The play-offs have now completed 15 turbulent seasons of drama and, some would say, injustice. Csaba Abrahall, however, is a devotee. He looks back on the ups and downs of their history
You may not know the name Martin Lange, but the chances are he will have given you reason to shed tears of joy or despair at some point since the late Eighties. For Lange was the man behind the introduction of the Football League play-offs, the end-of-season extravaganza that has just completed a 15th successful season.
Though Lange may not have had lucrative Wembley finals and blanket TV coverage in mind, he made no attempt to conceal the essentially financial objectives of his idea. At a time when the bigger clubs were beginning to demand a greater proportion of League revenue, Lange – then chairman of Brentford – saw the need to rekindle interest in the lower divisions, thereby bringing the clubs extra income.
Promotion play-offs would do just that, he argued, by severely reducing the number of meaningless matches. The play-offs remain with us today because he was absolutely right. The first games took place at the end of the 1986-87 season, and the most immediate beneficiaries were Aldershot, who clambered into the Third Division over Wolves, Colchester and Bolton after finishing sixth.
They were retained without hesitation after an initial trial period of two years, during which one unfortunate club fought for their survival in the higher division along with three promotion hopefuls. In their fourth season, the fans’ thirst for play-off action necessitated the abandonment of the two-legged final (plus replays if necessary) in favour of a one-off match at the national stadium. In 1999-2000, over 80 per cent more supporters attended matches throughout the lower three divisions than in 1985-1986, the last season without play-offs. It is hard to deny that Lange’s innovation has been at least partly responsible.
The play-offs are not without their detractors, and even their staunchest fan would concede that fairness is compromised in the attempt to seduce the public. Of the 45 teams that have finished in what were previously automatic promotion positions, only 21 have won through the play-offs. That is regrettable, but the fact that the money generated through striving for and taking part in the play-offs has undoubtedly kept some clubs alive is a strong defence. Football is a form of entertainment and a defunct club provides little of that.
A sudden-death contest determining a club’s fate for the whole of the following season understandably leads to heightened emotions, the fallout from which has offered further ammunition for opponents of the play-off system. Occasional crowd trouble certainly threatened its future in the early days, but violence is now rare and the emotional strain tends only to be seen in the paranoid ramblings of beaten managers. The outbursts of Sam Allardyce last season and Trevor Francis this have provided splendid entertainment in themselves. Attendance figures suggest supporters have accepted the play-offs with enthusiasm. They almost invariably produce incident-packed matches and, with 72 different clubs having been involved over the 15 seasons, most fans will have some memorable occasions to reflect upon.
Since only three clubs out of 12 can succeed each season, there are bound to be more tales of woe than success. For Preston, the play-offs have brought nothing but disappointment. The only club to have competed in play-offs in each of the three divisions, this year’s defeat by Bolton marked a fifth unsuccessful attempt. They are the only club who have failed to chalk up a promotion after so many efforts.
Individual hard-luck stories abound too, but those that combine a narrow failure to secure automatic promotion with ill fortune in the play-offs stand out. It was perhaps inevitable that Brentford would endure one of the most painful experiences at the hands of their former chairman’s brainchild. In 1994-95, they led the Second Division until one point from their final three games saw them slip to second place, a position which, for that year alone, was not good enough to earn promotion from a 24-team league. Forced to tackle the play-offs, they were vanquished in the semi-final by fifth-placed Huddersfield. On penalties. Having failed in all three of their play-off attempts, the club’s fans must wish Lange had kept his thoughts to himself.
The same year, Reading missed promotion to the Premiership in similar circumstances. Runners-up in the First Division, justice looked set to prevail as they led Bolton 2-0 in the play-off final. But then they missed a penalty and ended up losing 4-3. Had they gone up, with a large new ground just three years away, they may well have had the resources to establish themselves. Instead, they were back in the Second by the time the Madejski Stadium opened.
Fans of Portsmouth and Plymouth may also bemoan the injustice of the play-offs more than most. Desperately close to an automatic return to the Premiership and First Division respectively in the mid-Nineties, they saw the final promotion spot secured by clubs that finished 12 points behind them in the league. Victors Swindon and Burnley consequently hold the record for the biggest points deficit to be overcome by play-off winners.
Indeed, the play-offs appear to hold little fear for Swindon. They have won each of their three finals, although promotion was famously denied them in 1990. The League’s choice of play-off runners-up Sunderland to go up in their place rather than Newcastle, who finished third in the league, concluded one of the play-offs’ most controversial chapters.
It is perhaps Leicester who have most to thank the play-off system for. Finalists at each of their four attempts, winning twice, they have established themselves as a Premiership club following a promotion in 1996 that owed everything to the play-offs. Mid-table at the end of March with the fans demanding the removal of manager Martin O’Neill, they scrambled up to fifth on the season’s final day. The rest you know.
Each season has seen at least one club sample the play-off experience for the first time – this year’s debutants were Hull. Perhaps Rushden would represent a decent bet next season. They wouldn’t be the first side to reach the play-offs in their first season in the League, although they are unlikely to want to follow the example of Maidstone in any other respect.
Whoever is involved, expect the usual dose of drama, excitement, tension, emotion and controversy. “The best invention ever,” was Leyton Orient chairman Barry Hearn’s verdict on the play-offs, even after their defeat by Blackpool this year. Maybe not, but a damn good one.
From WSC 173 July 2001. What was happening this month