When it was announced in April 1986 that a new promotion play-off system was to be introduced in the English league structure, many saw this as a positive move for football. Stuart Jones, writing in The Times ahead of the 1986/87 season, said of the play-offs that "The welcome change in the antiquated system will clearly introduce added tension and excitement at the season's end", the main advantage to the new approach being that teams which previously had nothing to play for would now have an opportunity to gain a play-off place and earn promotion via this back door route.
It was only when the play-offs began at the end of the 86/87 season that the penny dropped though. Entertaining they may have been, especially to the neutral, but the major flaw in the system was that a team could finish in the last play-off place, and get promoted at the expense of another club that had finished a significant distance ahead of them. Although the league chairmen agreed to the proposal, and each club knew the situation at the start of the campaign, it didn't stop the complaints as the first end of season nail biters commenced in May 1987.
And what a set of play-offs they were. Twenty matches spread over 15 days; 45 goals; over a £1 million in gate receipts; more than 310,000 spectators through the gates; twelve of the matches bringing the highest attendance at the relevant ground during the 86/87 season. Above all, the matches played provided the first signs of drama which we now take for granted in the play-offs, as fallen giants had their noses bloodied, Peter Shirtliff became a Charlton hero, and late goals, extra-time and replays were required to sort out the final promotion spots.
Division One: Charlton complete the Great Escape
The first two seasons of the play-offs would involve three teams from the lower division contesting the last league position with a team that finished just above the relegation zone in the higher league, partly a necessity of the restructuring programme which would see the First Division reduced to 20 teams by 1988 (the threat of a breakaway league had temporarily been quashed once this agreement was reached).
A 2-1 home win over QPR on the final day of the season saw Charlton secure the crucial 19th position in Division One at the expense of Leicester - taking their tally to ten points from the last 15 available - meaning they were now thrust into the unknown quantity of an end of season play-off to preserve their top flight status.
In the two-legged semi-final, Charlton would meet Ipswich, who had finished in fifth place in Division Two. The glory days of the early eighties were now a distant memory for the Suffolk club, the departure of manager Bobby Robson at the start of the decade, and an exodus of key players eventually leading to an inevitable relegation in 1986. One of the few remaining players from Town's heyday did his best to keep his club in the tie, Paul Cooper saving his fifth penalty of the season, as Colin Walsh failed to convert one of the rare chances of the goalless first leg at Portman Road.
The lack of an away goal may have been a concern to Lennie Lawrence, but a brace from Jim Melrose in the first half gave Charlton breathing space in the second leg, and although Steve McCall gave Ipswich brief hope with an 85th minute strike, the London club deservedly made it to the final. For Melrose the win came at a cost; a planned holiday had to be cancelled after the League had told Melrose the dates for the play-offs, only to then helpfully move the fixtures after he had booked his family break to Marbella.
Lawrence had voiced concerns over the rough tactics employed by Ipswich in the second leg, with Walsh in particular on the receiving end of some robust tackles, imploring the League to appoint some strong referees for the final, especially as Billy Bremner's Leeds awaited. Bremner's Leeds were built very much in the mould of the side he had played in under Don Revie - who would be in attendance at the first leg at Elland Road against Oldham - and this was in full evidence during the play-offs.
The Times' Martin Searby commented that the semi-final first leg "was a match that had plenty of passion but little football", as a game, delayed by 15 minutes due to a crowd of 29,472 leading to congestion problems, was played out in a frenetic atmosphere. Oldham looked to have survived the Leeds bombardment until substitute Keith Edwards scored a vital winner in the 89th minute. It would not be the last impact that Edwards would make late on in the tie.
With the second leg to be played on the plastic pitch at Boundary Park, Leeds' late goal was priceless, although they had in fact been only one of two teams to win at Oldham in the regular league season. But all looked lost for Leeds when Gary Williams levelled the tie after 18 minutes, and with just 90 seconds remaining Mike Cecere headed in a Denis Irwin cross to send the Oldham players and fans into raptures.
Super sub Edwards would have his say again though, scoring as the celebrations had barely finished, to send the match into extra-time, and with Oldham unable to find another goal, Leeds won on away goals, and their travelling support (reported to be between 6,000-10,000) could look forward to two matches against Charlton which could possibly see them returning to the First Division after a five year absence.
Not all were happy with the play-offs though. "We finished seven points clear of Leeds, and so to go out on away goals to them means there is something unjust," bemoaned Oldham boss Joe Royle. "I welcomed the play-offs but possibly hadn't considered the long-term ramifications," Royle would add, certainly not the only manager who would complain about the new system. It is a debate that started in 1987, and has not really gone away since.
