The First Year of the Play-Offs

The Play-Offs have been a regular feature in English football for nearly 28 years, but how did people in football react when they were first introduced after years of three up, three down? Richard Foster, author of the forthcoming book “The Agony & The Ecstasy: The History of the Football League Play-Offs” tells us more. 

The 1986/87 football season was memorable for so many reasons. The two Merseyside clubs occupied the top two positions in the First Division, with Everton pipping Liverpool to the title. Ron Atkinson was dismissed by Manchester United in November and replaced by the Aberdeen manager, a certain Alex Ferguson. And the Play-Offs were introduced in English football.

It would have been entirely possible to miss their arrival given the way the media shunned them and with the League’s timid, almost apologetic, approach to their introduction.

The very first Play–Offs took place in May 1987, the year of one of the finest FA Cup Finals of recent times when Coventry overcame Spurs 3-2. Looking at the coverage in The Times, there was barely a mention of the first legs of the semi-finals that had taken place a couple of days before the Cup Final on 14th May. The sports pages were dedicated to the run-up to Wembley with endless player profiles and nothing was going to be able to distract us from that all-important match.

The primary objective of the Play-Offs was to reduce the (old) First Division from 22 to 20 clubs and so in the first two seasons there was an added dimension to the Play-Offs formula. Rather than four teams vying for promotion, as it is now, there were only three, who were pitted against one club from the higher division, who had finished just above the relegation zone but were required to enter the Play-Offs fray. So the likes of Chelsea, Sunderland and Bolton were sucked into the frantic, frenetic fight for survival but still the media was not exactly carried away with enthusiasm for the idea.

As an illustration, take the full report of Aldershot’s first leg semi-final against Bolton Wanderers: “Gary Johnson raised Aldershot’s hopes of third division football next season with a goal 13 minutes from the end.”

Not the most descriptive or detailed coverage, with less than twenty words expended in total. Even though it was a Fourth Division match the scant exposure is telling as football still had some way to go before winning back the attention of the media and public approval.

Other Play-Offs matches warranted slightly more coverage, which was not difficult, with the Leeds – Oldham Division Two game running to a full seven paragraphs. Riches indeed. The relative lack of importance of football in general and the Play-Offs in particular was striking. To put this into perspective there was considerably more space devoted to a couple of cricket matches than to all six of the Play-Offs semi-final first legs. Those cricket matches were not Test Matches, One Day Internationals or even high profile county games but Pakistan’s tour match with Somerset and a Minor Counties game against Glamorgan.

Within the coverage itself, minimal though it was, it is interesting to note the relatively negative attitude portrayed towards them. Take this passage bemoaning Oldham’s plight, for example

“Oldham, who could feel hard done by at having to justify themselves all over again after finishing eight [actually seven] points in front of Leeds.”

Understandably Joe Royle, the Oldham manager was equally unimpressed by the new system, as he faced up to the consequences of his side’s gut-wrenching defeat. “We finished seven points clear of Leeds,” he said, “and so to go out on away goals to them means there is something unjust. I welcomed the Play-Offs but possibly hadn’t considered the long-term ramifications.”

Ultimately those ‘long-term ramifications’ were arguably positive, but Royle’s disappointment was still raw. He would have to wait 12 years for his next experience of the Play-Offs but that was to be a much happier occasion and considerably more dramatic, when he was in charge of Man City’s extraordinary 1999 success.

Less understandable was the reaction of Lou Macari who oversaw Swindon’s triumph in the Division Three Final. But in that moment of victory, he decided to call for an end to the Play-Offs system. “I never want to go through a night like that again,” he said. “The Play-Offs are unfair and should be scrapped.” Goodness knows what sort of tirade might have followed if Macari’s team had lost.

