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The agony and the ecstasy of The Football League Play-Offs

7 May 2015

We take a closer look at the Play-Offs, with 12 clubs preparing themselves for the agony and the ecstasy of the end-of-season showdown.

The 12 clubs preparing themselves for the Football League Play-Offs will all naturally feel they are in with a good chance of getting promoted and will be striving to get themselves in the correct frame of mind for the crucial battles ahead.

However, it may not be advisable for most of the clubs involved to look too closely at their Play-Offs history to provide them with any reassurance. As a group, this dozen do not boast a particularly impressive record, having made over 50 appearances in the Play-Offs between them but having only secured nine promotions.

Furthermore, amongst this group there are some serial offenders who have failed again and again. These clubs will certainly not be looking forward with too much confidence based on their past records, indeed their feelings will be ones of trepidation and anxiety.

Ignoring the past may be the best tactic for some of the worst offenders so their fans may want to avert their eyes as we take a closer look at the clubs and their generally inglorious Play-Offs history.

Starting with the clubs in the Sky Bet Championship who represent the least successful of the three divisions as only two of the clubs have gained promotion via the Play-Offs.

Sky Bet Championship

The East Anglian derby is the semi-final that has grabbed most of the headlines because of the added heat and spice of local rivalry. This will be the first time that Norwich City and Ipswich Town have met in the Play-Offs and whilst Norwich are relative novices, having appeared only once in 2002 when they lost on penalties to Birmingham in the First Division Final, Ipswich have a wealth of experience, but not especially happy memories.

Having lost in the first ever Play-Off semi-finals to Charlton Athletic in 1987, Ipswich lost three semi-finals on the trot from 1997 to 1999. Their only success followed in 2000 when defeating Barnsley 4-2 in the last Play-Off match to be hosted at the old Wembley. Ipswich have since reverted to type in their subsequent appearances, losing semi-finals in 2004 and 2005.

Brentford are another club that must rue the day the Play-Offs were introduced. Given that the two men who engineered their introduction in the mid-1980s were their existing chairman, Martin Lange, and their future chairman, Ron Noades, the Bees’ record of under-achievement is laced with irony.

Seven unsuccessful attempts do not augur well but at least they managed to score a goal in their last appearance in the Final against Yeovil Town in 2013. The only redeeming feature is that all their previous efforts were from the division below and this is their first at the highest level.

Middlesbrough can claim the Play-Offs scalp of Chelsea, whom they beat in the 1988 Division Two Final 2-1 on aggregate and their only other experience was a semi-final loss to Notts County in 1991.

Sky Bet League 1

Swindon Town boast the best performance of all the clubs competing this year, as they have been promoted twice through the Play-Offs - first in the inaugural year of 1987 and then in 1993. In between these two victories they also won the 1990 Division Two Final, which the first to be played at Wembley, but were denied promotion when found guilty of financial irregularities.

The Robins have also failed four times, most recently in 2013, but in Sheffield United they face a team that has never tasted success. Their seven attempts have ended in three semi-final defeats and four losing Finals. Not only that but they have failed to score in any of those four Finals. The last one against Huddersfield Town in 2013 was particularly galling as it came after the longest penalty shout-out in a Play-Off Final when Steve Simonsen blasted the 22nd penalty way over the bar.
Chesterfield have fairly limited experience in comparison with the other Sky Bet League 1 semi-finalists, having been in two Play-Off Finals, losing the Division Four Final in 1990 to a Dion Dublin goal and then beating Bury in the 1995 Third Division Final.

But for Chesterfield’s opponents, the Play-Offs have truly been the stuff of nightmares. Preston North End’s record of nine appearances without promotion is the worst of any of the 95 clubs who have participated over the 28 years. Six semi-final defeats and three Final losses, stretched over all three divisions, is a sorry tale that goes back to 1989 when they lost to Port Vale in the Third Division semi-final, and runs all the way to their most recent defeat to Rotherham United last year in the League 1 semi-final.

Considering Preston were in the automatic promotion spot going into the last league match of the season, the prospect of a tenth failure will already be giving their fans palpitations.

Sky Bet League 2

Unlike any of the other divisions, all this year's Sky Bet League 2 contenders have won the Play-Offs once.

Southend United have made four appearances but, after their first successful foray when they beat Lincoln City in the League 2 Final in 2005, they have since lost three semi-finals, the most recent coming last season against Burton Albion.

Southend’s opponents this year are Stevenage who also won their first Play-Off Final in 2011 against Torquay, the year after they had been promoted to The Football League. Stevenage then failed to secure successive Play-Offs promotions when losing the following year in the League 1 semi-final to Sheffield United.

Like Southend and Stevenage, Wycombe Wanderers also won their first shot at the Play-Offs in 1994 when defeating Preston 4-2 in the Division Three Final, but have subsequently lost their two semi-finals since.

So the only team out of this quartet who won their last Play-Off match is Plymouth Argyle, but their success may be a distant memory as it was nearly 20 years ago when under Neil Warnock, they beat Darlington in 1996, having previously lost in the semi-finals in 1994.

About the author

Richard Foster is a freelance writer and author, who is a regular contributor to a variety of football websites and blogs, including The Eagles Element and Sabotage Times. Richard’s book, The Agony & The Ecstasy – A History of the Football League Play-Offs will be published by Ockley Books later this month. Details of availability to be published shortly via

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