The second tier playoff final has often been the highlight of the season for some people. The most high-pressured single game in English football, sometimes that pressure produces classics, sometimes absolute duds, but they’re all worth watching. And you can watch all of them, here…
1987 | 1988 | 1989 | 1990 | 1991 | 1992 | 1993 | 1994 | 1995 | 1996 | 1997 | 1998 | 1999 | 2000 | 2001 | 2002 | 2003 | 2004 | 2005 | 2006 | 2007 | 2008 | 2009 | 2010 | 2011 | 2012 | 2013 | 2014 | 2015 | 2016 | 2017 | 2018 | 2019
1987: Charlton 2-1 Leeds United (replay)
The early days of the playoffs were contested between the top three in the Second Division and the fourth-bottom team in the First: in 1987 Charlton were the latter, making it to the final to face Leeds. The final was over two legs with no extra-time, leading perhaps inevitably to the situation where both legs finished 1-0 to the home team, which necessitated a replay, staged for some reason at St Andrews, when all the action came in the hastily-added extra-time with a Peter Shirtliff brace keeping Charlton up.
1988: Middlesbrough 2-1 Chelsea (on aggregate)
This time the final saw the top tier side slide, Middlesbrough winning the first leg 2-0 and holding on in the return at Stamford Bridge, despite the efforts of Gordon ‘Juke Box’ Durie and our own Pat Nevin. As was not unusual back then, things all got a bit nawty in the stands as the Chelsea fans didn’t take kindly to their defeat and demotion.
1989: Crystal Palace 4-3 Blackburn (on aggregate)
Things looked fairly grim for Crystal Palace after the first-leg, which ended 3-1 to a pre-Jack Walker Blackburn, but then Ian Wright did his thing in the return, and it’s notable how absolutely electric he was even then, essentially only two years removed from working on a building site. Although, Blackburn were not the last team to learn that leaving him unmarked, six yards out, was not the smartest move.
1990: Swindon Town 2-1 Sunderland
For the first time, the final was made into one single showpiece game, and the scruffy lot from the lower divisions were even allowed to play at Wembley, Ossie Ardiles-managed Swindon triumphing over Sunderland thanks to an Alan McLoughlin goal. Not that it did them much good: even while the final was being played there was a case underway against Swindon for illegal payments to players that would eventually see not only this result overturned and Sunderland promoted to the top flight (which irritated third-placed Newcastle), but Swindon demoted to the Third Division, something that was ultimately reduced to merely remaining in the Second on appeal.
1991: Notts County 3-1 Brighton and Hove Albion
An ultimately pretty one-sided final that would give Neil Warnock his first ever promotion in the Football League (having previously been promoted to the Football League with Burton), a couple of Tommy Johnson goals set Notts on their way. Featuring a classic bit of Brian Moore commentary for the second goal: “Created by Dave Regis, taken by Tommy Johnson: WALLOP. And that’s 2-0.”
1992: Blackburn Rovers 1-0 Leicester City
They would probably have come up at some stage anyway, but it is worth remembering that Blackburn’s rapid rise to champions in 1995 was helped along the way by an extremely ropey penalty decision in this playoff final, David Speedie reminding everyone that the old lie about those dastardly foreigners bringing diving into the English game was exactly that. It’s also worth remembering that this game was only 15 months or so after Kenny Dalglish resigned from Liverpool: imagine Jurgen Klopp jibbing it in at Anfield now and rocking up at, say, Brentford in just over a year.
1993: Swindon Town 4-3 Leicester City
The second part in Leicester’s playoff suite of woe, this was probably the first classic of the second tier playoff era, with Swindon player-manager Glenn Hoddle kicking off a madcap 25 or so minutes either side of half-time when six goals were scored. The two sides then took a breather for a bit, before Paul Bodin tucked away a pressure penalty in the 84th minute, presumably reassuring Wales fans that he would show similar nerve if faced with such a situation in their ongoing World Cup qualification campaign…
1994: Leicester City 2-1 Derby County
Redemption. Tommy Johnson put Derby in front in this East Midlands set-to, making it look very much like it would be a seventh Wembley final defeat on the spin for Leicester, but a brace from Steve Walsh – playing up top in this game – sent them up, although the first should a) probably have been disallowed and b) accompanied by clown music.
