Contrary to popular belief when Charlie Dickens wrote about the best of times and the worst of times he wasn’t referring to Paris and London but instead looking ahead a century to the formation of the Play-Off finals.
Each Bank Holiday weekend in May six teams take part in what is essentially a sporting Hunger Games to determine whose season ends in champagne-soaked glory and who faces a summer of crestfallen depression.
That’s the thing with the Play-Offs – there is no in between. It’s everything or nothing at all.
Starting off life as a regulatory footnote the play-off format has been embraced by the footballing public distilling as it does every extremity the beautiful game has to offer in just ninety exhilarating, cruel and nail-biting minutes.
And now – somewhat overdue considering the gripping subject matter – there’s a comprehensive history of the format that is out in paperback today from Ockley Books. Bringing to life all the goals and stories from nearly three decades of heightened drama The Agony and the Ecstasy: A Comprehensive History of the Football League Play-Offs is available to buy here.
To accompany the launch we spoke to its author – and all-round play-off boffin – Richard Foster discussing all thing agonising and ecstatic.
DC: How were the play-offs generally perceived by the public when they were introduced?
RF: The reason they were introduced in 1986/87 was because the league was going through a restructure. It was the first signs of the big five – as they were then – wanting to break away because at that time all television money was shared equally so Manchester United got the same as Rochdale.
All the big clubs were obviously pissed off with this so there was the Heathrow Agreement that was designed to placate the big clubs and redistribute TV and game revenue.
Then came those awful eighty days between March and May in 1985 which saw the Luton/Millwall riot and Chelsea v Sunderland which had police horses on the pitch when Colin West scored followed soon after in May by the Bradford fire – which obviously wasn’t associated with hooliganism – on the same day a lad was killed at the Birmingham/Leeds riot. Then obviously two weeks later, after all this domestic shit, came the disaster at the Heysel Stadium. All this forced the football authorities to act and the Heathrow Agreement was part of that.
Football had reached its lowest point: we were banned from Europe and Thatcher quite evidently hated us and wanted to bring in ID cards. As Rogan Taylor once said, Thatcher viewed football like the coal and mining industries – they were very annoying and she wanted to get rid of them.
So the play-offs were part of the Heathrow Agreement which was made up of ten points. Eight of them concentrated on the redistribution of money.
It was the former Brentford chairman Martin Lange (who regrettably died last month) was responsible for its inclusion because it was necessary to reduce the leagues from 22 down to 20. They didn’t want to relegate four clubs at a stroke so they found a system that could ease out another team. The play-offs were then essentially a mechanism to reduce the old First Division.
DC: So initially this was supposed to be a temporary arrangement?
RF: Just two seasons. There was an extra relegation spot and that club competed with three from the league below. In that first season it was Charlton and they survived by the skin of their teeth. The following year it was Chelsea’s turn and they dropped which makes them the only club to ever be relegated from the top division via the Play-Offs.
Just returning briefly to the Heathrow Agreement: the play-offs idea flew under the radar because basically the big clubs couldn’t give a shit about it. All they were interested in was getting a bigger piece of the pie.
DC: From being the tenth point in a set of plans the play-offs soon grabbed the public’s attention and interest. Was it the drama of the format that was responsible for this?
RF: That’s absolutely correct and as I point out in the book the media coverage of the Play-Offs was as minimal as you can get. One of the games involved Aldershot and the Times gave it thirteen words! There was no coverage on TV and a pool tournament at the Theatre Royal in Dartford was given two hours of highlights at exactly the same time that the play-offs were taking place. The press too ignored it.
DC: When did that change?
RF: That was due to the nature of the first year of the play-offs. In 1987 Aldershot beat Wolves in the final. That was a massive bloody deal. In Division 3 – as it was then – saw Gillingham take on Sunderland in the semi-final, which was another David v Goliath. I spoke to Tony Cascarino who scored five goals over the two legs and he said it was the first time he’d seen people queue up for tickets at the Priestfield as previously attendances had been dipping across the country with people put off by hooliganism. Here Gillingham went through on away goals after the games finished six all on aggregate.
I interviewed Gary Bennett the Sunderland player and he told me that was the bleakest moment of his career because the result sent Sunderland down to the third tier of English football for the first time in their history.
The games produced so much drama and to illustrate this Lou Macari – whose Swindon side beat Gillingham in the final after a replay – said “I don’t ever want to go through that again. The Play-Offs should be scrapped immediately.” That’s a guy who won it!
The reverse quote by the way is Barry Hearn who lost to Blackpool in 2003 while chairman of Orient. Hearn’s quote afterwards was “The Play-Offs are the greatest invention ever”.
