A selection of classic Championship play-off finals
Charlton 2-1 Leeds, 1987
Even the best ideas benefit from early successes that make them seem inspired. Ninety-eight years after the Football League was founded, the play-offs were brought in. While it was partly to reduce the old Division 1 from 22 clubs to 20, the first season delivered a level of drama and a capacity to produce improbable heroes that helped cement the end-of-season mini-tournament’s place in the footballing calendar.
As with many a change in format, it met with initial resistance. The Leeds United manager Billy Bremner had opposed the introduction of the play-offs, believing the side that finished third should get automatic promotion. At the end of the initial campaign, none of the teams in third, fourth or fifth went up. Sixth-placed Crystal Palace were not even in the play-offs. Instead, the winner was Charlton, whose prize was not to go up, but to stay up. The club who had finished 19th, fourth from bottom, in Division 1, was granted a reprieve.
Theirs was a tale of prospering in adversity, a club that flirted with extinction which had to leave The Valley but nevertheless won promotion in 1986 and then finished above Leicester, Manchester City and Aston Villa, the latter pair both at various points managed by Billy McNeill in his infamous season of two relegations.
And yet the greater sense of narrative belonged to Leeds, then as now seeking to end their exile from the top flight and managed by one of their most iconic figures. Viewed from today, Elland Road for much of the 1980s seemed in an eight-year nostalgia project, an attempt to recreate Leeds’s past under Don Revie’s disciples: first Allan Clarke, then Eddie Gray and finally United’s greatest captain, Bremner. Yet then it felt different.
“United’s story of the 1980s could perhaps be best summed by one word – mediocrity,” wrote Richard Sutcliffe in his biography of Bremner. “There was, however, one exception to this tale of woe: the 1986-87 season.” Bremner felt a transformative, curiously unromantic figure. One of his first acts had been to dispose with the last of his former teammates still in the side, ending the 38-year-old Peter Lorimer’s second spell at the club. He even tried to get rid of John Stiles, son of Nobby and nephew of Bremner’s midfield sidekick John Giles. Youngsters bound for better things, in Denis Irwin, Terry Phelan, Andy Linighan and Scott Sellars, were sold as Bremner brought in battle-hardened players.
It felt a pragmatic path to progress. Leeds had reached a first FA Cup semi-final in a decade and their reward for finishing fourth in the old Division Two was a two-legged tie with third-placed Oldham. Leeds overcame Athletic on away goals while Charlton beat fifth-place Ipswich 2-1. Jim Melrose, scorer of both of those goals, added another as Charlton beat Leeds 1-0. Which, these days, would be that.
Except that, before the glitz and glamour of Wembley, it was only the first leg, at Selhurst Park. Leeds won the return fixture at Elland Road by the same scoreline, with Brendan Ormsby getting the goal. And so to a replay, Leeds’ 55th game of a marathon season, staged in the distinctly prosaic surroundings of St Andrew’s.
Some of the Birmingham terraces were deserted, with the attendance a mere 18,000. The Leeds fans far outnumbered their Charlton counterparts, making Bremner’s men the favourites. After a goalless 90 minutes, that status was cemented, courtesy of their classiest player: John Sheridan.
“Sheridan’s got 15 goals this season, a lot from free-kicks. Can he make it 16?” asked a prophetic John Helm on commentary. He did. Ninety-nine minutes gone, and Leeds led. But they had been ahead against Coventry in the FA Cup semi-final and lost that. History repeated itself, and because of a Yorkshireman.
The Charlton centre-back Peter Shirtliff has rarely been compared to Lilian Thuram; each, however, mustered one remarkable double in careers more noted for diligent defending. Thuram failed to score in 141 of his record 142 internationals for France; the exception was the 1998 World Cup semi-final against Croatia, when he scored twice. Shirtliff managed a solitary brace in a career that spanned 17 years. It came in the space of five minutes and it kept Charlton up.
First came a calm, sidefooted shot from near the penalty spot. Then, after a free-kick conceded by Sheridan, Andy Peake crossed. The suddenly prolific Shirtliff headed past the future Charlton assistant manager Mervyn Day for a 117th-minute winner.
Leeds, having come so close to promotion, remained a second-tier club. Bremner’s autobiography had been called You Get Nowt For Being Second. If it seemed an inappropriate title when it was published in 1970, given Revie’s capacity to come close, it felt still more so 17 years later.