The drama was only just beginning. Melrose again would prove to be Charlton's match winner in the first leg of the final, his 88th minute strike at Selhurst Park giving the First Division side the edge, but with a daunting trip to Elland Road still to come, things were too tight to call. "It will take a team of great character to emerge unscathed," stated Clive White in The Times of the test facing Charlton, and so it would prove.
In a bone-shuddering encounter played out in front of Leeds' best crowd of the season (31,395), the second leg of the final at times threatened to spill over into a violent scrap, the enormity of what was at stake proving too much for some. Charlton withstood the best of the Leeds onslaught, but were unable to prevent skipper Brendan Ormsby snatching a goal from 20-year-old striker Bob Taylor - who had been recalled by Bremner from a holiday after John Pearson had been injured - and after 180 minutes of nerve-shredding tension, the teams had to do it all over again at Birmingham's St. Andrews.
On police advice the deciding match would be limited to an 18,000 crowd, with 300 police placed on duty for the Friday night meeting, as an estimated 16,000 Leeds fans descended upon Birmingham. One thing was certain though; if the match ended level after extra-time, then the seasons of both clubs would be decided on penalties, something that Lawrence thought was a complete nonsense.
For a while, it looked as if the dreaded penalty shootout was looming as the match drifted into extra-time, until a fantastic free-kick from £1 million rated John Sheridan gave Leeds the lead after 99 minutes. As the stadium swayed with ecstatic Leeds fans, Charlton looked down and out, but in a second period of extra-time which seemed to reflect their whole season, they simply refused to give up, captain Peter Shirtliff calmly slotting home an equaliser with just seven minutes to go, before his header from an Andy Peake free-kick sent the small pocket of Charlton fans delirious. Captain Marvellous, as the Daily Express called him, had preserved Charlton's First Division status.
"Over the season's 42 games, there was no way Charlton deserved to be relegated," said the two-goal hero, who had not even trained for three weeks due to fitness concerns. However, the plain fact was that Charlton had just seven minutes left in the First Division before Shirtliff popped up, and as others discovered from 1987 onwards, the play-offs were not necessarily a guarantee of a team getting what they deserved over the course of a season.
Division Two: The rise of Swindon continues
If the once mighty Leeds were to experience pain then spare a thought for their 1973 FA Cup final opponents Sunderland. The disastrous reign of Lawrie McMenemy had seen the club drop like a stone towards the basement of the Second Division, and not even the appointment of Bob Stokoe in a caretaker capacity could stop the rot. A home defeat on the final day of the season to Barnsley consigned Sunderland to 20th place, setting up a semi-final play-off with Gillingham.
The effectiveness of Tony Cascarino, and a shaky display by Sunderland keeper Iain Hesford helped Gillingham win the first leg 3-2 at Priestfield, Cascarino scoring a second half hat-trick in the space of 26 minutes. Sunderland had taken the lead in the first half through a Mark Proctor penalty, and despite Cascarino's heroics, another goal from Proctor got Sunderland back into the semi, as the two prepared to meet again just three days later at Roker Park.
If ever a match would sum up just how thrilling and agonising the play-offs can be, then the second leg between Sunderland and Gillingham was as good an example as any. The 25,470 crowd were stunned early on when a Howard Pritchard header extended Gillingham's lead, only for an Eric Gates double to level proceedings on aggregate. Crucially Proctor would miss a 32nd minute penalty, slowing the Sunderland momentum and giving Gillingham a lifeline. It would prove costly.
When your luck is out, it's out. Gillingham would in turn miss their own penalty, Hesford saving from Colin Greenall, before the resultant scramble led to another Cascarino goal, leaving Sunderland with a little under 40 minutes to find a goal that would take the match to extra-time. On a day of gripping theatre, Gary Bennett's looping header with just two minutes left meant that both sets of players and supporters would have to go through another 30 minutes of torture.
The final nail in the Sunderland coffin would arrive in the familiar shape of Cascarino, his 92nd minute goal giving Gillingham an extra away goal, and although Keith Bertschin would score a winner on the day with twelve minutes remaining, Gillingham progressed to the final on the away goals rule (the aggregate score ended at 6-6, in case you've lost count). Sunderland slipped into the Third Division for the first time in their history, as a tearful Stokoe left the club after ultimately failing to arrest the slide started by the McMenemy regime.
Most of the action was contained in the first leg of the other semi-final between Wigan and Swindon. In the stereotypical game of two halves, Wigan raced into a two goal lead after just 16 minutes at Springfield Park through Chris Thompson and David Lowe goals, before an important Fraser Digby save kept Swindon in the tie during the second half. But then three strikes in the last 19 minutes changed the complexion of the tie completely, Dave Bamber, Jimmy Quinn, and Peter Coyne - who had been released four years previously by Wigan - putting Swindon firmly in charge.
