30 years of play-offs madness: The 27 best moments from promotion showdowns

The never-ending story

Charlton vs Leeds, 1987
First/Second Division play-off final replay

“It was nearly mid-summer – we were sick of the sight of each other,” laughs Peter Shirtliff, whose goals maintained Charlton’s top-flight status and consigned Leeds to another season of misery in the second tier.

It was the third time the teams had met in a week, after cancelling each other out over two legs at Selhurst Park and Elland Road. But the replay at Birmingham’s St Andrews would be winner takes all – although for Charlton their 2-1 extra-time victory meant nothing sexier than avoiding relegation, such was the original format. “When the final whistle blew the main feeling was relief,” says Shirtliff. Not just for the players...

Shots silence Wolves

Wolves vs Aldershot, 1987
Third/Fourth Division play-off final

It should have been the play-off mis-match to end all play-off mis-matches, but unbelievably Aldershot handed out a thorough beating to bottom-tier big guns Wolves, winning both legs to secure a famous 3-0 aggregate triumph. They had beaten another Premier League club, Bolton Wanderers, in the semi-final. 

I predict a riot

Chelsea vs Middlesbrough, 1988
First/Second Division play-off final

This would be the second and last time a team from the top division would have to enter the play-offs to avoid the drop – and for good reason. “It was the most poisonous atmosphere I’ve ever seen,” says Eric Paylor, senior football reporter at Middlesbrough’s Evening Gazette.

“The expectation at Chelsea was incredibly high that they would wallop these Second Division upstarts and retain their place in the First Division without too many problems.”

After a 2-1 aggregate defeat left Chelsea relegated, though, the major issue facing the Boro fans was survival of a very different kind to that which the Blues had failed to achieve. “At the final whistle the
Shed End just emptied and ran towards the Boro fans,” says Paylor. “If they had got over the fence there would have been casualties. It would have taken football back to the dark ages.”

Fortunately the North Stand defences held and 45 minutes later, at an almost empty Stamford Bridge, the Boro players emerged to celebrate in their pants – their shirts and shorts having been covered in urine thrown from the stands. Lovely. 

30-second warning

Newcastle vs Sunderland, 1990 
Second Division play-off semi-final, second leg

“We were concerned they’d try to get it abandoned,” recalled Sunderland’s Gary Owers, who was wearing the dangerous colours of red and white inside the cauldron of hate that was St James’ Park on a late May evening in 1990. Sunderland had taken a 2-0 lead and were on their way to the final when ref George Courtney informed the players that he would give them a signal when 30 seconds of the derby remained, to ensure they escaped before all hell broke loose. “He [Courtney] was cool as a cucumber,” said Owers. “He said not to worry because we’d finish the game, even if it took until 2am.” In the end Courtney was first down the tunnel, followed by 11 petrified but jubilant Wearsiders.

Every loser wins 

Sunderland vs Swindon, 1990  
Second Division play-off final

It took just 10 days for Swindon Town’s world to implode. Ossie Ardiles – his knees presumably “all trembly” – had led the Robins to a famous 1-0 triumph over Sunderland at Wembley, but before long the pride of Wiltshire weren’t contemplating glory in the top flight but life in the Third Division after the FA relegated them twice for sanctioning illegal payments (although they were later allowed to remain in the Second Division after appealing). The club’s leading scorer, Steve White, described it as a “devastating blow”, but Sunderland didn’t care – they were up without even winning a game. 

Wheels come off the cambridge bandwagon 

Cambridge vs Leicester, 1992
Second Division play-off semi-final 

“That was some side,” recalls a misty-eyed Steve Claridge of his days at Cambridge United under the unorthodox and unpopular John Beck. The U's had sprinted through the leagues under Beck and were well placed to become founder members of the Premier League as the likes of Claridge, Dion Dublin and John Taylor propelled them to the play-offs. Leicester put paid to that dream, though, with a 6-1 aggregate hammering in the semi-finals. For Cambridge, life would never be the same again: just 13 years later the club was relegated from the Football League altogether.  