They weren’t promoted until 1990, trading positions with Charlton. By then, all evidence of Bremner had been removed from the walls of Elland Road. The Scot was sacked in 1988. Leeds abandoned a recruitment strategy of scouring the ranks of their old boys and appointed an outsider, Howard Wilkinson, who began his reign by taking down photos of the Revie era.
Blackburn 1-0 Leicester, 1992
There have been better play-off finals and there have been others when the prize was bigger but none has been more consequential. Blackburn did not merely become founder members of the Premier League: within three years, they became winners.
Hindsight lends an inevitability to most things, especially where money is involved, but Blackburn’s path out of the lower leagues was littered with obstacles. It felt more problematic than their ultimate path to glory. 1966 had a particular prominence in their history, as Rovers had not been a top-tier club since relegation in the year of England’s World Cup win, and a wait to return dragged on. They had fallen at three previous hurdles and stumbled at many more en route to the newly rebranded division.
Blackburn had reached the play-offs in 1988, 1989 and 1990, twin semi-final defeats sandwiching a loss to Crystal Palace in the last two-legged final. The initial, often overlooked, architect of their revival was Don Mackay, who brought Steve Archibald and Ossie Ardiles to Ewood Park, but he was sacked after a winless start to the 1991-92 season. His eventual replacement was another Glaswegian.
Kenny Dalglish had resigned as Liverpool manager in February 1991, a stressed figure showing the strain that built up after the Hillsborough tragedy. He was not finished with management: all he needed, he realised later, was time off. He was on his way back from Disney World in Orlando when he heard Liverpool had appointed Graeme Souness. They had moved on. So did he.
He spoke to Bernard Tapie about the Marseille job, but an offer materialised nearer his Southport home. Dalglish recruited Ray Harford as his No 2, brought Colin Hendry back from Manchester City and signed the striker Mike Newell, a player Mackay had wanted, from Everton. Rovers’ training ground was next to a crematorium and covered in dog mess, but they surged to the top of the table.
Until they slumped. “We hit a brick wall,” Dalglish said. Blackburn won only one of 12 league games, losing six in a row. They needed a final-day hat-trick from David Speedie at Plymouth to finish sixth. “In the play-offs, we started appallingly,” admitted Dalglish. After 14 minutes at Ewood Park, they were 2-0 down to Derby. With the catalytic Speedie scoring twice, they won 4-2 and, despite a second-leg defeat, headed to Wembley.
Their opponents were Leicester, who had only avoided relegation on the final day of the previous season. Brian Little was reportedly sixth or seventh choice for the manager’s job but he had a huge impact in his first campaign. Along the way, he may have done the game a service: having lost 5-1 to John Beck’s infamously direct Cambridge during the regular season, Leicester beat them 5-0 in the play-offs.
Then they encountered the irrepressible Speedie. Dalglish’s last signing for Liverpool, he had been exiled to Blackburn by Souness. The Scot had already scored 26 times in the season when he went past Steve Walsh and went down after a slight tug. “There’s no way this is a penalty,” said Jimmy Greaves, ITV’s co-commentator – not by 1992 standards, anyway. “Speedie dived,” insisted Greaves. Newell sent Carl Muggleton the wrong way but almost scored at both ends, Alan Wright making a goal-line clearance to spare him an own goal. Kevin Moran and Hendry later became the second and third Rovers defenders to clear off the line while Leicester’s Gary Mills, as the last defender, chopped down Speedie and escaped with a yellow card. Then Muggleton brought down Mark Atkins, only to redeem himself by tipping Newell’s penalty on to the post. “Justice is done,” said Greaves, who disagreed with the initial award. Newell subsequently admitted he was overcome by nerves when scoring his first spot kick, but altogether calmer for the second. The miss did not ultimately matter. Dalglish added a play-off victory to his European Cup, FA Cup and League Cup triumphs at Wembley.
Blackburn’s ambitious rebuilding went to another level. Enter Alan Shearer, for a British transfer record of £3.6 million. Southampton insisted on taking Blackburn’s top scorer and player of the year in part-exchange. It was a deal that set him up for life “but I’d have sacrificed all that to stay at Blackburn for two more years,” Speedie later told the Lancashire Evening Telegraph. Had he stayed for three more, he might have won the Premier League. Two of his Wembley teammates, Hendry and Atkins, were stalwarts of the side who became Blackburn’s first champions since World War I.