A relatively dull 0-0 draw in the second leg gave Swindon the chance to gain promotion for the second season on the bounce, but this looked a distant dream as the matches with Gillingham progressed. Swindon may have been the superior team in the first leg at Priestfield, Gillingham keeper Phil Kite keeping his side in the match, yet a late David Smith free-kick proved decisive, and when Karl Elsey scored a screamer after 15 minutes of the second leg, Swindon would again need to come from two goals back to avoid heartbreak.
It looked like being one of those days for Lou Macari's side, as a combination of Kite, the woodwork, and awful finishing put Gillingham just 29 minutes away from the Second Division for the first time in their history. Eventually the pressure told, as Coyne came back to haunt his former club once more, and an 81st minute goal Charlie Henry strike (his first of the season) brought the sides level. With no away goals rule in the final, the two teams would now face a replay at Selhurst Park in four days time.
The Times' Ian Stafford was definitely a convert to the play-offs, writing about the second leg that "Yet another exhilarating match last night added further weight to the argument supporting the controversial play-off system". Lou Macari was less convinced though, even after two Steve White goals earned Swindon a place in Division Two. "This is one of the greatest moments of my career," commented the Swindon boss. "But I never want to go through a game like this again. The League should scrap the play-offs".
Unfortunately for Macari and the other complainants, the very fact that a lot of the matches had provided such entertainment, and had been so well attended, suggested that the new play-off system was here to stay.
Division Three: Former greats stunned by Aldershot
The fall and fall of Wolves during the 1980s was simply staggering. From the top flight to the Fourth Division in just three seasons, the club was massively in debt and had parts of their Molineux ground shut during the 1986/87 season. For a while it looked as if the club was endlessly digging to new levels of rock bottom, as an embarrassing defeat to Chorley in the FA Cup highlighted just how far the club had sunk. But Steve Bull's arrival in November, and his subsequent partnership with Andy Mutch, helped Graham Turner turn things around, and although the club narrowly missed out on automatic promotion, they were heavily fancied to triumph in the play-offs.
A comfortable 2-0 aggregate win over Colchester - Rob Kelly and Bull scoring in the first leg at Layer Road - set up a final meeting with Aldershot, who had already taken care of a former giant in their semi-final. Bolton Wanderers' demise to the Fourth Division for the first time in their history was not entirely unexpected, a poor campaign under Phil Neal after a couple of seasons down the wrong end of Division Three leading to their relegation.
Gary Johnson (not the Yeovil manager) scored Aldershot's winner in the first leg, but Bolton won the second leg 2-1 at Burnden Park, and with the away goals rule only counting after extra-time, the home team had a further 30 minutes to stave off relegation. Alas it would be Aldershot's Glenn Burvill who scored the clincher, Phil Neal immediately announcing the end of his playing days, as Bolton's fans now had to face the very real fact that they were now a Fourth Division outfit.
Wolves were undoubtedly the favourites for the final, after all they had beaten Aldershot twice in the league, and had finished 9 points in front of their opponents. But in teeming rain on a semi-waterlogged playing surface at Aldershot's Recreation Ground, the underdogs won 2-0 with goals from Ian McDonald and Bobby Barnes (pen), a significant lead to take to a dilapidated Molineux. Manager Len Walker must have been delighted, even if he did trot out the usual "it's only half-time" message that is the norm during any two-legged affair.
The enormity of the second leg was evident when 19,962 supporters crammed into the two sides of Molineux that were open - the corresponding league fixture in February had seen a paltry 3,357 turn up - yet for the majority of the crowd it would be a night of despair. Barnes' 83rd minute strike ended any hope of a Wolves comeback, the frustration spilling over at the conclusion of the match, with home fans attacking Aldershot's jubilant following, leading to 41 arrests involving Wolves supporters (out of a total of 42).
"I'm bitterly disappointed," declared Turner. "We ended nine points clear of Aldershot in the table with a better goal difference, so that makes it even harder to swallow at the moment". Walker sympathised with his managerial counterpart: "It's sad Wolves finished fourth and we finished sixth, but we all knew the rules to start with". There could be no doubting that the play-offs had been a success, but try telling that to Joe Royle and Graham Turner after their first experience of the new system.
It wasn't all good news for Aldershot; after the match, Giorgio Mazzon, Glenn Burvill, and Darren Anderson were badly injured in a car crash, Mazzon forced to retire in 1988 due to the injuries he suffered. And soon things were about to go downhill from a footballing point of view. By 1989 Aldershot were relegated, and even worse was to follow when the club went out of business in 1992.
As Aldershot were returning to the Fourth Division, Wolves were going the other way, their resolve after the disappointment of losing the 1986/87 play-off admirable, as they got up, brushed themselves down, and the Bull/Mutch partnership inspired consecutive promotions to the Second Division. Probably best that they gained both of their promotions by topping the Fourth and Third Division tables though after their first taste of play-off anguish.