Four Yorkshire teams will compete in this season’s Football League play-offs. Richard Sutcliffe looks back on the 100 games involving the region’s clubs.
THERE have been huge highs and gut-wrenching lows. Nerves have also been shredded and emotions pushed to the very limit.
But, as the Football League play-offs prepare to get under way for the 30th time and with a record four Yorkshire clubs involved, can any of us really claim to believe the game is poorer for their introduction? Surely not.
Not only have the play-offs produced a lifetime of memories for football fans across the county but they also sustain interest in a season for far longer than was the case prior to the 1986-87 campaign.
Yorkshire, as is to be expected of a county this size, has had more than its fair share of drama down the years. Twelve of our clubs have competed with varying levels of success in a grand total of 100 games that have had a little bit of everything.
Huddersfield Town lead the way on the county’s roll of honour with three promotion successes from eight attempts, closely followed by Bradford City on two. In contrast, Sheffield United and Leeds United are still waiting to prevail despite a combined total of 12 appearances. Scarborough also failed to triumph in two appearances before slipping out of the League in 1999.
However, even fans of those clubs whose abiding memories are of missing out on the ultimate prize, there have been good times along the way.
Who, for instance, among the Blades support will not recall fondly that 2003 night when Nottingham Forest were beaten 4-3 in the semi-final second leg at a jumping Bramall Lane? Or the nail-biting drama of edging past Ipswich Town on the slimmest of margins – away goals – at Portman Road in 1997. Scarborough, meanwhile, lost three of their four semi-final ties but there was still plenty of joy at the seaside during the ultimately successful pursuit of a play-off place.
As for Leeds fans, the dramatic semi-final triumphs over Oldham Athletic in 1987 and Carlisle United 21 years later will live long in the memory.
Leeds, in fact, were the first of a dozen clubs from within the Broad Acres to compete in the play-offs. And the Elland Road side had an early taster of what drama lay ahead for the entire county.
Having triumphed 1-0 at home against Oldham in the inaugural semi-final first leg, Leeds were trailing in the return by the same margin when Mike Cecere put the Lancashire club ahead on aggregate in the 89th minute. United’s dreams seemed over, only for Keith Edwards to pop up a minute later and send the tie to extra-time.
No further goals followed, so Leeds went through to the final and Latics manager Joe Royle was left to bemoan: “The league has just become the longest Cup competition in the world. Just think, 44 games and we go out on an away goal.”
Leeds, however, were to suffer their own heartache in the final, back then a two-legged affair that, in this instance, went to a replay before Charlton Athletic prevailed in extra time at St Andrews.
The following year, Middlesbrough went one better than Leeds by beating Bradford City in the semi-finals and then Chelsea over two legs. The return was at Stamford Bridge and the home fans’ response was to turn what for them had been a scrap for survival – it wasn’t until the following year that the format was changed from the fourth bottom team in Division One battling it out with the sides finishing third, fourth and fifth in the second tier – into a pitched battle with the police.
Boro’s final success was the first of 12 promotions won via the play-offs by the county’s clubs.
Five of those have come on penalties, surely the most nerve-wracking way to go up but also the most electrifying. That moment when the final penalty is converted or saved is a feeling fans of York City (1993), Huddersfield Town (2004 and 2012), Barnsley (2006) and Rotherham United (2014) will surely never, ever forget.
Likewise, those of Sheffield United in that 2012 final when goalkeeper Steve Simonsen firing the 22nd penalty of the shoot-out over the crossbar, which meant it was the Terriers and not the Blades who were heading into the Championship.
Simonsen sinking to the turf in despair, with hands hiding his face, is one of the iconic moments of those 100 play-off ties involving Yorkshire clubs, as is Steve Evans running down the touchline at Wembley two years later while fighting a battle to keep his trousers up. Dean Windass’ volley is another and fans of all 12 White Rose clubs will no doubt have their own ‘I was there’ moment.
As this year’s semi-finals prepare to get under way with Hull, Sheffield Wednesday, Barnsley and Bradford flying the flag for the county – beating our previous best tally of three clubs competing in 1988, 2006 and 2008 – the big question is what will the next few weeks hold?
Can we look forward to a third or, hopefully, fourth all-Yorkshire final to go with Doncaster’s 2008 win over Leeds and that penalty shoot-out epic between Huddersfield and Sheffield United? Or maybe a flood of goals similar to last year’s 5-5 epic between the Blades and Swindon Town, an all-time record for the play-offs. Either way, let’s hope the second century of play-off games involving Yorkshire clubs can start with the creation of a few more stirring memories... and a couple of promotions.