As The Times pointed out “the 18,491 supporters who travelled to South London [for the replay at Selhurst Park] may disagree with Macari’s view. The home and away legs produced a level of entertainment which should not have been expected considering so much was at stake, yet the teams managed to raise the tempo, even higher on neutral ground.” And in this comment lies a central conundrum whereby the fluctuating fortunes of the teams can seem so unjust but do provide such gripping delectation for neutral onlookers and observers.

What could not be denied is the level of excitement and drama that this first series of games generated, as acknowledged by The Times report on the Swindon versus Gillingham Third Division Final.  “Yet another exhilarating match last night added further weight to the argument supporting the controversial Play-Off system, Swindon Town and Gillingham gave their all in an epic encounter.” Macari’s words of condemnation ring a little hollow considering what happened three years later when Swindon were denied the promotion they had secured through the Play-Offs because of a series of illegal payments made to players by chairman Brian Hillier and other club officials. I am not sure this outcome was what Macari had in mind when he called for them to be abolished.

There were taut, titanic tussles across all three divisional Play-Offs in 1987 with one semi-final in each division going to extra time and two being decided on that thinnest and cruellest of margins, the away goals rule. Added to which, two of the Finals went to a replay so stretching the fans’ nerves even further and prolonging the drama to such an extent that it would have been difficult to write the script without straining credulity. Looking at the games of 1987 in more detail shows just how extraordinary they were, a true cornucopia of pulsating action. The irony was that all of this passed under the radar for most apart from those whose teams were involved.

It was not just the press that ignored the Play-Offs; there was barely any television coverage either. Trawling through the schedules of the main channels available there was not even a highlights package at a time when there was live coverage of an England vs. Scotland match, not a full international as you might expect, but this was actually a schoolboys fixture. There was even sufficient room in the schedule to accommodate a full hour’s worth of highlights of The Dry Blackthorn London Pool Championship from that cauldron of international sport, the Orchard Theatre in Dartford, but still not a minute of Play-Offs action to be seen. Compare the situation now where all fifteen matches are shown live, a minimum of twenty-two hours of action and usually a great deal more with the demands of extra-time and penalty shoot-outs.

Almost unnoticed and unknown by the football community as a whole, the Play-Offs burst into life in suitably exhilarating fashion during the close to the 1986/87 season. In this very first season there were plenty of twists and turns engulfing clubs, both large and small alike, testing the fortitude of even the most resolute fans. In May 1987 three clubs, former giants of the game that had been struggling in the previous few years were thrust into the maelstrom of the Play-Offs. Wolverhampton Wanderers, Sunderland and Leeds United were embroiled in the first season and all three suffered at the hands of much smaller clubs. Their respective capitulations were symptomatic of the Play-Offs’ endless capacity to surprise and shock and merit closer inspection.

During the 1950s and 1960s founder members of the League, Wolves had become one of England’s top teams, making their mark at the vanguard of European club competition in its formative years. By the seventies they were no longer such a force but were still solidly established in the top division, winning a couple of League Cups on the way.

However, by 1986 they had dropped so far from grace, enduring three successive relegations, that they were languishing in the bottom tier, the old Fourth Division, for the first time in their history. The club were in imminent danger of going out of business as Simon Inglis pointed out in his book, League Football and the Men Who Made It. “Wolves, who in the summer of 1986, were £2.5 million in debt and yet again tottering on the brink. The new Management Committee adopted the same line as its predecessors by stating that if Wolves dropped out they would not be replaced.”

The club was at an all-time low and faced the bleak prospect of liquidation after their disastrous slide down the league a nd so the glimpse of a small chance of salvation was offered when, having missed out on the top three and automatic promotion by a single point, they faced the minnows of Aldershot in the Division Four Play-Offs Final.

Aldershot had already disposed of Bolton Wanderers, yet another League Founder floundering in the bottom tier, in the semi-finals. Any expectation of beginning the ascent back up the league was dashed as they capitulated 3-0 over two legs to a team that had never risen higher than Division Three in their history and never would do so.

