Pat Nevin, the former Scottish international winger, had the dubious pleasure of being dragged into the Play-Offs in the early days. When Chelsea finished just above the automatic relegation spots in 1988 the London club tried and failed to ensure their First Division status.
After a disappointing season, finishing one place above the automatic relegation slots, the players had to regroup. Any anxieties seemed unfounded as they thumped their semi-final opponents, Blackburn 6-1 on aggregate and there was an assumption that Middlesbrough would hardly provide more resistance in the Final.
Nevin recalls that he was in the unusual position of knowing he was leaving the club, having been told he was surplus to requirements halfway through the season. Nevin’s ball-playing skills were not suited to Chelsea’s newly adopted more rumbustious style and he reveals that an assistant manager at the time informed him if he took more than two touches, he would be substituted. But despite this he was still bitterly disappointed at how it ended, when “the last moment was the worst moment.”
The prospect of relegation seemed like the end of the world for many of the exalted Chelsea squad. Indeed, how could a club such as theirs be involved in this sort of unseemly dog fight; it was surely beneath them? But they were about to discover, like so many others did, just what a great leveller the Play-Offs were to be and just how the mighty can and often did fall, especially in those early days.
Even when Middlesbrough won the first leg 2-0 at Ayresome Park, the expectations were that it was going to be turned round at Stamford Bridge in front of over 40,000 and order would be duly restored.
Little did Nevin and his team mates, such as Gordon Durie and Kerry Dixon know that this was to be their swansong and Middlesbrough would make it through despite the hostile atmosphere and seeming gulf in class between the two clubs.
Nevin remembers the second leg against Middlesbrough as being predominantly one way traffic - “we absolutely battered them” - but they could not add to Durie’s 18-minute opening goal. Nevin makes no bones about what a shock it was to the system for these players to be involved in this damaging relegation. He duly left the club to join Everton in the close season but he still distinctly recalls the overriding feeling of unease and embarrassment at Chelsea’s demise; the sort of feeling he never experienced throughout the rest of his career.
Even the pain of three successive semi-final failures with Tranmere between 1993 and 1995 did not even come close to the desolation he felt in that Chelsea dressing room. “It was bad, but not that bad, as we were striving to get up, so it was a great deal more positive,” Nevin admitted.
Switch to the current crop of players and the size of the prize is now well documented both in this book and elsewhere in the media. If a match can truly be worth £134 million then that equates to more than £1.5 million per minute, which is a frightening amount of money. But then consider how a key moment from that match might be valued: we could have the likes of the £70 million own goal or the £100 million penalty miss.
If this seems to be taking things to ridiculous extremes, one has to just consider the size of the Sky/BT Television three-year deal that began in 2013. At £1.5 billion for just the domestic rights, it is by far the largest deal of its kind in the world. If you add the value of overseas rights, which have been rising faster in recent years than the domestic, one can easily justify the huge amounts attached to individual moments within a match. With such weighty financial significance comes a huge sense of responsibility and the players have to take this in their stride.
The Agony & The Ecstasy: A Comprehensive History of the Football League Play-Offs by Richard Foster is available now in paperback through usual outlets and directly from Ockley Books