decided elsewhere was inescapable and could have undermined the move to the National Stadium. However, the Play-Offs proved resilient and a string of stirring matches followed, including Swindon’s return in 1993 to the scene of that short-lived triumph and their ultimate redemption with a stunning 4-3 victory over Leicester City, which finally secured them a place for their only season in the top flight. 

The highly entertaining nature of these Finals continued unabated throughout the 1990s and when Sunderland came back for their third crack of the whip in 1998, the classic tussle which ensued with Charlton is widely hailed as one of the greatest Wembley Finals of modern times. In an echo of their original high-scoring draw with Gillingham 11 years beforehand, this one ended 4-4 after extra time and so they were thrust into the drama of a penalty shoot-out, which almost inevitably they lost. Michael Gray was the unfortunate player who missed the decisive penalty and he claims that, even to this day, he is reminded of this miss regularly by unforgiving Sunderland fans. 

The following year’s third tier Final involved Sunderland’s early nemesis Gillingham, who this time were up against Manchester City, a team at the lowest ebb of their league history. The amazing late twist within this match when City scored two ridiculously late goals, equalising in the fifth minute of extra time, draws a close parallel with City’s Premier League victory in May 2012. Many believe that if City had not succeeded in that Play-Offs Final then they may have never recovered sufficiently to climb back up to the summit, which owes much to that pivotal moment in 1999. 

In 2000, the year the old Wembley Stadium was closed for rebuilding, Ipswich Town at last reached the Final after three consecutive semi-final defeats. Few could have begrudged them their long-awaited success. Having been knocked out twice on away goals, the Ipswich chairman David Sheepshanks had had enough and proposed that this rule should be scrapped for the Play-Offs on the grounds that it the match should be settled wherever possible on the pitch, if necessary via a penalty shoot-out. Sheepshanks motion gained the support of a majority of clubs and Ipswich duly secured their only Play-Offs success, dramatically beating old foes Bolton 7-5 on aggregate in the semi-finals before overcoming Barnsley 4-2 in the Final. 

This enviable reputation for terrific Finals continued both at the Millennium Stadium up to 2006 and after the return to the rebuilt Wembley. Even matches that failed to ignite during regular play somehow managed to summon up something special.  Sheffield United and Huddersfield’s goalless draw in the 2012 League 1 Final was not the most distinguished two hours of football ever played. But uniquely every single player took a penalty during the shoot-out until United’s keeper Steve Simonsen missed the twenty-second spot kick, thus giving the match its unforgettable climax. 

Since 1987 the seasons of countless teams have been transformed, enlivened and rescued by the Play-Offs. Where there was once just mid-table mediocrity, now there is the prospect of pushing for promotion. Interest is maintained right up to the end of the season for dozens of teams every year. Crowds picked up immediately, rising by four million between 1987 and 1990. Since that nadir of the mid-1980s gates have more than doubled and in the modern era are at their highest levels for 50 years, buoyed by the Play-Offs’ inclusiveness. At their climax, around a third of a million people watch the Play-Offs unfold, so maybe Hearn was right after all.