Rovers give critics the bird 

Blackburn vs Leicester, 1992
Second Division play-off final 

Jason Wilcox was out injured for the match that took Jack Walker’s big-spending side back to the big time – but the left winger can at least claim a hand in their fortunate 1-0 win over Leicester at Wembley. “I walked out onto the pitch in my suit and a bird messed down it,” he said.

“We had these bright yellow suits and I had this red and green stuff all over mine. I didn’t know whether it was good luck or bad luck. I guess it was good if you look at what followed for the club.” He’s not wrong. Blackburn and Wilcox never looked back: they won 1-0 and just three years later were celebrating a Premier League title. That success is well-documented – the fate of the club’s feathered friend remains a mystery.

Den of despair

Millwall vs Derby, 1994
First Division play-off semi-final, second leg 

It was a statto’s dream – interruptions totalling 33 minutes, 30 supporters ejected, 20 arrests, two policemen injured and two pitch invasions. Oh, and Derby County won this second-tier (its name having changed to the First Division) semi 5-1 over two legs – hence the free-for-all in south-east London. “We feel like we’ve been through a war, not a football match,” said Derby’s Marco Gabbiadini after the club’s goalkeeper Martin Taylor was floored at the New Den. Despite the trouble Millwall chairman Reg Burr was clearly wearing his Arsene Wenger glasses, saying: “Yes I feel saddened but there was no violence that I saw. I don’t know anything about players being punched and kicked.”

“Sheer stupidity”

Stockport vs Burnley, 1994
Second Division play-off final 

Stockport finished 12 points ahead of Burnley in the third tier but, crucially, the Clarets finished this ill-tempered Wembley with two more players on the pitch. “It was bizarre – sheer stupidity,” reflected County manager Danny Bergara who, after four Wembley defeats in three years, could have been forgiven for thinking his side were cursed. Michael Wallace and Chris Beaumont were given their marching orders before the hour mark and Burnley took advantage, securing their place in the then First Division with a 2-1 win. 

Paying the penalty

Reading vs Bolton, 1995
First Division play-off final 

For a club with no reserve team and no training ground, Reading were doing rather well after 12 minutes of their final against heavily-fancied Bolton. Having sprinted into a 2-0 lead, promotion looked assured when Aussie Stuart Lovell stepped up to take a penalty on the half-hour. “Archie had the courage to step up, but the keeper saved it and the rest is history,” said former Royals skipper Ady Williams. “He was absolutely distraught and I have never seen anyone take something like that so personally.” Imagine how he felt, then, as Bruce Rioch’s Bolton came back and won the game in extra-time. Doubly galling for Royals was the fact that Reading had finished second in the league in the only season in living memory in which two – rather than three – sides were promoted, as the Premier League slimmed itself down from 22 to 20 teams. Gah.

Big Kam vs Big Sam

Blackpool vs Bradford, 1996
Second Division play-off semi-final, second leg

For modern-day Sky subscribers Chris Kamara is a hysterical man with big hair, slick ’tache and a tendency for disbelief. Back in 1996 he was, believe it or not, a man with a big future in management.

Rumour has it that Kamara’s team talk before the second leg of Bradford’s play-off semi-final against Sam Allardyce’s Tangerines consisted of nothing more than the pinning up of a Blackpool programme that gave their fans bus times to get to Wembley for the final. It clearly worked: 2-0 down from the first leg, Bradford stormed to a 3-0 win to secure a first trip to the Twin Towers.

“We could have had five,” Kamara beamed. And Big Sam? Blackpool’s banged-up chairman Owen Oyston sacked him from his prison cell.

Mendonca magic

Sunderland vs Charlton, 1998
First Division play-off final

“I was a Sunderland fan – it’s funny the way it worked out,” said Clive Mendonca when describing a hat-trick that left guffaws in short supply on Wearside. In one of Wembley’s greatest ever games, a Mendonca-powered Charlton came back three times in a pulsating 4-4 draw before a sudden-death penalty shootout. Sunderland cracked first and, after 14 spot-kicks, Alan Curbishley’s Charlton were in the Premier League. Mendonca would score a hat-trick on the following season’s opening day, but would be forced to retire less than two years after his greatest triumph. The Black Cats’ Michael Gray was haunted by his missed kick for the rest of his career. “It was an iconic game but someone had to be the villain and it ended up being me.”

