Football League play-offs
|Number of teams||12|
|Television broadcasters||Sky Sports|
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 they involve 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.
In the Championship, the teams finishing third, fourth, fifth and sixth are entered for the Championship play-offs. The format is the same in League One, but in League Two and the Conference there are differences. In League Two three teams are automatically promoted, so the teams that finished fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh enter into the play-offs.
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 second highest.
The tie is decided on aggregate score after the two legs have been played, if the score is level then 30 minutes of extra time is played and if the score is still level after that the tie is decided by penalty kicks. 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 started by then Ipswich Town chairman David Sheepshanks, after Ipswich Town had twice lost on away goals in 1997 and 1999.
The two winners from the semi-finals meet at a neutral venue in the final. If the scores are level after 90 minutes then 30 minutes of extra time are played, if the scores are still level then the tie is decided by penalty kicks. The winner of the tie gains promotion to the league above. As the Championship play-off winner gains promotion to the Premier League, it is the most lucrative single game in world football.
Before 1990 the playoff finals were played over two legs home and away, like the semifinals of the Football League Cup. If after two legs the scores were still tied, a tie-breaker was played at a neutral venue. This was only used in three occasions: the 1987 Second Division tie-breaker final was played 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).
From 1990 to 2000, the finals were played at the old Wembley Stadium, but between 2001 and 2006, they were held at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff, due to the re-building work at Wembley. The finals returned to the newly-rebuilt Wembley Stadium after it was completed in 2007.
For 2011, the League One and League Two play-off finals were held at Old Trafford, home of Manchester United, because the 2011 UEFA Champions League Final would be taking place at Wembley on 28 May. The Conference finals were similarly rescheduled to be played at City of Manchester Stadium, home of Manchester City.
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. The proposed changes were narrowly approved by Football League chairmen and were set to be voted upon at the league's annual general meeting. The motion was withdrawn however, due to objections received from the Premier League and The Football Association.
1: Due to financial irregularities, Swindon were prevented from taking their place in the top division, which was awarded to the losing finalists, Sunderland.
Adoption at lower levels
The play-offs have been a Football League feature since 1986–87, but the Football Conference did not adopt them until 2002–03. In the Conference only one team is automatically promoted, so the teams that finished second, third, fourth and fifth are entered into the play-offs. The final of the Conference play-off was usually held at one of the Championship's bigger grounds, such as Stoke City's Britannia Stadium. However, beginning in 2007, Conference finals were played at Wembley (except for the 2011 final at Manchester City, above).
In recent years most leagues in the National League System, well below the professional levels, have adopted the play-off system for promotions of additional teams to the champions, although requirements are stricter depending on the league and only the champions of each level/division may be promoted automatically. In the Conference North and Conference South divisions, and all leagues below them, playoff finals are held at the stadium of the higher-ranked team in the table.
- Most play-off promotions: 4 – Blackpool (1992, 2001, 2007, 2010), Crystal Palace (1989, 1997, 2004, 2013)
- Most play-off finals: 6 – Blackpool (1991, 1992, 2001, 2007, 2010, 2012)
- Most play-off final defeats: 4 – Sheffield United (1997, 2003, 2009, 2012)
- Most play-off participations: 8 – Huddersfield Town, Preston North End
- Most unsuccessful play-off participations: 8 – Preston North End (from 8 participations in total)
- Most play-off participations without making the Play-off final: 4 - Nottingham Forest, MK Dons
- Teams without any unsuccessful play-off participations: Peterborough United (3 times), Dagenham & Redbridge (1 time), Doncaster Rovers (1), Manchester City (1), Sheffield Wednesday (1)
- Biggest aggregate win: Crewe Alexandra 9–3 Walsall (Fourth Division, 1993)
- Biggest home win: Dagenham & Redbridge 6–0 Morecambe (League Two Semi-final, 2010)
- Biggest away win: Fulham 0–4 Bristol Rovers (Third Division Semi-final, 1989); Birmingham City 0–4 Barnsley (First Division Semi-final, 2000)
- Biggest win in a final: Bournemouth 5–2 Lincoln City (Third Division, 2003)
- Highest scoring final: 8 goals – Charlton Athletic 4–4 Sunderland (First Division, 1998)
- Highest scoring play-off match: 8 goals – Charlton Athletic 4–4 Sunderland (First Division Final, 1998); Ipswich Town 5–3 Bolton Wanderers (First Division Semi-final, 2000); Lincoln City 5–3 Scunthorpe United (Third Division Semi-final, 2003); and Lincoln City 3–5 Bristol Rovers (League Two Semi-final, 2007)
- Highest scoring tie (aggregate): 12 goals – Sunderland 6–6 Gillingham (Third Division, 1987); Crewe Alexandra 9–3 Walsall (Fourth Division, 1993); and Ipswich Town 7–5 Bolton Wanderers (First Division, 2000)
- Highest attendance: 86,703 – Bristol City vs Hull City (Championship Final, 2008)
- Lowest attendance: 3,606 – Torquay United vs Cheltenham Town (League Two Semi-final, 2012)
- Blackpool are the only club to have won all three divisional play-offs.
- Reading, Bristol City and Sheffield United are the only clubs to have lost play-off finals at three different venues.
- Crystal Palace are the only team to win play-off finals at 4 different venues (Selhurst Park 1989, Old Wembley 1997, Millennium Stadium 2004 and New Wembley 2013).
- "Play-offs set for shake-up". BBC Sport. 7 March 2003. Retrieved 8 May 2011.
- Warshaw, Andrew (5 June 2003). "Radical plan for expansion of play-offs to be rejected". The Independent. Retrieved 8 May 2011.
- "Play-off plans shelved". BBC Sport. 5 June 2003. Retrieved 8 May 2011.