Leicester 2-1 Crystal Palace, 1996
For much of the 1990s, play-off finals seemed to feature Leicester or Crystal Palace. One actually involved Leicester and Crystal Palace and, for a few seasons, if they weren’t in the play-offs, it was probably because they were getting relegated after winning the play-offs.
But the play-offs’ transformative impact were shown, along with the galvanising powers of Martin O’Neill, as Leicester shook off their status as a yo-yo club to record four consecutive top-10 finishes and reach three League Cup finals, wining two. Their time of being overshadowed by their East Midlands rivals was over. “Anyone who can do anything well in Leicester apart from making a jumper has just got to be a genius," said Brian Clough in a backhanded compliment to O’Neill, his former Nottingham Forest midfielder.
It was, until their Premier League title in 2016, Leicester’s modern-day golden age, but only at the conclusion of what had seemed a season that was promising more than it would deliver. Leicester topped Division One in December only for the manager Mark McGhee to decamp to big-spending Wolves. It prompted the City captain Steve Walsh to declare he hoped Wolves would be relegated and, while he did not quite get his wish, Wanderers came an unimpressive 20th.
McGhee’s replacement at Filbert Street, O’Neill, was initially unpopular. Results tailed off and Steve Claridge, who joined during a March slump that brought four defeats, felt his best chance of top-flight football had gone when he left Birmingham. “My money would go up £500 a week if they made the Premiership but I thought that was a fat chance,” he wrote in Tales from the Boot Camps. If Leicester rallied to win their last four league games, their path to the play-offs was still underwhelming. Palace had their own mid-season managerial change, with Dave Bassett replacing the sacked Steve Coppell, but it had the opposite effect, as they went on a run of nine victories in 12 games to surge from 16th place to third. They won home and away against Charlton in the semi-finals, while Leicester nudged past Stoke.
So Palace were favourites, a status that was reinforced when Andy Roberts put them ahead. Yet O’Neill’s success at Leicester came from forging an unquenchable spirit from a band of misfits whose quality could be concealed. Claridge might have been the definitive O’Neill player, taken to new heights by a manager who seemed to prefer working with the game’s characters.
Leicester was the ninth of his 23 clubs; because he revisited some, Claridge had 30 different spells in various places. Indeed, Palace were one of those 23 clubs: he had signed in 1988 for £300 a week, bought a flat in Wimbledon and, after failing to dislodge the prolific strike partnership of Ian Wright and Mark Bright, was transferred to Aldershot, where he sold his teammates fruit and vegetables from his car boot, without having played a game. But a feature of Claridge’s career was that an increasingly large number of his goals came against his old employers, and his most famous one would do.
But others began the Wembley fightback. Walsh, the recipient of many of the manager’s barbs, had an effort cleared off the line. The young Muzzy Izzet won a penalty and Garry Parker, Leicester’s best player on the day, scored it.
Then the pendulum swung their way. Palace had already made their three changes when Simon Rodger was injured. In effect, they were down to 10 men, but penalties still beckoned. O’Neill prepared for the shootout. He had one substitution remaining. Off came Kevin Poole. On went the giant reserve goalkeeper Zeljko Kalac – “six foot seven and useless,” in his manager’s words – for his third and, as it proved, last Leicester appearance. “There were about six-and-a-half seconds left of the game,” O’Neill told ITV in 2014. “He said: ‘Don’t worry, I’ll win it for you.’” He did not need to. The Palace players, he said, admitted they lost concentration after the substitution. So did Poole who had not noticed Kalac warming up and was taken aback to be replaced. He then experienced, as he told the Daily Telegraph, “deflation to elation in 30 seconds”.
Because Leicester won a free-kick. One of Claridge’s defining attributes was his fitness, but even he was cramping up. It meant that, rather than being in the penalty box when Parker sent the ball forward, he was outside it and thus perfectly positioned to meet Julian Watts’s headed clearance. His volley flew into the top corner. The keeper Nigel Martyn didn’t move.