“If I’m totally honest I really didn’t want to take one. You always think the penalty shootout will be over after the first five picks but this just went on and on. When it comes to sudden death you look around and start thinking, ‘Who’s next?’ Niall Quinn took No.6, then I realised I was probably the elder statesman among the rest so I thought it was up to me. You feel confident walking up but then I changed my mind about 10 times before I took it. It wasn’t a great penalty – in fact, it was awful. I was devastated. I just stood there waiting for someone to come along and give me a hug.”

Adios, Orient 

Scunthorpe vs Leyton Orient, 1999
Third Division play-off final

Scunny’s unlikely Spaniard, Alex Calvo Garcia, carved his name into Iron folklore with the winner in their bottom-tier final. He would later go on to write surely the most bizarrely titled Spanish book in history: Scunthorpe Hasta La Muerte (Scunthorpe ’Til I Die). After retiring he recalled: “The day of the match, I remember all those who went to London – about 15,000, a quarter of the population. But the best memory I have is the following day, seeing people with a big smile on their faces.” His goal put it there.

The great escape  

Manchester City vs Gillingham, 1999
Second Division play-off semi-final

“The Gillingham fans were already singing ‘We are going up’ and half our fans had left,” recalls England rugby World Cup winner and Manchester City nut Will Greenwood. You could hardly blame either set of fans for assuming the die had been cast. Joe Royle’s side were 2-0 down in the last minute and staring another season in the third tier square in the face. Enter Kevin Horlock, who pulled one back, then Paul Dickov, who delivered the ultimate sucker punch four minutes into injury time. City would eventually win 3-1 on penalties. That United had won European football’s biggest prize just four days before mattered not. “I went through every emotion on that day,” says Greenwood. He wasn’t alone. 

Bolton’s big break 

Bolton vs Preston, 2001
First Division play-off final 

David Moyes would be at Everton the following March, but his final stab at getting to the Prem with Preston was an unmitigated disaster. Bolton had lost out in the play-offs two years in a row but made no mistake this time as Allardyce’s men won 3-0 in front of Sir Tom Finney and Nat Lofthouse. “I can’t quite put what I feel into words,” said Allardyce. Neither could a fuming Moyes. The bookies responded to Bolton’s promotion by installing them as 4/7 favourites for the drop. They didn't get relegated until 2012.

God’s gift to Stoke

Brentford vs Stoke, 2002
Second Division play-off final

The south dressing room at the Millennium Stadium had become the sporting equivalent of the Bermuda Triangle – whichever team went in it was guaranteed not to leave their division, or leave Wales with any silverware.

Stoke and their notoriously superstitious manager Gudjon Thordarson, though, were taking no chances. A television interview room suspected of creating negative energy was replaced with a 7ft mural featuring a phoenix, a galloping horse and a glowing sun.

“I made time for myself in the dressing room and spoke to the Almighty and we sorted out the dressing room,” said the nutty Icelander. “He said to me, ‘No problem, son.’” With that kind of help Brentford didn’t stand a chance and after easing to a 2-0 victory, Stoke were on their way to the First Division. 

Imps’ five-year curse 

Bournemouth vs Lincoln, 2003
Third Division, play-off final 

Just five days before the start of the 2002/03 season Lincoln had been in administration and were favourites for relegation out of the Football League. Now they were 90 minutes from promotion, thanks in large part to super-sub Simon Yeo, who had come off the bench to score twice in the semi-final first leg. “It’s a huge achievement for us,” said Imps boss Keith Alexander. “We should be the team of the season.”

But not only did they get thrashed 5-2 in the final, it would be the first of five successive play-off appearances for Lincoln. And to the despair of their long-suffering fans, they would succeed in none of them. Andy Townsend, of the Lincoln Supporters Trust, recalls the misery. “Five years on the bounce we got to the play-offs and not once did we get promoted. I remember the first time we got there and lost to Bournemouth in the final, but in many ways that didn’t really matter – we were just thrilled to be there.

