WITH only three of the 25 seasons since the advent of the Football League play-offs having ended without Yorkshire representation in at least the semi-finals, clearly this county’s clubs know a thing or two about trying to clinch promotion via the knock-out route.
Heart-stopping drama, tear-jerking moments of despair and scenes of unadulterated joy have all been a feature of White Rose attempts to prevail in the heat of battle as nine months of blood, sweat and tears come to a nail-biting climax.
For the victors – and there have been nine instances of White Rose teams triumphing in the play-offs – the final is an event that will live long in the memory, a day to tell the grandchildren about in years to come.
For those, however, whose dreams of stepping up a division are destined not to be fulfilled then defeat can be something that not only ruins the summer but also the opening weeks of the following campaign.
Either way, there can be no doubt the huge impact the advent of the play-offs 25 years ago has made on English football.
The concept was not a totally new one, promotion and relegation having been decided for six years from 1892 via a series of ‘Test Matches’ that saw the bottom three clubs in Division One pitted against the top three in Division Two.
But the modern day play-offs have proved much more successful in capturing the public attention with last season’s three-finals being watched by almost 150,000 fans – and this despite two of the six clubs involved boasting average attendances under 3,000 and another, Peterborough United, being watched by less than 6,500 every week.
Here, chief football writer Richard Sutcliffe looks back across the first quarter of a century of the play-offs and picks out the highs and lows for Yorkshire’s clubs.
Two goals down from the first leg at Valley Parade, Chris Kamara’s Bantams arrived at Blackpool’s Bloomfield Road for the return to find the matchday programme including details of how the home fans could buy tickets for the 1996 Division Two final.
Then, as the players were warming up, they were forced to listen to the PA announcer urging fans to book their places on the coaches to Wembley or risk missing out.
City, though, were destined to have the last laugh as Des Hamilton, Carl Shutt and Mark Stallard scored the goals that sent the Yorkshire club to Wembley.
Sam Allardyce, whose ‘Pool side had finished third and nine points better off than Bradford, was sacked that summer.
Every supporter of every club in Yorkshire will have their own favourite play-off goal but in terms of a Roy of the Rovers-style ending, Dean Windass’s volleyed winner that sent Hull City into the Premier League in 2008 takes some beating.
Not only was Windass back at his hometown club for a second spell but, at the age of 38, he was enjoying the kind of career renaissance that most footballers dream of having but only few are fortunate to enjoy.
As no Tigers fan needs reminding, the striker was 18 yards from goal when Fraizer Campbell picked him out with a cross that was just begging to be volleyed first-time into the net – which is exactly what Windass did to end Hull’s 104-year wait for top-flight football.
His memorable celebrations in front of the packed Hull end at Wembley said it all.
MOST MISERABLE TRIP
After losing the first game of their Division Three semi-final in 1998 against Torquay United 3-1, Scarborough fans making the 340-mile trip to the return leg could have been forgiven for believing things could not get any worse.
Sadly, they were wrong as the Devon club scored twice in the opening seven minutes through Rodney Jack to effectively put the tie to bed.
Jason Rockett briefly raised hope of a fightback with a goal midway through the second half but two further goals for Torquay meant a 7-2 aggregate hammering – still the heaviest suffered by a Yorkshire club – and a long, long trip home.
A year later, Boro were relegated from the Football League.
PROBLEMS AT HOME?
Huddersfield Town may boast the most play-off successes of the Yorkshire clubs, with two promotions from their seven appearances, but their home form leaves a lot to be desired.
In seven games at either the Galpharm Stadium or Leeds Road, Town are yet to taste victory with the 1992 clash with Peterborough United ending in a 2-1 defeat and Barnsley triumphing 3-1 in 2006.
The other five have ended as stalemates, though at least in 2011 (Bournemouth) and 2004 (Lincoln City) a draw was enough to ultimately earn a place in the final.
In contrast to Town’s struggles on their own patch, Sheffield United are yet to lose in five games at Bramall Lane with a record of three wins and two draws.
ON THE SPOT
Yorkshire boasts an enviable record in penalty shoot-outs with all three of the finals involving our clubs decided via spot-kicks having ended happily.
York City started the ball rolling from 12 yards against Crewe Alexandra in the 1993 Division Three final with a 4-2 triumph after 120 minutes had failed to separate the two clubs, Wayne Hall converting the decisive kick.
Eleven years later, Huddersfield Town also won promotion from the penalty spot via a 4-1 shoot-out victory over Mansfield Town to ensure justice was done at the end of a season in which Peter Jackson’s side had only missed out on automatic promotion after taking two points from their final three games.
