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

Rejoice, it’s that time of year when the domestic game goes gaga! Richard Edwards honours the heroes, villains and, er, terriers from the Football League’s grand finale...

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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.