One need look no further than the wealthiest club in Britain and the 2012 and 2014 Premier League Champions, Manchester City, to judge how far and wide the influence of the Play-Offs stretches.
If two dramatically late goals rescuing Manchester City sounds distinctly familiar, their 2012 triumph against QPR has strong parallels with their 1999 Play-Offs victory against Gillingham. Although the climax to the 2011/12 Premier League season did mark a historic moment in the club’s history, forty-four years after they last won the top division, maybe the more significant match for City took place thirteen years before.
Switch from 13th May 2012 at the Etihad Stadium to Wembley on 30th May 1999. As the Football League Second Division Play-Offs Final is about to enter the final minute, Gillingham are getting ready to celebrate promotion to the second tier of English football for the first time in their history. After scoring two goals in the previous ten minutes, the Kent club seemed to have timed their surge to victory to perfection.
Their illustrious opponents, Manchester City, look to be consigned to a further year in the Football League Second Division, having just spent their first, uncomfortable season in the third tier of league football, and obscurity beckons. Another year at such a lowly level could have been ruinous for a club of City’s stature and their slide might have become irreversible. There are plenty of examples littered across the recent history of large clubs struggling to regain their former glory after slipping down the divisions and becoming mired in the lower leagues too long for their own good. If it had not been for the events of those last few, mad minutes then the Manchester City we know today may never have had the chance to rebuild.
Even when Kevin Horlock scored in the 89th minute it seemed a mere consolation as Gillingham’s keeper Vince Bartram was announced as the Man of the Match and many City fans headed for the exits, resigned to their fate and not wishing to witness the dying embers of the match. It was not until the fifth minute of added time that Paul Dickov scored a second, a barely credible equaliser past Bartram. Not only was this recovery improbable but there was also a delicious sub-plot entwined within this match, as Bartram had been Dickov’s best man at his wedding and vice versa, so this was a particularly and peculiarly poignant moment for both men. The balance of this Final had swung decisively to Man City and they duly won on penalties (although Dickov missed his spot kick) after a goalless extra time, to cap an amazing climax, and the club were back on the rise to the upper reaches of the league.
Arguably this amazing transformation of fortune in the dying minutes of the 1999 Play-Offs Final paved the way for the future success of the club, as the consequences of not getting promoted that year could have set City back for a while, if not terminally. There are many City fans who regard this victory as the one that turned everything around for the club and Dickov is still revered because of his goal. What made it all the sweeter for those fans was that another club from Manchester had scored two equally implausibly late goals to win the Champions League Final against Bayern Munich four days earlier in Barcelona, and so this went some way to ensuring that there was at least some sharing of the glory. Although crawling out of the third tier of football may not have come close to winning the Treble in terms of level of achievement or kudos, it was as important in the development of City in arresting the slide.
If those 120 minutes and the penalty shoot-out were not dramatic enough, there were further twists to this incredible match, which came to light after the Final. Firstly, the perpetually controversial Gillingham chairman, Paul Scally, demanded a replay when the referee, Mark Halsey, was spotted enjoying a drink with City fans in a nearby hotel after the game. This desperate appeal was summarily rejected but was just the start of more off-the-field revelations surrounding the match. The crushing disappointment felt by the Gillingham camp after their first trip to Wembley had been somewhat mitigated by their chairman.
Scally was found guilty of placing bets on his own team by an FA commission in 2005 and fined the not inconsiderable sum of £10,000. One of those bets was on Gillingham to be beaten in that Play-Offs Final, so Scally had found a convenient, but illegal, way of cushioning the blow. To add fuel to the fire Scally also sacked his manager, Tony Pulis, for ‘gross misconduct’ in the aftermath of the Final, which initiated a long-running legal feud between Pulis and Scally with a series of claims and counter-claims. Eventually Pulis settled out of court for £75,000 but the rancour still rumbles on fifteen years later. Pulis and Scally had been on such bad terms in the build-up to the Final that they hardly spoke to each other and the lid was finally blown off the smouldering cauldron in the days after the Final.
Given all this kerfuffle it was quite an achievement for Gillingham to join the surprisingly large number of teams that have shaken off the disappointment of failure in the Play-Offs to gain success the following year. Displaying admirable ‘bouncebackability’ (copyright Mr. I.Dowie), Gillingham triumphed against Wigan in 2000 in what was one of the last Finals to be played at the old Wembley stadium. Nobody could rightly expect the same level of excitement as the Man City match but it turned out to be another game with plenty of fluctuating fortunes that saw Gillingham yet again face extra time. Despite having a player sent off towards the end of normal time, Wigan took the lead in the first half of extra time and there seemed to be little response from Gillingham, maybe feeling that history was repeating itself. But just as in the previous year, they scored twice in the space of five minutes late in the game and there was no way back for Wigan.
In a further parallel with 1999, Gillingham’s manager, Peter Taylor, left the club in the summer, but in much less controversial circumstances than Pulis’s departure, as he moved to Premier League Leicester City. Thus Gillingham made it to the second tier of the league for the first time in their history, and within the space of twelve months the Play-Offs probably squeezed in as much drama as they had done in the previous 107 years of the club’s existence. For a club that had spent 106 years getting to Wembley, to do it twice in the space of a year was especially momentous for the men from Priestfield. And Gillingham are in good company, as plenty of clubs can point to their experience in the Play-Offs as being among the most important and influential in recent times, if not their entire history.