“The man he signed for a million pounds has scored a goal that is worth a lot, lot more than that,” yelled the commentator Alan Parry. Nowadays the figure might be closer to £200 million. And because Claridge invariably looked unkempt, the finish seemed ungainly. “I’ve shinned it in,” he told the pitchside interviewer Gary Newbon. He came to regret that, regarding it as one of his sweetest strikes.
Another came the following year. Claridge could make the volley a scruffy affair and he won Leicester the League Cup with another extra-time final strike, in a replay against Middlesbrough at Hillsborough. Palace, too, returned to Wembley the next year to savour the sense that sometimes what goes around really does come around as David Hopkin scored a spectacular 90th-minute winner to defeat Sheffield United and send them up. If the footballing fates do not even things out over the course of a season, perhaps they do over the course of two.
Charlton 4-4 Sunderland, 1998
If there was a golden age of the play-offs, it was the early years of the Premier League. As the prize became bigger, the games got even better. Swindon beat Leicester 4-3 in 1993. Two years later, Bolton overcame Reading by the same scoreline. Then, in the greatest play-off of them all, Charlton and Sunderland topped that, sharing eight goals and converting 13 consecutive penalties.
None of which appeared likely when a clash between two upwardly mobile sides began. While only two points separated them in the table – Sunderland finishing higher – their two league fixtures had finished 1-1 and 0-0. Their previous five encounters had brought just five goals.
So when Charlton took the lead, it seemed game over. Charlton had kept nine consecutive clean sheets. They had gone almost two months without conceding. The cruelty for Peter Reid’s club lay in the identity of the scorer: Clive Mendonca was a Sunderland fan who had spent the morning roaming around the hotel wondering if his family had got their tickets. He put Charlton ahead with his 26th goal of the season. Another play-off final defeat beckoned for Sunderland, though they have a strange place in the competition’s history: they lost the first one-match final, to Swindon in 1990, but were promoted nonetheless when the Wiltshire club were stripped of their prize for financial irregularities.
Charlton, meanwhile, faced a different sort of punishment if they lost. “I always felt that Charlton had to win that, because if we hadn’t I think the side would have got broken up,” manager Alan Curbishley said. “We had lots of people interested in the players and if we hadn’t won promotion it would’ve been difficult to hold on to them.”
Holding on to a lead proved harder than keeping his players. Heat can do strange things to people. Mendonca, who estimated it was 100 degrees at Wembley, picked up his first caution for 19 months. Sunderland mounted a comeback. Suddenly the two teams started to trade goals.
Niall Quinn stooped to head in. Kevin Phillips’s 35th strike of the campaign broke Brian Clough’s Sunderland record for most goals in a season. Mendonca levelled before Quinn, with a fine half-volley, restored Sunderland’s lead. As if it was not strange enough already, Richard Rufus headed his first goal for Charlton. In extra-time, Nicky Summerbee put Sunderland ahead for the third time, only for Mendonca to become the first player since Geoff Hurst to score a hat-trick in a competitive final at Wembley.
He would still find the net once more. Promotion to the top flight had never been determined on penalties before. It would be now. Mendonca, Steve Brown, Keith Jones, Mark Kinsella and Mark Bowen all scored for Charlton. Summerbee, Allan Johnston, Kevin Ball, Chris Makin and Alex Rae replied in kind for Sunderland. It was 5-5 when all the nominated takers had stepped up.
Saša Ilić almost saved Makin’s spot-kick but most of the penalties were superb; some illogically so. “Curbs didn’t ask, he told,” his captain Kinsella told Sky Sports. “I took four or five for Colchester and I think I missed four or five.” He scored, though, and if Curbishley was dictatorial in deciding his first five penalty takers, he left it up to his players thereafter.
John Robinson and Keith Newton still found the net, the latter, Curbishley thought, after Rufus pushed him forward to take one, while the reluctant penalty taker Quinn replied for Sunderland. Then came the first left-footed taker. Curbishley did not watch as Michael Gray made his way nervously forward.
“I really didn’t want to take one,” Gray later told the Guardian. “I was a Sunderland boy, living the dream playing for my local team, and I just didn’t want to be the person responsible for us losing such an important match." As a left-back, he perhaps was not the obvious candidate, but he noticed striker Danny Dichio sat in the centre circle having taken his boots off. He clearly wasn't volunteering. The centre-backs Jody Craddock and Darren Williams were the only remaining outfielders.