"The year that really sticks in the throat was 2005, when we lost 2-0 to Southend. It was a case of tired legs and them hitting us on the break. I don’t mind admitting there were a few tears shed over that one. By the time the fifth year rolled around, we were really thinking: ‘Do we need to go through all this again?’ I think by the end it was really affecting the players. It was more psychological than anything.”

Perhaps the best tactic would have been to just stop caring. When Millwall beat Swindon in the League One play-off final, having been play-off victims five times, they banished their hoodoo by ignoring the big occasion and treating the game as any other – even choosing to wear scruffy tracksuits.

Dowie’s day in the sun

Crystal Palace vs West Ham, 2004
First Division play-off final

“When Iain took over, promotion was a million miles away, but we kept believing,” said assistant Palace boss Kit Symons after a Wembley win over West Ham that provided the culmination of one of football’s most epic revivals. Palace were 19th when Dowie took the reins in December 2003 and now his side – courtesy of Neil Shipperley’s winner – were contemplating life among the elite of the English game. “We’re talking about teams like Arsenal, Manchester United and Chelsea,” said an excited Dowie. “I don’t sleep as a manager in Division One so what I’ll be like in the Premiership I really don’t know!”

It’s a dog’s life

Huddersfield vs Barnsley, 2006
League One play-off semi-final, second leg

Barnsley sub Chris Shuker stuck out a leg and Huddersfield mascot Terry the Terrier – punching the air in delight at an equaliser – hit the deck in this third-tier play-off semi. At that moment, Town’s hopes of getting one over on their Yorkshire rivals hit the skids, too. As stewards battled to contain the fracas caused by Shuker’s dog-handling skills, Barnsley scored twice to seal a final with Swansea. “I’ve had my family in my office in tears,” said Huddersfield boss Peter Jackson. Imagine the reaction back at Terry’s kennels.

Yann hits a bum note

Cardiff City vs Leicester, 2010
Championship play-off semi-final, second leg

Every player wants a song written about them, don’t they? Yann Kermorgant might beg to differ. After his limp Panenka penalty cost Leicester City a place in the Championship play-off final, Foxes fan David Henson chose to immortalise the Frenchman’s howler to the tune of Bonnie Tyler’s Total Eclipse of the Heart. “As I watched my TV screen, I was sure that he’d have ripped it / Could not believe what I’d seen when the stupid w***er chipped it / Confidence is one thing but you took it too far / Did someone tell you you were Eric Cantona? / What else can I say? / He was totally s*** from the start.” What else can you say, indeed?

Holloway speechless

Blackpool vs Cardiff, 2010
Championship play-off final 

Cardiff lost the match but they did achieve the unlikely feat of rendering Ian Holloway lost for words. Blackpool won 3-2 in one of the play-offs’ biggest fairy tales – a result that left the effervescent West Countryman strangely quiet. “I can’t put this achievement into words,” said a tearful Ollie. “I usually like a chat but all I can say is that I’m bursting with pride.” 

Terriers break Cherries

Huddersfield vs Bournemouth, 2011
League One play-off semi-final, second leg

Fewer than 10,000 bothered turning up for the first leg 1-1 draw at Dean Court, but those who showed up for game No.2 were glad they did... if they were a home fan, anyway. The teams traded blows in the first half at the Galpharm Stadium, but it was Huddersfield who took a half-time lead with goals from Lee Peltier and Danny Ward cancelling out Steve Lovell's equaliser. But Lovell struck again after half-time, and that's how it stayed after 90 minutes. And so to extra-time, where an 18-year-old Danny Ings headed the Cherries into a 104th-minute lead. But before referee Neil Swarbrick could blow for the interval, Huddersfield's Antony Kay struck to level things up once more.

Once again, that's how it stayed. The penalty shootout wasn't so close, though: Huddersfield netted all four of their spot-kicks, with misses from Liam Feeney and Anton Robinson meaning Bournemouth travelled home blue. Huddersfield went on to lose 3-0 in the final to Peterborough at Old Trafford, while Bournemouth... well, they'd end up having their big moment a few years later. 