1995: Bolton Wanderers 4-3 Reading
Reading haven’t exactly enjoyed a happy time of things in the playoff final: they lost on penalties to Huddersfield in 2017, were gubbed by Swansea in 2011 and then there’s this one, in which they romped into an early 2-0 lead, only to concede two in the last 15 minutes and get overrun in extra-time. It was enough to earn Bruce Rioch the Arsenal job, where he tried to teach Ian Wright to play like John McGinley.
1996: Leicester City 2-1 Crystal Palace
A final between two teams relegated from the Premier League the previous season, Palace went ahead early but a Garry Parker penalty levelled things, and it looked like we were in for a bunch more of the things as the clock ticked down in extra-time. Martin O’Neill certainly thought so: in the 119th minute he substituted goalkeeper Kevin Poole for the giant Australian Zeljko ‘Spider’ Kalac on the basis that he’d be a better bet saving penalties. But about 30 seconds after making the change, the ball fell to Steve Claridge, unmarked on the edge of the box and he shinned home the winner.
1997: Crystal Palace 1-0 Sheffield United
Defeated finalists coming back the next year would prove something of a theme, and that’s what happened to Crystal Palace, earning promotion under Steve Coppell thanks to David Hopkins, who was much better at curling in crucial 25-yarders than he was at keeping all of his teeth.
1998: Charlton Athletic 4-4 Sunderland (8-7 on penalties)
Not just the greatest playoff final of all time, one of the greatest games English football has ever seen. It’s exhausting and pretty stressful just watching the highlights of this game, as a neutral, 22 years on, but do it anyway. What a game.
1999: Watford 2-0 Bolton Wanderers
To be honest the big story was in the Division Two playoff this year when Manchester City came back from the dead against Gillingham, but while this game wasn’t a classic it did produce a lovely story, as the nicest man in football Graham Taylor returned to his old club and took them back to the top flight, beating a Bolton side that featured Eidur Gudjohnsen 2-0.
2000: Ipswich Town 4-2 Barnsley
A banger of a game, and the start of the finest period Ipswich enjoyed since the Bobby Robson era. After winning promotion they finished fifth in the top flight, qualifying for Europe and got to the League Cup semi-final, before drawing Inter in the UEFA Cup, winning the first-leg at Portman Road before a Christian Vieri hat-trick was needed to knock them out.
2001: Bolton Wanderers 3-0 Preston North End
The first of six finals at the Millennium Stadium, Sam Allardyce’s Bolton bested David Moyes’s Preston, but not quite as comfortably as the final scoreline suggests: they took an early lead through Gareth Farrelly, but the other two goals didn’t come until the 89th and 90th minutes, through Michael Ricketts and Ricardo Gardner.
2002: Birmingham 1-1 Norwich City (4-2 on penalties)
A goalless 90 minutes, then it all kicked off. Two goals in the opening 12 minutes of extra-time weren’t added to, meaning penalties. And, alas for them, Norwich’s spot kicks were rubbish, one saved, one missed and one almost saved, as Birmingham scored all of theirs.
2003: Wolverhampton Wanderers 3-0 Sheffield United
An absolute thrashing, Wolves were irresistible in this game, blowing Neil Warnock’s Sheffield United away with three goals in the first-half that they couldn’t recover from.
2004: Crystal Palace 1-0 West Ham United
The West Ham team that was relegated a year earlier looked very different to the one that lost to Crystal Palace, defeated by a Neil Shipperley tap-in after an hour. No dancing for Pards this time.
2005: West Ham United 1-0 Preston North End
If you want a goal in an otherwise fairly turgid playoff final, then Bobby Zamora is your man. He did it for QPR in 2014, and boy did he do it for West Ham in 2005.
2006: Watford 3-0 Leeds United
One of the saddest/funniest things (delete according to allegiance) about the suspension of this season has been preventing Leeds from returning to the top flight for the first time since 2004. This was the closest they have come since, quite firmly beaten in the final by Aidy Boothroyd’s Watford.
