Dubbed “the richest game in football”, the Championship (and, before that, First Division) play-off final certainly offers one of the biggest prizes: the chance to mix it with the best teams in the land in the Premier League. For the winners: access to the Magic Money Tree that is the Premier League (for one season, at least – plus parachute payments!), with all the riches, prestige and potential for the glory that brings. For the losers: another season slogging it out in the second tier, traditionally one of the toughest divisions in European football.
Over the years there have been some absolutely belting play-off finals that have served as fitting climaxes to the Championship (or First Division) seasons. So let’s run through some of the best of them in the Premier League era (i.e. from the 1992/93 season to the present).
Derby County 0-1 Queens Park Rangers, 24th May 2014
Okay, this play-off final in 2014 didn’t have as many goals as those featured below, but in terms of tension and nail-biting action, it was something of a classic. Derby had finished third in the Championship on 85 points, with QPR in fourth, five points behind. Both sides were managed by bit-hitters: the Rams had former England boss Steve McClaren at the helm, while former Spurs, West Ham (and others!) boss Harry Redknapp was the man tasked with guiding QPR to the top flight.
Having been relegated from the Premier League at the end of the 2012/13 season, QPR had retained the services of some big-name players including Niko Kranjčar, Joey Barton, Richard Dunne, Rob Green and Bobby Zamora. Though Derby didn’t have so many well-known players, they had a few up-and-coming stars in their ranks including Chelsea loanee (and now Leeds striker) Patrick Bamford.
And it was Derby who got off to the brighter start, dominating possession and creating plenty of chances. Unfortunately for Derby and McClaren, they couldn’t take any of those chances. But QPR didn’t look too threatening and Derby fancied their chances of getting the win.
Things changed in the 60th minute, however, when Hoops midfielder Gary O’Neil took out Johnny Russell on the edge of the QPR area. O’Neil stopped what was a clear goalscoring opportunity with his foul and was duly given a red card. From that moment onwards, QPR – who hadn’t had a single shot on target by that point – were very much up against it. To their credit, though, the Hoops defended stoutly and, against the run of play, they managed to create a chance in the final minute that fell to Bobby Zamora… who curled it home to send QPR fans into raptures and their team into the Premier League.
Blackpool 3-2 Cardiff City, 22nd May 2010
Although Blackpool had played in the top flight of English football plenty of times in their history (most recently the 1970/71 season), they had never played in the Premier League. They had been competed in the third tier as recently as 2007 and with a tiny budget compared to many Championship sides, they were never expected to even make the play-offs. As it happens, they only just did, finishing in sixth place just a point ahead of seventh-place Swansea City.
Cardiff, managed by former Wolves boss Dave Jones, were the slight favourites going into the game but Blackpool manager Ian Holloway had a knack for getting the best from his players. It didn’t take long for the goals to start flying in with Cardiff’s Michael Chopra opened the scoring in the ninth minute. Blackpool were swift to respond, future Liverpool man Charlie Adam smashing in a free kick to equalise just four minutes later.
The wide-open game then saw Cardiff sneak back into the lead after 37 minutes before yet another equaliser from Blackpool, again four minutes after going behind. In what will go down as one of the best halves of football in a playoff final, there was just time before the break for Blackpool’s Brett Ormerod to poke home his side’s third goal. Remarkably, given how open the first half had been, there were no further goals in the second period and Blackpool became a Premier League side despite having an average attendance of just over 8,000!
Swindon Town 4-3 Leicester City, 31st May 1993
Not only had Swindon Town never played in the Premier League, the club had never been in the top flight of English football in their history. So for them to make it to the play-off final (in what was then the First Division) under the player-managership of Glenn Hoddle was quite an achievement, to say the least. They faced a Leicester City side who were managed by Brian Little and who finished on the same number of points as Swindon (76), albeit a place behind in sixth on goal difference.
With Hoddle playing as a sweeper and pulling the strings, Swindon started brightly and looked by far the better side. Indeed, it was the player-boss who opened the scoring for the Robins just before the break (and, remarkably, it was the first goal he’d scored for them since the first game of the season!).
In the second period, the match turned into a goalfest. Swindon forward Craig Maskell struck within two minutes of the restart before Shaun Taylor looked to put the match beyond Leicester when he headed in after 53 minutes. That goal appeared to spark the Foxes to life, however, and they hit back with three goals in the 57th, 68th and 69th minutes through Julian Joachim, Steve Walsh and Steve Thompson.
It set up a tense and (for neutrals) very exciting finish to the game and ultimately it was settled by a Paul Bodin spot kick as the Welshman showed great calmness to beat Kevin Poole and send Swindon to the Premier League (if only Bodin had shown such calmness when taking a penalty for his country six months later… but that’s another story).
Charlton Athletic 4-4 Sunderland, 25th May 1998
Finally, we have one of the greatest games to have been played anywhere ever as this eight-goal thriller had fans and neutrals biting their nails while perched very much on the edge of their seats. Among the many talking points, there was a fantastic hat-trick from Charlton man (and former Grimsby Town legend) Clive Mendonca, and it was he who opened the scoring in the 23rd minute.
Sunderland, managed by Peter Reid, hit back through their ever-reliable little-and-large goal-getters Niall Quinn and Kevin Phillips in the 50th and 58th minutes respectively. Then Quinn added his second and the Black Cats’ third to swing the match in Sunderland’s favour.
Charlton weren’t ready to give up the ghost, however. And Mendonca got his second of the game before – in the 85th minute – Charlton defender Richard Rufus scored his first goal in over 160 games to take the match to extra time. The clash could easily have gone either way and when Nicky Summerbee scored for Sunderland, the Black Cats fans thought it was their day. But then up popped that man Mendonca… and it all came down to penalties.
Spot kicks are a lottery at the best of times but the pressure on the players on this occasion, when the prize was so enormous, must have been vast. As it was, the first 13 players to take penalties all scored. And then it was the turn of Sunderland’s Michael Gray. His kick was saved by Saša Ilić and Charlton were promoted to the Premier League.