Powell packs punch

Crewe Alexandra vs Cheltenham Town, 2012
League Two play-off final

Crewe had finished seventh in the League Two table, but saw off Southend 3-2 in the semi-finals and headed to Wembley in hope more than expectation against Cheltenham, who'd wiped the floor with Torquay. That hope quickly blossomed 15 minutes into the final, however, when the Railwaymen's rising midfielder Nick Powell thundered home a beauty. Crewe added a second eight minutes from time through Byron Moore. Powell joined Manchester United before he could kick a ball in League One. 

Deeney drama

Watford vs Leicester, 2013
Championship play-off semi-final, second leg

With the match poised at 2-2 on aggregate and about to enter extra-time, Leicester's Anthony Knockaert won a dubious penalty. Hornets keeper Manuel Almunia pulled off a sensational double save, allowing Watford to counter. No need to guess the rest: within 20 seconds Kasper Schmeichel had flapped at the other end, before Troy Deeney fired the Hornets to Wembley (where they lost to Crystal Palace).

Belt up, Steve

Leyton Orient 2-2 Rotherham United, 2014
League One play-off final

Rotherham had one foot in the Championship as they sought back-to-back promotions, but to make it all the way they'd have to get past an impressive Leyton Orient side who'd only just missed out on automatic promotion. At half-time in this one, it looked like their dream was over after first-half goals from Moses Odubajo and Dean Cox had given Orient a commanding 2-0 lead at Wembley. What the O's hadn't counted on was Alex Revell, Rotherham's predatory poacher who'd also netted in the semis against Preston. 

If the striker's first goal was important on 55 minutes, his second five minutes later was huge in more ways than one – a sumptuous half volley from 35 yards that's arguably one of Wembley's greatest ever goals. Millers' fans celebrated wildly, but none of them more so than boss Steve Evans, who almost lost his trousers running down the touchline like a chubby child running after the ice cream van. Rotherham won on penalties, while a miserable Orient followed up their misery with relegation to League Two in 2014/15.

Blades blunted in County Ground thriller

Swindon Town 5-5 Sheffield United, 2015
League One play-off semi-final second leg

It's accepted that second legs are usually more entertaining than the cagey ones that predede them – but Swindon and Sheffield United took that idea even further with a 10-goal thriller at the County Ground. The hosts led 2-1 from the first leg and were absolutely crusing to Wembley when Ben Gladwin's brace and Michael Smith put them 5-1 up on aggregate inside just 18 minutes of the second leg.

Even when Nathan Thompson's own goal and Chris Basham pulled two back for the Blades before half-time, Smith notched his second from the penalty spot with half an hour remaining. Steven Davies and Jonathan Obika swapped goals to make it 5-3 on the night, but Sheffield United hadn't given up and struck twice in the last two minutes of normal time to level things up. 

With nine minutes' added time they had a chance to peg back Swindon where it really mattered too, but the Robins overcame the jitters to come out clean from the most goal-laden play-off semi-final in history.

Daring Dons back where they belong

AFC Wimbledon 2-0 Plymouth Argyle, 2016
League Two play-off final 

There have been few decisions in the history of English football as controversial as the FA's backing of the proposal to move Wimbledon FC 56 miles north to Milton Keynes in May 2002. The 1988 FA Cup winners continued to play in their traditional guise until the end of the 2003/04 campaign, which saw them relegated to the third tier of the pyramid, before then becoming known as MK Dons.

By that point, most of the original club's supporters had long since diverted their allegiances to a new non-league side by the name of AFC Wimbledon. The task in front of them was a gruelling one, but the phoenix club set about trying to climb through the divisions with the ultimate aim of picking up from where they left off.

That objective was realised in the 2016 play-offs, when Neal Ardley's side won promotion to League One with victory over Plymouth at Wembley. Twelve years after Wimbledon's demotion to the third flight, the true successor side were back - and ready to face MK Dons in the league for the first time.

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