Gray had missed his only previous spot-kick, against Liverpool. If, two decades on, goalkeepers are shown penalty takers’ records on iPads, Ilić had another formula in 1998. He flicked a 2p coin to decide which way to dive. Heads. He went to his left. Gray’s penalty was tame. Ilić fell on it. Charlton were promoted.
Mendonca was too drained to celebrate. Gray, in keeping with some of Reid’s managerial methods, sought solace in alcohol over the summer. He also went on holiday to Ayia Napa, only to bump into Mendonca. His missed penalty was inescapable, but Sunderland’s response was superb.
They were promoted the next year with 105 points while Charlton were relegated. It proved the start of a golden three-season run for the Black Cats, including back-to-back seventh-place finishes, a European Golden Boot for Phillips and England call-ups for the striker and Gray.
As for Mendonca, who regretted his celebration after scoring his penalty, he went on to work on an oil rig and then in the Nissan car factory. In Sunderland.
Bolton 3-0 Preston, 2001
Sam Allardyce and David Moyes find themselves forever bracketed together these days, twinned among the band of British managers whose employment anywhere prompts complaints from those who tend to overlook the reality the good outnumbers the bad in each’s lengthy past. They are separated by nine years but, after each has managed Sunderland and West Ham, their CVs have more in common.
Go back to 2001 and, rather than being deemed relics, they were managers on the up, prosaic centre-backs who had turned themselves into progressive coaches. They were reviving founder members of the Football League, clubs whose defences they had manned, if not graced. Allardyce, a studious figure in glasses, had yet to cultivate the “Big Sam” persona; Moyes had been considered for the role of Manchester United’s assistant manager, which went to Steve McClaren, long before Sir Alex Ferguson would nominate him for another role at Old Trafford. For each, the 2001 final represented the culmination of more than one season’s work.
Moyes had taken over at Preston in 1998, reached the play-offs in 1999 and won what is now League One in 2000. Allardyce had returned to Bolton in 1999 and lost a play-off semi-final 5-3 to Ipswich. Bolton had two players dismissed and four more booked, while none of their opponents were sanctioned and Allardyce was only warned about his future conduct after calling the referee biased. “Barry Knight was the worst referee in the history of the game,” he said.
Bolton lost Eiður Guðjohnsen and Claus Jensen that summer, focused more on ProZone, electrolyte drinks and heart monitors. (Ian Marshall’s monitor produced some strange readings, largely because he put it on his dog.) Preston prospered with their third-tier players, augmented by the mid-season arrival of David Healy. Their No 32, Moyes, was not required to make an appearance. The Lancashire rivals finished side by side in third and fourth and each overcame a West Midlands club in the semi-finals, Bolton beating West Bromwich Albion and Preston defeating Birmingham on penalties. Trevor Francis’s complaints about the choice of ends at Deepdale for the shootout prompted him to lead his players from the pitch, which scarcely counted as ideal preparation.
And so Cardiff staged a 21st-century tie in front of icons from the 1950s. Tom Finney and Nat Lofthouse were at the Millennium Stadium. Allardyce had invited the “Lion of Vienna” to address his squad in the build-up. His own motivation came, inadvertently, from his North End counterpart. “There was an article in the papers in which Moyesie told how I scouted him for Preston but he was going to break my heart,” he wrote in Big Sam.
Preston’s top scorer had an early chance to do that, and Jon Macken perhaps should have scored his header. Then Gareth Farrelly who, as an Everton player, had scored the goal to keep the Merseysiders up and send Bolton down in 1998, drilled a shot through a crowd of players. Wanderers led.
Preston could have levelled. Mark Rankine missed two chances, while Matt Clarke made a fine save from Healy. But Allardyce had a trump card in reserve. While Bo Hansen, scorer of five goals in 49 games that season, led the line, the altogether more prolific Michael Ricketts was on the bench. A £400,000 signing from Walsall, Ricketts seemed to fare better as a substitute. Nineteen minutes after coming on, he scored his 24th goal of the season. When Ricardo Gardner also caught Preston on the counter-attack, it was 3-0. Allardyce had only one problem. “Put me on, gaffer,” Marshall said. With reason on his side, Allardyce replied: “We’ve used three subs. I can’t.” “You bastard,” countered the angry Marshall, his heart rate now presumably higher than his dog’s.
