Almost unnoticed by the football community as a whole, the Play-Offs burst into life in suitably exhilarating fashion during the close of the 1986/87 season. In this very first season there were plenty of twists and turns engulfing clubs, both large and small alike, testing the fortitude of even the most resolute fans.
In May 1987 three clubs, former giants of the game that had been struggling in the previous few years were thrust into the maelstrom of the Play-Offs. Wolverhampton Wanderers, Sunderland and Leeds United were embroiled in the first season and all three suffered at the hands of much smaller clubs. Their respective capitulations were symptomatic of the Play-Offs’ endless capacity to surprise and shock, and merit closer inspection.
During the 1950s and 1960s, Wolves, founder members of the League, had become one of England’s top teams, making their mark at the vanguard of European club competition in its formative years. By the 1970s they were no longer such a force but were still solidly established in the top division, winning a couple of League Cups on the way. However, by 1986 they had dropped so far from grace, enduring three successive relegations, that they were languishing in the bottom tier, the old Fourth Division, for the first time in their history.
The club were in imminent danger of going out of business as Simon Inglis pointed out in his book League Football and the Men Who Made it. “Wolves, who in the summer of 1986, were £2.5 million in debt and yet again tottering on the brink. The new Management Committee adopted the same line as its predecessors by stating that if Wolves dropped out they would not be replaced.”
The club was at an all-time low and faced by the bleak prospect of liquidation after their disastrous slide down the league, any sliver of upwards trajectory was not to be sniffed at and so the glimpse of a small chance of salvation was offered when, having missed out on the top three and automatic promotion by a single point, they faced the minnows of Aldershot in the Division Four Play-Offs Final.
Aldershot had already disposed of Bolton Wanderers - yet another league founder floundering in the bottom tier - in the semi-finals. Any expectation of beginning the ascent back up the league was decisively dashed as they surprisingly capitulated 3-0 over two legs to a team that had never risen higher than Division Three in their history and never would.
The attitude of Bobby Barnes, the scorer of an impressive twenty-six goals in this, his only season with the Shots (including two out of the three goals in the Final), is a clear illustration of the inferiority complex Aldershot carried into this match. The players were slightly in awe of their opponents, “who were such a great name and we were just thinking to ourselves how great it was to be playing at a large stadium like Molineux.”
The glaring disparity in size and stature between the two clubs was highlighted by the respective crowds for each leg of the Final. For the first leg, the Recreation Ground was bursting at the seams with a 5,000 capacity crowd whereas the return leg attracted just under 20,000 in a half-full Molineux. But it was Aldershot who prevailed and plunged Wolves back into crisis mode.
A few years later in March 1992, the tables had turned and it was ironic that Aldershot were to be the club that went bankrupt, were consequently expelled from the League and ultimately ceased to exist altogether. Wolves did survive and started to climb back up the league soon afterwards, gaining promotion as champions in the following season with Bolton also getting promoted so both clubs responded well to the disappointment of their first year failures. But it would be hard to imagine a nadir of darker proportions for this once-mighty club, a low point exacerbated by their surprising Play-Offs defeat of 1987.
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