The combination of thrilling success and heartbreaking defeats was already established in the two lower-league Play-Offs of 1987. This pattern was continued and even extended in the third Play-Offs Final of that first year when Leeds met Charlton Athletic for the right to play in the top division.
Leeds had beaten Oldham in the semi-finals by dint of substitute Keith Edwards’ penchant for late goals. In the first leg, Edwards finally broke Oldham’s stubborn resistance in the 89th minute; only to follow that in the second leg with a 90th minute effort just as it seemed Oldham would prevail.
"Athletic, who would have been promoted in any other season, were just 60 seconds away from moving forward into a two-legged final vs. Charlton Athletic to contest the last vacant place in the top flight," The Times reported. However, their nemesis Edwards popped up again to deny them and Leeds made it through on away goals. Considering Edwards only scored six goals in his whole career at Leeds this was clearly his stage, much to Oldham’s chagrin.
Leeds had been the team to beat for a period in the 1970s and had reached a European Cup Final in 1975, but had dropped down to the Second Division in 1981. This Final offered a return to the top division following a six-year absence.
After both sides won their respective home legs 1-0, a replay was required and as befits the drama of this first season of Play-Offs, the match went into extra time. When John Sheridan of Leeds finally broke the deadlock in the 9th minute of extra time United must have felt they were home and hosed. But they did not account for the unlikeliest intervention of Peter Shirtliff, Charlton’s journeyman central defender.
Shirtliff averaged less than one goal a season throughout his career that spanned over eighteen seasons and five hundred games and just fifteen goals overall. Against all the odds, Shirtliff broke the habit of a lifetime as he suddenly popped up to score two goals in the space of four minutes to cap another extraordinary climax. The fact that Shirtliff was a Yorkshireman, born and bred in Barnsley, and had previously played for Leeds’ rivals Sheffield Wednesday, rubbed salt into the most painful of wounds.
Charlton survived, admittedly by the skin of their teeth, and became the only team out of six to earn a reprieve and avoid being relegated through the Play-Offs in those first two years.
Chelsea, Sunderland, Sheffield United, Bolton and Rotherham were not so lucky, suffering the ignominy of failing to take the chance to redeem themselves against a team from a lower division. In a way this was more painful than just straight relegation; as these teams passed up the opportunity to stay in the division afforded by the Play-Offs it amounted to a double failure, leaving the club disappointed and demoralised as well as being relegated.
Conversely, those teams that were promoted, namely Middlesbrough, Swindon, Walsall, Aldershot and Swansea were on the crest of a wave, having battled through both semi-finals and Final to secure the newly available promotion place. It was fascinating to watch and gripped the previously disillusioned and disenchanted fans, encouraging them to return to the game they had pretty much abandoned. More than anything it showed there was some life and vibrancy in amongst the rubble that league football had become.
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