If all play-off finals have consequences, these were considerable. Preston have been arguably the most successful club in the Championship who have never been promoted in the last two decades; they have not played top-flight football since 1961 and defeat came at a cost. “In David Moyes, Preston have the game's brightest young manager; it is imperative that they fend off the inevitable approaches for their ambitious Scot," wrote John Ley in the Telegraph. Moyes headed to Everton the following March. Bolton, meanwhile, began an 11-year run in the Premier League while Allardyce managed in the division for at least part of 16 of the following 17 seasons, establishing a reputation as a man who could avert any threat of relegation.
Hull 1-0 Bristol City, 2008
The play-offs facilitate social mobility in football. Many of the more improbable promotions to the Premier League, and those of the clubs who have been absent from it for the longest, tend to come via the play-offs. Burnley ended a 33-year exile in 2009, Blackpool a 39-year wait in 2010 and Huddersfield a 45-year stint in the lower leagues in 2017.
Go back to 2008 and the Premier League was guaranteed a new member: Bristol City were last relegated from the old Division 1 in 1980 while Hull City had never appeared among the elite. They had been founded 104 years earlier; even Dean Windass had not been alive for 65 years of their existence. A tale of two Cities was a story of one 39-year-old man.
"I think it was written in the gods that it would be Dean Windass or Nicky Barmby who would get the winner today,” said manager Phil Brown after the final whistle. But Barmby, another son of Hull, was far too self-effacing. It was Windass, approaching middle age with his hair dyed blond, who commanded the attention.
He was in his third spell at his hometown club. The first had ended without him making a first-team appearance. A late developer, he was deemed too small and released, drifting into non-league football and frozen food. “They say that football is the land of milk and honey but my road to success was covered in rice and peas,” he wrote in Deano. He packed both as, via North Ferriby United, he worked his way back to Hull. When he left them again, in 1995, it was because City had been served with two winding-up orders. They needed the money Aberdeen paid. He created such an impression in that second stint at Hull that, in 2005, he was voted their fourth greatest player. Had the poll come three years later, he may have been a runaway winner.
Hull had called again in January 2007. Windass was almost 38 and in the third tier with Bradford. They were threatened with relegation from the Championship. Their assistant manager was Brian Horton, the man who had released him two decades earlier. Windass scored eight goals to keep them up.
Hull started slowly but gathered steam, aided by an eclectic approach to recruitment. Brown had Windass’s love of the limelight and a fondness for characters that made him feel a throwback, a manager who aspired to be Malcolm Allison more than Arsène Wenger. If Jay-Jay Okocha was an eye-catching but largely irrelevant addition, Fraizer Campbell had a greater impact. The 20-year-old was little more than half of Windass’s age, but a partnership of opposites prospered as they both scored 15 times.
Hull finished third, a slim chance of automatic promotion missed with a final-day defeat to Ipswich. They overwhelmed Aidy Boothroyd’s free-falling Watford in the semi-finals. It took them to Wembley, where Bristol City’s chance to complete a remarkable rise, as they sought a second successive promotion, was still overshadowed by Hull’s: the captain Ian Ashbee was not slow to remind his teammates he had played for the club in every division.
He was to add the Premier League to his list. Windass had been a surprise omission from Sheffield United’s bench for the 2003 play-off final – “I called Neil Warnock a cunt and he agreed with me,” he said – but he was a guaranteed starter. And the strike force combined wonderfully. Campbell supplied the energetic run and calm cutback, Windass the wonderful finish from the edge of the box.
“Dare we say it’s a Windass Wembley winner?” asked David Burns, commentating for BBC Radio Humberside. There was still the best part of an hour remaining, but he was right. Michael Turner had to clear a Lee Trundle effort off the line, but Hull were up.
“A fairytale? No, it’s better than that,” wrote Windass. The best was saved almost until the last in his own personal story. He was a bit-part player at the start of the 2008-09 campaign as Hull went level on points at the top of the Premier League. He was back in League One before they won their relegation battle on a final day that ended with Brown channelling the Beach Boys in an on-pitch song. He only scored another three goals in his career. But he managed the most famous in Hull’s history.