DC: As a supporter first and foremost what were your initial experiences of the play-offs?
RF: As a Crystal Palace fan I got hooked into them in 1989 which was the last year of the two-legged finals. The relegation spot had gone by them so it was the four teams competing to go up. After beating Swindon we went to Blackburn and lost 3-1. The second leg at Selhurst Park was a roasting hot day and it was one of those matches when you could just feel the crowd. Coppell had somehow got us here after a pretty dire decade and the excitement and tension was unbelievable.
(Palace went on to win 3-0)
DC: As you say, that was the last year of the two-legged finals. How much did Wembley become a factor in the play-offs success?
RF: The guy behind it was Andy Williamson who is still with the Football League. He thought moving the games to Wembley would give them a sense of occasion and decided all three should take place over the bank holiday weekend. It was a brilliant idea.
The first game was Cambridge United v Chesterfield with Dion Dublin scoring the winning goal. He still describes it as his most important from a long successful career.
DC: Which brings us to the importance of the games and how they can forever define a club or player. With Championship play-offs being called a £200m shoot-out is there now too much at stake for a single fixture?
RF: I’m sort of ambivalent about that £200m pricetag. It’s a nice thing to hang it on and journalists like it because they can call it the most lucrative sports match in the world – which it is – but I would hate to miss a penalty in that ‘two hundred million pound final’. You then have that burden hanging over you.
Michael Gray of course famously missed his pen in 1998 in that amazing final between Sunderland and Charlton. He told me at 4-4 he looked around and Danny Dichio had taken his boots off. So he thought ‘Oh shit, I’m going to have to take one then’.
At 8-7 he missed and is still reminded of ‘that bloody penalty’ every day. That’s almost twenty years ago.
Peter Reid realised the gravity of the situation and told Gray to send his wife and kids away and they went on the piss for a whole week. It absolutely ruined him because Reid is a massive drinker and Gray is a lightweight. When his wife and kids returned he then had to go on holiday himself!
There is a burden there and mistakes will be made. A slip in the last minute means you wake up in the middle of the night thinking ‘Jesus Christ, what did I do there?’ and that’s what I’m trying to reflect in the book; that’s where the agony and ecstasy come in. It’s the most acute of both. It’s without a doubt the best way to go up and the worst way to lose.
DC: The play-offs have been around long enough now for familiar themes to emerge – for example a cruel cameraman focusing in on a crying teen amidst a row of deserted seats post-match. Did any come to light in the writing of the book?
RF: Three come to mind. Firstly there’s ‘Bouncebackability’.
There are around fifteen clubs who have lost a Play-Off final then gone back and won the following year. Palace is the perfect example losing in 96 then going up next season. West Ham did it recently too. To recover from the agony and then go to the ecstasy seems to be counter-intuitive but it’s happened a lot more than what you’d expect on average.
The Wembley theme is also important. For so many of these clubs it’s their first time they get to play there and the most interesting one for me is Notts County. The oldest club in the world and their first time at Wembley was in 1990 in the Division 3 play-off Final.
Another is Blackpool who obviously enjoyed great success in the post-war era but then fell on hard times. They are the only team to win through the play-offs in every division.
There is also a curse I believe on teams that wear red and white stripes with black shorts. Sheffield United have been in play-offs eight times and never won one. In their four finals they have never even managed to score. Brentford have also been involved eight times and never won. The irony there of course is the two people most responsible for the Play-Offs – Martin Lange and Ron Noades – were both connected to Brentford.
Lincoln City have the unusual record of being in five successive play-offs and never won one.
Finally there is Sunderland who never won in four attempts. They did however get promoted because they lost to Swindon who were later punished for financial irregularities.
That’s 25 attempts by teams with red and white stripes and black shorts and no victories.
DC: Would you espouse any changes to the present format?
RF: No, I certainly wouldn’t. There have been plans to expand the Play-Offs with the thinking being ‘This is so good so why not have six teams? I totally disagree with that. It would be complicated and rubbish. In Belgium two years ago every single club in their 16-team league was involved in their play-off. It was mind-boggling. Beauty is simplicity and that’s why it currently works and everyone loves them.
I can tell you ten matches that have been amazing and another twenty perhaps you could also put in the category of being better than any FA Cup final of recent times.
DC: Moreover the play-offs encapsulate the extremes of emotions us fans enjoy and endure. A history of them is a documentary that has to happen isn’t it?
RF: I agree. It’s got every element of a great documentary and, well, watch this space!
The Agony and the Ecstasy: A Comprehensive History of the Football League Play-Offs by Richard Foster and published by Ockley Press is now available in all good book shops and online.