It's never too late: The greatest Football League promotion surges of the play-off era

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Since they were introduced in 1987, the play-offs have given hope to Football League sides languishing in mid-table around the time the clocks go forward. Here are some of the more impressive late promotion surges of the play-off era, as recalled by Rob Ellis...

Cambridge (Division Four - 1989-90)
Cambridge had already enjoyed a remarkable campaign before the promotion race reached its final stages.
With 36-year-old John Beck in his first managerial role following Chris Turner’s resignation, the U’s caused one of the major cup shocks of the season by beating Millwall in a fourth-round replay at the Abbey Stadium. Victory against Bristol City followed, before their attempts to become the first fourth division team to reach the FA Cup semi-finals were ended by defeat to eventual finalists Crystal Palace.
Although they stated April in 16th place, Beck’s men returned their focus returned to their promotion push, winning seven of their final nine league games to claim a sixth-placed finish.
After edging past Maidstone United in the semi-final, Dion Dublin then scored the only goal in a 1-0 victory against Chesterfield in the first play-off final to be held at Wembley to complete a historic season for the club.

Torquay (Division Four - 1990-91)
Clear leaders in November after a 14-game unbeaten run, the Gulls’ promotion quest subsequently hit the buffers leading to manager Dave Smith losing his job in April.
But under the guidance of youth coach John Impey, the Fourth Division club were reinvigorated, keeping their season alive with a 2-1 win against York on the final day. Impey’s men then survived a nervy night at Turf Moor to complete a 2-1 aggregate win against Burnley in the play-off semi-final, setting up a clash with Blackpool at Wembley.
Penalties were required to determine the result for the first time and after goalkeeper Gareth Howells successfully converted Torquay’s fifth spot kick, Dave Bamber missed the target to hand the Devon club promotion.

Bradford (Division Two - 1995-96)
Rookie manager Chris Kamara guided Bradford on a sensational ride into Division One, after the Yorkshire side had lingered in mid-table into late February.
Coming in to replace Lennie Lawrence, who had swapped Valley Parade for Luton's Kenilworth Road, Kamara oversaw eight victories in 12 league games, culminating in a thrilling final-day 3-2 win against Hull.
Leapfrogging Chesterfield into the final play-off spot, the Bantams then recovered a two-goal first-leg deficit to beat Blackpool in the semi-final, a result that cost Sam Allardyce his job.
Teenage local lad Des Hamilton put Kamara’s side into an early lead in the final against Notts County before Mark Stallard assured promotion in the club’s first-ever appearance at Wembley.

Northampton (Division Three - 1999-00)
Nine points off the automatic places in sixth place at the start of April, Northampton looked like they’d have to face the lottery of the play-offs to return to Division Two. Kevin Wilson’s men were faltering when a 2-1 loss at Plymouth was followed by a surprise 4-3 home defeat to Halifax.
But after back-to-back 1-0 wins at Carlisle and Darlington had breathed new life back into their promotion hunt, the Cobblers sprinted for the line. Three wins in eight days stole Northampton back into the top three before an away victory at Torquay sealed promotion.

Crystal Palace (Division One - 2003-04)
Crystal Palace were in disarray in the November of 2003 following a 5-0 defeat at newly-promoted Wigan, their third consecutive loss, consigned them to 20th place in the Championship. Steve Kember was sacked and a relegation battle was on the horizon.
With Ian Dowie at the helm, the Eagles then underwent an incredible transformation picking up 16 wins in 23 games, in most part thanks to the goals of prolific striker Andy Johnson.
Despite defeat on the final day to Coventry, Dowie’s team were in with a shot of an unlikely promotion. A penalty shoot-out win against Sunderland set up a play-off final against early-season promotion favourites West Ham at the Millennium Stadium.
Neil Shipperley scored the only goal of the game and the early-season strugglers had achieved one of the great promotion surges.

Sunderland (Championship - 2006-07)
Having amassed the lowest points total in Premiership history the year before, morale around the Stadium of Light continued to plummet when defeats in all of their four opening games rooted Sunderland to the foot of the Championship table under new manager Niall Quinn. Further embarrassment was to come as Bury, bottom of the Football League, dumped the Black Cats out of the League Cup in the first round.
Quinn moved upstairs, and two new recruits changed the mood of the club, as Roy Keane took the reins as manager and Dwight Yorke joined the club on transfer deadline day.
From that point onwards, Keane’s side embarked on an amazing sprint to promotion, losing just one of their last 20 games, with another new signing David Connolly ending the season as top scorer.

Blackpool (Championship - 2009-10)
Sat in ninth place and six points off the play-off spots in mid-March, Blackpool looked unlikely to be making many headlines come the end of the season. But six wins from their last eight games ensured the Tangerines pipped Swansea to the final play-off place.
Aided by the performances of talismanic midfielder Charlie Adam, their late-season form continued in the semi-final, as they overcame Nottingham Forest 6-4 on aggregate in a dramatic contest.
Just as they came from behind to snatch a top-six finish, Ian Holloway’s side needed to show all their resolve as Cardiff twice took the lead in the final.
But after Gary Taylor-Fletcher levelled the scores, Brett Ormerod grabbed the winner and the Seasiders took their place in the top flight for the first time in 43 years.

Dagenham and Redbridge (League Two - 2009-10)
In 11th place with two games left, Dagenham and Redbridge’s League Two play-off hopes looked slim.
But Graeme Montgomery’s 91st-minute winner ensured the Daggers leapt into seventh with a 2-1 home victory against Hereford, meaning they were in control as they headed to bottom-placed Darlington on the final day of the regular season.
Goals from Jon Nurse and Joshua Scott booked John Still’s men a place in the play-offs, before a magnificent 6-0 first-leg triumph against Morecambe set up a Wembley final against Rotherham.
The Daggers twice took the lead, only to twice be pegged back by Millers striker Ryan Taylor, before Nurse bagged a 70th-minute winner to complete an amazing month for the East London club.