The attitude of Bobby Barnes, the scorer of an impressive twenty-six goals in this, his only season with the Shots, including two out of the three goals in the Final, is a clear illustration of the inferiority complex Aldershot carried into this match. The players were slightly in awe of their opponents, “who were such a great name and we were just thinking to ourselves how great it was to be playing at a large stadium like Molineux.” The glaring disparity in size and stature between the two clubs was highlighted by the respective crowds for each leg of the Final. For the first leg, the Recreation Ground was bursting at the seams with a 5,000 capacity crowd whereas the return leg attracted just under 20,000 in a half-full Molineux. But it was Aldershot who prevailed and plunged Wolves back into crisis mode.

So Wolves were one of the first clubs to experience the raw and harsh realities of this new system as that glimmer of hope was brutally extinguished but they were not alone. As another club with a proud and long history Sunderland had been on a similar slide to Wolves, which culminated in them finishing one place above automatic relegation from Division Two at the end of the 1986/87 season. They were pitched into the Play-Offs with the three sides aiming for promotion from Division Three. A two-legged semi-final against lowly Gillingham offered Sunderland the chance of avoiding the indignity of third tier football for the first time in their history.

The intense drama and fluctuating fortunes of the two legs were a further portent of the Play-Offs’ capacity to toy with the emotions. Any tie that ends 6-6 on aggregate is duty bound to have been a thrilling encounter and this was no exception, as Tony Cascarino’s personal tally of five goals proved decisive for the Gills.

This game set a powerful precedent for a host of spectacular Play-Offs matches but for Sunderland, just like Oldham, the climax ended in heartache as they lost on away goals. This loss not only beckoned in their only season in the third tier but also was the start of a series of eventful adventures in the Play-Offs for both Sunderland and Gillingham. Like so many of the ninety-five clubs which have played in them, both teams have experienced a mixture of highs and lows, stories which form the rich and entertaining history of the Play-Offs.

The combination of thrilling success and heartbreaking defeats was already established in the two lower league Play-Offs of 1987. This pattern was continued and even extended in the third Play-Offs Final of that first year when Leeds met Charlton Athletic for the right to play in the top division.

Leeds had been the team to beat for a period in the 1970s and had reached a European Cup in 1975 but had dropped down to the Second Division in 1981, so this Final offered a return to the top division following a six-year absence. After both sides won their respective home legs 1-0, a replay was required and as befits the drama of this first season of Play-Offs, the match went into extra time. When John Sheridan of Leeds finally broke the deadlock in the ninth minute of extra time United must have felt they were home and hosed. But they did not account for the unlikeliest intervention of Peter Shirtliff, Charlton’s journeyman central defender. Shirtliff averaged less than one goal a season throughout his career that spanned over eighteen seasons and five hundred games, in which he scored just fifteen goals. Against all the odds, Shirtliff broke the habit of a lifetime as he suddenly popped up to score two goals in the space of four minutes, to cap another extraordinary climax. The fact that Shirtliff was a Yorkshireman, born and bred in Barnsley and had previously played for Leeds’ rivals Sheffield Wednesday, rubbed salt into the most painful of wounds.

Thanks to the briefly prolific Shirtliff, Charlton had survived, admittedly by the skin of their teeth and became the only team out of six to earn a reprieve and avoid being relegated  through the Play-Offs in those first two years. It was fascinating to watch and gripped so many of the previously disillusioned and disenchanted fans, encouraging them to return to the game they had pretty much abandoned. More than anything it showed there was some life and vibrancy in amongst the rubble that league football had become. Although generally ignored by the media in their inaugural year, the Play-Offs were underway and the road to recovery had begun.

This is an edited extract from Richard Foster’s forthcoming book “The Agony & The Ecstasy: The History of the Football League Play-Offs”, which will be published by Ockley Books in April 2015.

His first book The A-Z of Football Hates was published in August 2014.

Follow him on twitter @rcfoster

The First Year of the Play-Offs
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