by Richard Foster
The Play-Offs are justifiably regarded as one of the greatest innovations in English football over the last five decades. Having been introduced in 1987 as part of a rescue plan to save the game, which had fallen to an absolute nadir in the mid 1980s in terms of popularity and prestige, they have since evolved into an integral and much-loved part of the calendar, the shining beacon of the Football League. But it was all so different back in 1985 when football was being sullied by persistent hooliganism, vilified by the government and shunned by the general public. There was a desperate need for vigorous regeneration and the Play-Offs were an anonymous part of the solution.
The original Play-Offs were used primarily as a mechanism for reducing the First Division from 22 to 20 clubs over the first two years. This meant that of the four competing clubs, there was one slot reserved for a team that had finished just above the relegation zone in the division above whilst the other three were those teams that had just failed to gain automatic promotion from the lower division. Of the six clubs that were involved from the higher divisions only Charlton survived after beating Leeds in a replay.
Having achieved its main objective of whittling down the First Division to twenty clubs, the relegation Play-Offs slot was dropped in 1989 as planned and the current system of all four clubs vying for promotion was established. Little has changed in the 26 years since but there has been talk recently of re-introducing that relegation element to the mix. Considering that most of our European counterparts do include a relegation component to their Play-Offs is it time to have a rethink?
In terms of finding the best way to run a league, there is only one place to turn to in the first instance and that is Germany, the paragon of football governance. In the last two years Hamburg SV have ended up in the play-offs trying to avoid relegation from the Bundesliga for the first time in their illustrious history, which has certainly added some spice to these end of season games. It would be the equivalent of Everton being dragged into relegation play-offs. In 2014 Hamburg stayed up thanks to an away goal against Greuther Fuerth – something that could not happen in England as David Sheepshanks successfully got the away goal rule abolished in 1999. And 2015 was no exception as their match with Karlsruhe had enough twists and turns to make Agatha Christie dizzy.
After a 1-1 draw at home in the first leg, Hamburg were up against it in the second leg, especially when Karlsruhe took the lead late in the game, with only 12 minutes left. As befits the archetypal drama of the play-offs Marcelo Diaz equalised with an injury time free-kick and then with four minutes of added time remaining Nicolai Muller scored Hamburg’s second and this still left enough time for Hamburg keeper, Rene Adler to save a penalty. Adler commented afterwards: “I feel like I aged three years tonight. It’s incredible what we did in the last six weeks… It was a crazy match and anything could have happened in a match like this.” Some clubs do not experience this much excitement in a season let alone in one match.
But you do not have to travel too far to experience a different sort of play-offs drama. When Motherwell met Rangers they were also attempting to fend off relegation and stop Rangers climbing back up to the Premier League after their recent fall from grace. In the end Motherwell survived comfortably 6-1 on aggregate but it was the events just after the final whistle that attracted all the attention when Bilel Mohsni exacted a totally inappropriate revenge for being pushed in the back by Lee Erwin. There were arguably fewer punches thrown in the Mayweather-Pacquiao fight than in the stramash that ensued at Fir Park. Even when the game itself does not generate too much interest there is sufficient action to keep us all hooked.
These two contrasting examples hint at the added tension of play-offs that include relegation and it was certainly true of the English system when Chelsea lost to Middlesbrough in 1988 when that tension was certainly too much for many Chelsea fans who did not accept defeat gracefully. And whilst we are a long way from those days when violent outbreaks were commonplace at football grounds maybe it would be best to not spend too long on weighing up the pros and cons of a relegation slot for the Play-Offs as it may be more than the soul could bear.
Richard Foster is a freelance football writer and author whose latest book The Agony & The Ecstasy, the definitive history of the Play-Offs, has just been published and is available at www.ockleybooks.co.uk
Follow him on Twitter @rcfoster