Swansea 4-2 Reading, 2011
Brendan Rodgers was deep in the bowels of Wembley when he reflected on history’s capacity to repeat itself, but in different ways. “A real ironic tale,” the Swansea manager said. “Eight years ago, the club won the last game of the season, 4-2, and one player scored a hat-trick with two penalties.”
James Thomas kept Swansea in the Football League with his match-winning contribution against Hull in 2003. In 2011, Scott Sinclair extricated them from it in a game with a trio of goals, two from 12 yards; once again Swansea could savour a 4-2 scoreline.
In the 2000s, the play-offs facilitated a swift rise from the fourth tier to the first. Hull City, Thomas’s victims in 2003, reached the Premier League in 2008. Blackpool followed in 2010: they had left League Two, as it now is, in 2001, but their rise was notable because a hat-trick of promotions came via the play-offs. Then it was Swansea’s turn in 2011, a third promotion in seven seasons taking them back to the top flight for the first time since relegation in 1983. The Premier League would have its first Welsh representatives: ‘Land of my Fathers’ would meet the promised land. “We were representing a nation today,” said Rodgers, never one to underplay anything.
His own story was compelling enough. His playing career at Reading had been ended before it really began by a knee injury. He had gained a fine reputation as a youth-team coach, was lured to Chelsea by José Mourinho and, after a promising start to his first-team managerial career at Watford, was lured back to Reading to replace Steve Coppell in 2009.
Where it promptly went wrong. Rodgers was sacked with Reading 21st in the Championship after one win in 11 home games; his passing-based 4-3-3 didn’t fit with a club used to a more direct style of football rooted in 4-4-2. “I was totally trying to change players who had played one way for five years,” he admitted after the vindication of Wembley victory. “It was a bad moment.” His replacement, following a successful spell as caretaker manager, was one of his backroom staff: Brian McDermott.
Rodgers resurfaced at Swansea in 2010. They had narrowly missed out on the play-offs, though finishing seventh was a feat after scoring just 40 goals in 46 league games under Paulo Sousa. If passing seemed a defensive strategy, Rodgers gave it an attacking reboot. Swansea scored 69 goals and finished third. They were paired with Nottingham Forest in the play-offs and drew the first leg at the City Ground, despite having Neil Taylor sent off after two minutes. “Tactically, we were brilliant,” said Rodgers, seeming to praise their tactician in chief, who had moved Alan Tate to left-back after Taylor’s departure. With a full complement of players, they won the second leg 3-1. McDermott’s Reading, meanwhile, beat Cardiff 3-0, to ensure the final would not be an all-Welsh affair.
While Reading were captained by a Rodgers signing in Matt Mills, his recruitment strategy then revolved around players he had coached in Chelsea’s junior ranks. He had borrowed Ryan Bertrand for Reading and later tried to take the left-back to Liverpool. The loaned Fabio Borini, a future Anfield employee, brought Swansea end-of-season impetus. Sinclair, another graduate of Stamford Bridge, had given a blunt side a cutting edge and arrived at Wembley with 24 goals to his name.
That became 27. He scored two in as many minutes, the first from the spot after Nathan Dyer was tripped by the clumsy Zurab Khizanishvili, who was spared a second yellow card. Then came a tap-in when Adam Federici pushed Borini’s cross into his path. When Stephen Dobbie scored a crisp half-volley, it was 3-0 and Reading’s assistant manager Nigel Gibbs and the unused substitute Jay Tabb were both sent off at half-time. “I think Nigel said something and Jay said something,” said McDermott vaguely.
His own half-time words had a different kind of impact. Reading scored twice and were inches from drawing level when Jem Karacan struck the post. But Andy Griffin committed a clumsy challenge on Borini. Sinclair scored from 12 yards. “He’s an incredible penalty taker,” said Rodgers. His £500,000 investment in Sinclair had been repaid many times over.
“Eight years ago, they [Swansea] couldn’t even pay the electricity bill,” he said. “Now they have won a £90 million game.” Promotion may have allowed him to be immodest, though City’s more recent decline in their final years in the Premier League perhaps backed up his theory. “Nine out of 10 managers wouldn’t suit the Swansea way,” he expounded. “It’s a bit like the Barcelona way, they have a method.” He had a 180-page dossier when he was interviewed by Liverpool’s owners the following year after steering Swansea into mid-table. Perhaps his exit was easy to foretell from his Wembley words. “The only thing I have learned from Reading was never to be sentimental again,” he said.