In 2006, Barnsley were also celebrating after beating Swansea City 4-3 on penalties at the Millennium Stadium after the final had finished 2-2.
The White Rose county also has a decent record in semi-final shoot-outs with Huddersfield having twice triumphed (2011 v Bournemouth and 1995 v Brentford) to leave only Rotherham United spoiling a 100 per cent record courtesy of defeat to Leyton Orient in 1999 after neither side had managed to score in either leg.
BIGGEST NO SHOW
Stiff competition for this one courtesy of 3-0 defeats for the Uniteds of Leeds and Sheffield at the Millennium Stadium.
In the Blades’ case, the 2002-03 season had been a memorable affair with runs to the semi-finals of both Cup competitions and a third-place finish leaving supporters in confident mood ahead of the final against Wolverhampton Wanderers.
Three first-half goals without reply, however, soon ended those dreams to leave United fans wondering where it had all gone wrong.
Leeds fans experienced that same sinking feeling three years later courtesy of an abject display from their team as Watford won promotion in a one-sided final, making it impossible to separate the two Uniteds when it comes to deciding who has been the biggest no-show in the play-offs.
Leeds United were the first Yorkshire club to compete in the play-offs after finishing fourth in the 1986-87 Division Two season, the first played under the new rules that stated third would play fourth as fifth faced the team who had ended the campaign fourth bottom of the top flight.
So, after edging out Oldham Athletic on away goals, Billy Bremner’s Leeds were paired with First Division Charlton over two legs – the one-off Wembley decider not coming into being until 1990.
A 1-0 defeat at Selhurst Park, Charlton’s temporary home at the time, was then followed by a 1-0 win at home to force the final to a replay, which was held at Birmingham City’s St Andrews.
John Sheridan’s goal in extra-time then looked to have sent United up only for Peter Shirtliff to net twice in the final few minutes to preserve the Addicks’ top-flight status and cruelly deny the Leeds players and fans.
MOST THRILLING GAME
Sheffield United’s pulsating semi-final second leg win over Nottingham Forest at Bramall Lane in 2003 was, until this time last year, the one that deserved this mantle as the Blades came from two goals down at half-time to send the tie into extra-time before prevailing 4-3 on the night and 5-4 on aggregate.
But Huddersfield’s 3-3 draw with Bournemouth in 2011 and subsequent triumph on penalties just pips the Blades v Forest tie due to the 120 minutes at the Galpharm Stadium being so end-to-end that no one could say with any confidence just what would happen next.
A FINAL RECORD
Leeds United have played in play-off finals at five different venues, more than any other club in Yorkshire.
Not only have United appeared at Wembley (2008) and the Millennium Stadium (2006) but the set-up of the play-offs in the early years meant their 1987 two-legged final against Charlton saw games played at not only Elland Road and Selhurst Park but also St Andrews due to the tie going to a replay after finishing 1-1 on aggregate.
Huddersfield boast the next highest tally with three – Wembley (1995), Millennium Stadium (2004) and Old Trafford (2011).
MIXED DAY FOR BORO
Instances of hooliganism at play-off games have been mercifully few, though that may not be much of a consolation for the Middlesbrough fans who headed to Chelsea in 1988.
Leading 2-0 from the first leg, Boro lost 1-0 at Stamford Bridge to clinch promotion but the abiding image of the day was the violence that followed the final whistle as thousands of fans poured on to the pitch.
Mounted police were needed to keep the two groups apart as more than 100 arrests were made.
The 8,000 Boro fans who made the trip were then kept in the ground until the streets were cleared.
In the only final between two clubs from the county, Doncaster Rovers edged out Leeds United 1-0 at Wembley in 2008 to end the club’s 50-year absence from the top two divisions.
James Hayter netted the only goal three minutes into the second half to condemn the estimated 50,000 Leeds fans to a miserable journey home up the M1 alongside celebrating Rovers supporters.
The only other two instances of Yorkshire sides going head-to-head in the play-offs came in 2006 when Barnsley overcame a 1-0 defeat in the first leg at Oakwell to knock Huddersfield out in the League One semi-finals and in 1988 when Middlesbrough beat Bradford City.
PLAYED ONE, WON ONE
Three Yorkshire clubs boast a 100 per cent record in the play-offs due to their only appearance having resulted in promotion.
Middlesbrough were the first from the Broad Acres to win a final after beating Chelsea 2-1 on aggregate over two legs in 1988.
Sheffield Wednesday became the 11th Yorkshire team to qualify for the play-offs in 2005, when they beat Hartlepool United in the final, while the most recent to make an appearance were Doncaster Rovers in 2008, the year they beat Leeds United at Wembley to book a place in the Championship.