The Play-Offs at 30: A History in Numbers

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To commemorate the 30th anniversary of the play-offs, Richard Foster, author of the recently revised ‘The Agony & The Ecstasy: A Comprehensive History of the Football League Play-Offs’, takes a look at the numbers behind the matches…

1. Blackpool are the one and only team to have won all three divisional play-off finals – they have won the fourth tier twice, Division Four in 1992 against Scunthorpe United, Division Three in 2001 against Leyton Orient; League One in 2007 after beating Yeovil Town; and the Championship play-off final in 2010 against Cardiff City to complete the ultimate hat-trick. Huddersfield Town have the chance to also complete the set in this year’s Championship final against Reading.

2. Under Neil Warnock Notts County are the only team to win two successive play-off finals – 1990 Division Three against Tranmere Rovers and 1991 Division Two against Brighton & Hove Albion. The 1990 final was the first time the world’s oldest professional club had played at Wembley, 101 years after their first league match.

3. There have been three hat-tricks scored in Wembley play-off finals – Clive Mendonca for Charlton Athletic against Sunderland in the 1998 First Division final; Scott Sinclair for Swansea City against Reading in the 2011 Championship final; and Jermaine Beckford for Preston North End against Swindon Town in the 2015 League One final.

4. Neil Warnock has won more play-off finals than any other manager, achieving four promotions from all three divisions with three different clubs in the space of seven years. Starting with the Notts County double in 1990 & 1991, then with Huddersfield Town in 1995 and the following year with Plymouth Argyle in 1996.

5. The most goals scored by an individual player in a play-offs tie. Both were achieved in the first two years of the play-offs – in 1987 Tony Cascarino scored five for Gillingham in the Division Three semi-final against Sunderland, whom they knocked out on away goals. The following year David Kelly followed up his brace for Walsall in the first leg of the Division Three final against Bristol City with a hat-trick in the replay, which Walsall won 4-0.

6. Not only are Blackpool the only club to win all three divisional play-offs, but the Tangerines also hold the record for appearing in the most finals. Out of seven appearances they have qualified for six finals, and alongside four promotions their two losses came in the 1991 Division Four final against Torquay United and the 2012 Championship final defeat to West Ham. If they beat Exeter in the 2017 League Two play-off final, they will be only club with five play-off final victories.

7. Ipswich Town have lost out at the semi-final stage seven times – more than any other club. They lost in the first year to Charlton, three times in a row between 1997 and 1999, and twice on the away goals rule. For the 1999/2000 season their chairman David Sheepshanks successfully proposed the abolition of the away goals rule and the Tractor Boys went on to win their only final in 2000 against Barnsley. In 2004/05 they were back in the play-offs and lost to West Ham once again in the semi-final.

8. Iain Dowie coined the word ‘Bouncebackability’ when he was Crystal Palace manager, overseeing their transformation from relegation candidates around Christmas to play-off winners in 2004. Eight clubs have shown bouncebackability in winning the play-offs the year after suffering defeat in the final – Tranmere Rovers 1990-1991, Blackpool 1991-1992, Leicester City 1994-1995, Crystal Palace 1996-1997, Gillingham 1999-2000, West Ham 2004-2005, Millwall 2009-2010 and 2016-17, Huddersfield Town 2011-2012.

9. Preston had to endure the longest run of play-offs failure when failing to gain promotion in their first nine attempts – six semi-final losses and three finals: 1994 Third Division, 2001 First Division, and 2005 Championship. They broke the curse by winning the 2015 League One final when emphatically defeating Swindon 4-0, courtesy of Jermaine Beckford’s hat-trick.

10. As of the 2016/17 season there were only ten clubs in English league football who have never appeared in the play-offs: Arsenal, Aston Villa, Coventry City, Crawley Town, Everton, Liverpool, Manchester United, Newport County, Oxford United and Tottenham Hotspur. Forest Green Rovers will add to that tally next season.

11. The curse of teams that traditionally wear red-and-white striped shirts with black shorts has affected Brentford, Lincoln City, Sheffield United and Sunderland. Between them, these four clubs have racked up 25 appearances and appeared in 11 finals but have never won any of them. Sunderland did get promoted in 1990 but only after losing to Swindon in the final who were subsequently prevented from going up because of financial irregularities. In their first final appearance in 2017, Exeter City may break the hoodoo.

12. There have been 12 play-off finals decided by penalty shoot-outs, starting with Torquay United’s victory over Blackpool in the 1991 Division Four final, with the most recent Southend United’s 2015 triumph in the League Two final. The 2012 League One final between Huddersfield Town and Sheffield United ended goalless after 120 minutes. The penalty shoot-out involved all 22 players, ending with Alex Smithies scoring past his United counterpart Steve Simonsen before Simonsen blasted his way over the bar.

13. Play-off finals often involve late drama and 13 have included decisive goals scored in the last five minutes (up to 2016). The precedent was set by Ken Charlery of Peterborough United, who scored in 89th minute of the 1992 Third Division final against Stockport County, all the way to the 120th minute equaliser by Southend substitute Joe Pigott in the 2015 League Two final, which led to the Shrimpers’ victory on penalties.

14. In the classic 1998 First Division final, Charlton and Sunderland slugged it out over 120 minutes eventually drawing 4-4 after extra time. Unusually the first 13 penalties were all converted. When Sunderland born and bred Michael Gray looked around to see who was going to take the 14th, his colleague Danny Dichio had already taken off his boots and, with only two young players and the goalkeeper left, Gray had to step up to the plate. His weak kick was easily saved by Sasa Ilic and “that bloody penalty” has haunted Gray ever since.