2007: Derby County 1-0 West Bromwich Albion
A slightly curious playoff final, because even Derby fans recognised that their team wasn’t quite ready for the top flight (although surely even the most pessimistic would have predicted the 11-point season that would ensue), but even after Stephen Pearson scored their only goal, rampantly paranoid manager Billy Davies gave an interview in which he suggested he might not even be there to guide them into the Premier League. Still, they’ll have that moment of glorious catharsis, and that’s enough for them to remember. This was also before Wembley realised their initial choice for camera angle was too high.
2008: Hull City 1-0 Bristol City
A playoff final that was unique in that whoever won would play in the top flight for the first time in their history. Ultimately it was Hull, promoted thanks to a blooter from hometown hero Dean Windass, who went up – fair enough on the day, but it did deny the opportunity for Lee Trundle to play in the top flight, which we can all agree is something of a shame.
2009: Burnley 1-0 Sheffield United
File under ‘not a classic’, but it did feature a) a brilliant winner from Wade Elliott, and future £50million man Kyle Walker, playing for Sheffield United.
2010: Blackpool 3-2 Cardiff City
A pretty astonishing game – or, more accurately, a pretty astonishing first-half, with all five goals coming before the break, what would turn out to be the winner scored in first-half injury-time by Brett Ormerod, securing what would ultimately be one of the most unlikely spells in the Premier League for Blackpool. Have a bang on that Charlie Adam free-kick: woof.
2011: Swansea 4-2 Reading
Swansea were a quite brilliant team in the Football League for a few years. Initially under Kenny Jackett, then Roberto Martinez, and finally with Brendan Rodgers, they got their deserved promotion in a cracking game against Reading. Scott Sinclair got a hat-trick, two from the spot, as a reminder that at one stage he a) was really, really good but b) played for Manchester City as recently as 2015. Weird.
2012: West Ham United 2-1 Blackpool
Ricardo Vaz Te won’t exactly go down among the greatest players in the history of West Ham, but he scored one of their most important goals: where would they be now if they hadn’t reached the Premier League back in 2012 under Sam Allardyce?
2013: Crystal Palace 1-0 Watford
You probably wouldn’t ask them this at the time, if you offered a Watford fan the choice of keeping The Deeney Goal in the semi-final but losing this game, or winning their semi and final, hence promotion, in a prosaic manner, which do you think they’d choose? This was a dog of a game really, settled by an extra-time Kevin Phillips penalty, but Watford went up the following year anyway, so who really cares?
2014: QPR 1-0 Derby County
This was an absolute mugging, frankly a robbery of a result that Derby should have won by three or four, so much so that Harry Redknapp later admitted that he was thinking about what sort of golf club he’d join the following season, because he sure as hell wasn’t going to lower himself to managing another season in the Championship. But dear lord, what a moment that was for QPR and Bobby Zamora.
2015: Norwich City 2-0 Middlesbrough
This was a weird game: Middlesbrough figuratively didn’t really show up, conceding two early goals and never getting going from there, but they also quite literally nearly didn’t turn up, arriving at Wembley late after their coach got stuck in traffic. Check out that second goal by Norwich though: lordy.
2016: Hull City 1-0 Sheffield Wednesday
Another pretty weird game, firstly in that Sheffield Wednesday – who had been so brilliant in the closing weeks of the regular season – were so terrible, but also that Hull were playing in front of a half-empty end of Wembley, many of their fans staying away because of protests against how the club was being run.
2017: Huddersfield 0-0 Reading (4-3 on penalties)
A dreary game but a quite brilliantly dramatic penalty shootout, worth watching just for the reaction of Town fan Patrick Stewart and chairman Dean Hoyle.
2018: Fulham 1-0 Aston Villa
Fulham deserved promotion this season, but it is worth remembering what Villa manager Steve Bruce had gone through: he had lost both of his parents in the months before this game, so how he managed to put one foot in front of the other was pretty remarkable, never mind managing a team in the most high-pressured game in English football
2019: Aston Villa 2-1 Derby County
Quite frequently the playoff semi-finals are more interesting and dramatic than the final, and it was certainly the case with this one: Derby got through thanks to that absolutely insane semi-final victory over Leeds, and Villa beat rivals West Brom on penalties. Both sides were pretty flat in this final, Villa taking advantage of some iffy keeping from Kelle Roos in the Derby nets to just about win it.