Huddersfield 0-0 Reading, 2017
As the only Championship play-off final not to contain a goal, the 2017 encounter has a strong case to be named the dullest. Yet if the drama only really came in the ensuing penalty shootout, that should detract neither from the magnitude of Huddersfield’s achievement nor the knock-on effect for a division.
Theirs was a cut-price promotion to the Premier League that flew in the face of the numbers, both financial and footballing. Town’s wage bill was just £11 million and, though it was eventually swelled by promotion bonuses, that amounted to £2 million less than in their first season back in the Championship in 2012-13. Their winning penalty was converted by the defender Christopher Schindler who, when asked by the chairman Dean Hoyle why he stepped up, replied: “You paid a record fee for me, so I had a duty to pay you back.” The German was Huddersfield’s biggest ever buy at the time, but just the 43rd largest by a Championship club that season.
Schindler highlighted a market English clubs had tended to overlook: the German lower leagues. They started to take notice even before Huddersfield ended a 45-year exile from the top flight. The head of football operations Stuart Webber, the man who hired David Wagner as manager, had left Huddersfield in April, heading to Norwich, where he promptly appointed another former manager of Borussia Dortmund II, Daniel Farke.
But when Huddersfield eschewed the more obvious avenues, they were initially met with doubt. They finished 19th in 2015-16, six months after Wagner’s arrival. Ian Holloway, whose Blackpool team were tipped for relegation at the start of their 2009-10 promotion campaign, predicted Huddersfield would finish 23rd in 2016-17.
But Wagner acted swiftly. An 11th signing of the summer was made on July 15. Newcomers were confronted with a pre-season that entailed visiting a Swedish island. “In the wild, no electricity, no toilet, no bed, no mobile phone or internet,” he told the Guardian.
Five of those additions came from Germany. So did a philosophy that he related to the club’s nickname. It was Gegenpressing, Terrier-style. “We are not the biggest dog, we are small, but we are aggressive, we are not afraid, we like to compete with the big dogs and we are quick and mobile and we have endurance,” he subsequently said. He forged an identity at a club to such an extent that T-shirts being sold in the club shop soon focused on three men: Herbert Chapman, Patrick Stewart and Wagner.
Huddersfield made a swift start and clung on determinedly to a top-six spot. Wins were often hard-fought and narrow, defeats altogether bigger. It meant they became the first team promoted to the English top flight with a negative goal difference. And because they drew all three play-off games, getting past Sheffield Wednesday on penalties, this trend continued.
They limped into the play-offs, losing three of their last four games. Fulham powered into them, winning five of the last six. They had scored 85 goals in the league alone, nine of them against Huddersfield. They were favourites to win the play-offs. And yet they lost the semi-final to Jaap Stam’s Reading, a team who bemused many: not obviously impressive, they had nonetheless accumulated 85 points.
Competing theories met at Wembley: Stam’s sideways passers were sadly similar to Louis van Gaal’s increasingly insipid Manchester United, Wagner’s relentless runners reminiscent of his friend Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool. But, after Izzy Brown missed one fine early chance for Huddersfield, they cancelled each other out.
And so to penalties. Huddersfield’s recruitment strategy had been two-pronged, additions from Germany complemented by astute loans. Aaron Mooy, borrowed from Manchester City, was Huddersfield’s outstanding player that season and the Australian scored his spot-kick. Danny Ward, on the books of Liverpool, had kept out penalties from Wednesday’s Sam Hutchinson and Fernando Forestieri in the semi-final. The goalkeeper was required to excel again because Huddersfield were first to falter, Michael Hefele seeing his spot-kick saved. Yet it was one miss apiece when Reading’s Liam Moore blazed over. Then Ward denied Jordan Obita before Schindler, who had surprised Wagner by volunteering for the crucial fifth, scored. Klopp was watching at a friend’s house in the south of France, crying with joy.
From the least eventful of finals, Huddersfield had completed an against-the-odds triumph; if they feel disproportionately frequent occurrences in play-off football, this still seemed an extreme case of overachievement. “Everybody will remember what this group of players have done with a small budget,” Wagner said afterwards. “And they deserve it. This football club has written an unbelievable story.”