15. As of 1st May 2017, 15 current managers of the 92 English clubs have experienced winning a play-off final. Graham Alexander, Sam Allardyce, Neal Ardley, Phil Brown, Steve Bruce, Steve Evans, Darren Ferguson, Simon Grayson, Paul Heckingbottom, Keith Hill, Ian Holloway, Gary Johnson, Phil Parkinson, Harry Redknapp and, the best of them all, Neil Warnock.

16. In the very first year of the play-offs Lennie Lawrence was manager of Charlton when they beat Leeds in the Division Two final. Lawrence had to wait for 16 years for his next success when Cardiff City beat QPR at the Millennium Stadium in the 2003 Second Division final. Both victories were secured by late goals in extra time – Peter Shirtliff’s winner came in 117th minute for Charlton while Cardiff’s winner was scored by Andy Campbell in the 114th minute.

17. There are 17 clubs who have never won a semi-final. The list of dishonour is as follows – Accrington Stanley, Barnet, Carlisle United, Chester City, Fulham, Hereford United, Luton Town, Macclesfield Town, Maidstone United, MK Dons, Morecambe, Newcastle United, Nottingham Forest, Oldham Athletic, Portsmouth, Scarborough and Southampton.

18. There are 18 clubs who have been to play-off finals but have yet to win one – Brentford, Bristol City, Burton Albion, Bury, Chelsea, Darlington, Hartlepool United, Leeds United, Lincoln City, Mansfield Town, Reading*, Rochdale, Rushden & Diamonds (now defunct), Sheffield United, Shrewsbury Town, Wigan Athletic and Wrexham. *As the only club to have qualified this year Reading have the chance to put their three final defeats behind them.

19. There are 19 clubs that have been to Wembley for the first time via the play-offs. In 1990, the first year the finals were held at Wembley, three clubs made their debuts at the national stadium – both Cambridge United and Chesterfield from the Division Four final and Notts County in the Division Three final. Most recently AFC Wimbledon made their bow in 2016, only 14 years after being founded.

20. Sheffield United fans must be thanking their lucky stars that they have been promoted automatically as League One champions this year, considering their dismal play-offs record. The Blades have played 20 matches – eight semi-finals and four finals – but have yet to gain promotion via the play-offs, and have even failed to score in any of that quartet of finals.

21. Since 1990, when the finals were no longer two-legs and were switched to Wembley, 21 play-off finals have gone to extra time. Ten matches have been decided in extra time as opposed to 11 on penalties, with Huddersfield the only club to have won two finals on penalties in 2004 and 2012.

22. On 22 occasions the finals have taken place on neutral grounds excluding Wembley. In the first year two replays took place at St. Andrews and Selhurst Park. Between 2001 and 2006 the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff was used whilst Wembley was being rebuilt, and in 2011, when Wembley was the venue for the Champions League final, Old Trafford hosted the League One and League Two finals.

23. There was a 23-year gap between Aldershot’s first appearance in 1987, when they won the Fourth Division final, to their second coming as Aldershot Town in 2010’s League Two semi-final defeat. Similarly, Swansea City won the Division Four final in 1988 and had to wait another 23 years until their next triumph in the 2011 Championship final.

24. On 8th December 2015, Barnsley were rock bottom of the League One table. In the space of five months they moved from 24th to 6th position, securing a play-offs berth. They then beat Millwall in the final to cap off a remarkable renaissance under Paul Heckingbottom, who only took over as caretaker manager in February after Lee Johnson left to join Bristol City.

25. Back to the play-offs curse of red-and-white stripes with black shorts (see Point 11). The less than fabulous four of Brentford, Lincoln, Sheffield United and Sunderland have made 25 appearances and their collective record, not to put too fine a point on it, is abysmal. Between them they have reached 10 finals in which they have scored only seven goals and conceded 21. Overall they have played 61 matches, winning 14, drawing 17 and losing 30.

26. Twenty-six teams have won the play-offs at their first attempt, which represents over a quarter of all the clubs who have participated. The latest club to do so were AFC Wimbledon in 2016 and the first since Stevenage in 2011. Exeter City have a chance to emulate those 26 debutants this year.

27. Chris Tate of Leyton Orient scored the fastest-ever goal in a play-offs final when he opened the scoring after just 27 seconds in the first final to be played at the Millennium Stadium. Unfortunately for Tate and the O’s they eventually lost 4-2 to Blackpool, after which Orient chairman Barry Hearn described the play-offs as “the best invention ever”.

28. Since 1990 the most common score in play-off finals has been 1-0, of which there have been 28. Out of 83 matches up to 2016, 1-0 represents 33% of the total. The first play-offs game at Wembley finished Cambridge United 1 Chesterfield 0, as did the Swindon-Sunderland game the same year. In 1997 all three finals ended 1-0: Palace-Sheffield United in the First Division, Crewe-Brentford in the Second Division and Northampton-Swansea in the Third Division.

29. The League One final between Bradford City and Millwall on Saturday 20th May was the 29th play-offs final to be played at the new Wembley after the national stadium reopened its doors in 2007. There were 33 finals played at the old Wembley between 1990 and 2000, 18 at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff between 2001 and 2006, and two at Old Trafford in 2011.

30. This year is the 30th anniversary of the introduction of the play-offs. They were originally introduced as a temporary measure as you can see from the League Management notes: “In order to make a fair and equitable transition, rather than relegate four clubs and promote two, there would be a staggered promotion and relegation, supplemented by a system of play-offs…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.” Thirty years on, I think we can safely say they are here to stay.

The Agony & The Ecstasy – A Comprehensive History of the Football League Play-Offs, is written by Richard Foster and published by Ockley BooksYou can get hold of a copy here.

The Play-Offs at 30: A History in Numbers
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