Play-Offs: The Best Invention Ever

“The best invention ever”, were the words used by Leyton Orient chairman, Barry Hearn, to describe the play-offs. Quite a statement, considering his comments came in the wake of his team’s defeat to Blackpool in the third division play-off final in 2001.

Indeed, since its inception, over 100 clubs have competed in over 400 play-off matches in the game we all know and love. The roots of which stretch back to over 35 years, when the play-off system bared little resemblance to the cherished structure we have today.

It all began in the troubled times of the mid 1980s, when football was in a state of decline. In 1985, a league management committee was convened to address the serious problems facing football as attendances had plummeted to a post war low. Crowds were only 7.5 million in the three lower divisions and the resulting ‘Heathrow Agreement’ was drawn up as a 10 point plan to rescue and save English football.

Martin Lange, the then chairman of Brentford and representing the 3rd & 4th Divisions, led an initiative to introduce a series of play-offs to reduce the 22 clubs in the First Division to just 20 teams and had promotion hopefuls playing relegation battlers in all leagues to fight for the last spot available due to the reshuffle. Lange’s plan was implemented in 1987, but received little press coverage, despite the drama-filled football on show. The Third Division semi-final between Sunderland and Gillingham finished 6-6 aggregate, with Sunderland losing on the away goals rule. The defeat led to their only season in the third tier of the league and was the first glimpse of the entertaining football that would go on to characterise the play-offs over years to come.

As the years went on, the play-offs began to attract more attention and the issue arose as to how to maintain this momentum and a solution came from Andy Williamson, now Chief Operating Officer of The Football League, who’s idea was switching the all play-off finals across the divisions from two-legged affair to a single match played at Wembley to create a showcase for the Football League’s most entertaining games.  From 1990 onwards, Williamson’s vision was implemented and the play-off system we all know today was born.

Whilst Wembley Stadium was the traditional venue for the finals, it was staged elsewhere from 2001 to 2006, while the new Wembley was being built. It was during this time that Ipswich Town chairman David Sheepshanks proposed to abolish the away goals rule. His motion came after his side finally made the play-off final, after three consecutive semi-final exits, two of which were decided on away goals. His idea gained the support of a majority of clubs and Ipswich duly secured play-off success, overcoming Bolton 7-5 on aggregate in the semi-finals before defeating Barnsley 4-2 in the final.

The system today ensures the interest of dozens of teams of is maintained right up to the end of the season, as the possibility of a top six finish is up for grabs. It resulted in crowds picking up immediately, rising by four million between 1987 and 1990. Since then, gates have more than doubled in the Football League and are currently at their highest levels for 50 years, in no small part down to the play-offs.

The end of season tournaments have become such a source of drama and excitement for fans and clubs alike that it would now be virtually impossible to imagine life without them. Maybe Hearn’s claim of play-offs being “The best invention ever” wasn’t too far from the truth.

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