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Football League play-offs

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Title: Football League play-offs  
Author: World Heritage Encyclopedia
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Subject: Football League play-offs, Wembley Stadium, 1986 Full Members Cup Final, 1999 Football League Trophy Final, 1938 FA Cup Final
Publisher: World Heritage Encyclopedia

Football League play-offs

The Football League play-offs are an annual series of football matches to determine the final promotion places within each division of the Football League. In each division it involves the four teams that finish directly below the automatic promotion places. These teams meet in a series of play-off matches to determine the final team that will be promoted.

The play-offs were first introduced in 1987 and have been staged at the conclusion of every season since. Since 1990 the winners of each division's play-off competition have been determined in a one-off final.


The four teams finishing directly below the automatic promotion places in each of the three Football League divisions enter the play-offs in a chance to win promotion to the division above. In the Championship and League One these are the teams finishing third, fourth, fifth and sixth, while in League Two (with its greater number of teams automatically promoted), it is the teams finishing fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh that enter the play-offs.

In the semi-finals, the team finishing highest of the four plays the team that finished lowest, with the first leg being held at the home of the team that finished lowest and the second leg being held at the home of the team that finished highest. This is designed to give the team that finished highest an advantage. This is the same for the teams that finished second highest and second lowest, with the advantage being with the team that finished the highest of the two.

The winner of a semi-finals is decided by the tie's aggregate score after the two legs. If the aggregate score is tied at the end of the 90 minutes of the second leg, then an additional 30 minutes of extra time is played to try and create a winning team. If the score at the end of extra time is still level then the tie is decided by penalty kicks.[1]

The two winners from the semi-finals meet at a neutral venue in the final. The final must be decided on the day, so extra time and penalties may be carried out if the scores are level.[1] The winner of the tie gains promotion to the league above.

Changes to format

During the first two stagings of the play-offs in 1987 and 1988, the four teams involved were the three clubs that finished directly below the automatic promotions positions, plus the club which finished directly above the automatic relegation places in the division above.

This was part of the league's two-season-long restructuring that would reduce the number of teams in the top tier (from 22 to 20) while increasing them in the lower divisions (creating three divisions of 24 clubs); during these seasons, only one club (Charlton Athletic in 1987) that entered the play-offs in a relegation place managed to win the play-offs and therefore retain their divisional status.

In the seasons prior to the 1990 play-offs, the finals were two-legged ties with both teams hosting the other once. If the two teams could not be separated, a tie-breaker was then staged at a neutral venue. This was only used in three occasions: the 1987 Second Division final was decided at Birmingham City's St. Andrews; the 1987 Third Division final was played at Crystal Palace's Selhurst Park; and the 1988 Third Division final was played at Walsall's Fellows Park (though this was not strictly a neutral venue, as Walsall was one of the clubs involved in the finals).

Since 1990 a one-off final match has been used to determine the play-off winners, which has traditionally been staged at Wembley Stadium. Between 2001 to 2006 the final was instead moved to Cardiff's Millennium Stadium while the new Wembley Stadium was being constructed. In 2011 the Football League was forced to use Old Trafford for the League One and League Two play-off finals because Wembley was unavailable, being used instead for the 2011 UEFA Champions League Final.

Before the 1999–2000 season away goals were used as a tie-breaker after extra time had been played, however, this was abolished following a club initiative launched by then-Ipswich Town chairman David Sheepshanks, after his club had twice lost on away goals in 1997 and 1999.[2] Since then away goals have played no part in the play-off system.

Proposed changes

A change to the format of the play-offs was proposed by Crystal Palace chief executive Phil Alexander in 2003. Alexander recommended expanding the number of teams in each play-off series from four to six, providing more clubs with a chance at promotion. Additionally, the two-legged semi-finals would have been replaced by one-off quarter-final and semi-final games, both of which would give home advantage to the team that finished higher during the league season. The two highest placed clubs in the play-off series would advance directly to the semi-final, while the other four clubs would contest the quarter-final.[3]

The proposed changes were narrowly approved by Football League chairmen and were set to be voted upon at the league's annual general meeting.[4] The motion was withdrawn however, due to objections received from the Premier League and The Football Association.[5]

Past winners

Year Division Two Division Three Division Four
1987 Charlton Athletic Swindon Town Aldershot
1988 Middlesbrough Walsall Swansea City
1989 Crystal Palace Port Vale Leyton Orient
1990 Swindon Town1 Notts County Cambridge United
1991 Notts County Tranmere Rovers Torquay United
1992 Blackburn Rovers Peterborough United Blackpool
Year Division One Division Two Division Three
1993 Swindon Town West Bromwich Albion York City
1994 Leicester City Burnley Wycombe Wanderers
1995 Bolton Wanderers Huddersfield Town Chesterfield
1996 Leicester City Bradford City Plymouth Argyle
1997 Crystal Palace Crewe Alexandra Northampton Town
1998 Charlton Athletic Grimsby Town Colchester United
1999 Watford Manchester City Scunthorpe United
2000 Ipswich Town Gillingham Peterborough United
2001 Bolton Wanderers Walsall Blackpool
2002 Birmingham City Stoke City Cheltenham Town
2003 Wolverhampton Wanderers Cardiff City Bournemouth
2004 Crystal Palace Brighton & Hove Albion Huddersfield Town
Year Championship League One League Two
2005 West Ham United Sheffield Wednesday Southend United
2006 Watford Barnsley Cheltenham Town
2007 Derby County Blackpool Bristol Rovers
2008 Hull City Doncaster Rovers Stockport County
2009 Burnley Scunthorpe United Gillingham
2010 Blackpool Millwall Dagenham & Redbridge
2011 Swansea City Peterborough United Stevenage
2012 West Ham United Huddersfield Town Crewe Alexandra
2013 Crystal Palace Yeovil Town Bradford City
2014 Queens Park Rangers Rotherham United Fleetwood Town
2015 Norwich City Preston North End Southend United

1: Due to financial irregularities, Swindon were prevented from taking their place in the top division, which was awarded to the losing finalists, Sunderland.



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External links

  • Football League play-offs
  • RSSSF Football League archive, 1888–2008
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