English Football League play-offs
|Number of teams||12 (4 per division)|
|Television broadcasters||Sky Sports|
|2020 English Football League play-offs|
The English Football League play-offs are an annual series of association football matches to determine the final promotion places within each division of the English Football League (EFL). In each division it involves 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.
The play-offs were first introduced in 1987 and have been staged at the conclusion of every season since. Since 1990 the winners of each division's play-off competition have been determined in a one-off final. Blackpool are the most successful club in play-off history, winning five times - 1992, 2001, 2007, 2010, and 2017.
The four teams finishing directly below the automatic promotion places in each of the three Football League divisions enter the play-offs in a chance to win promotion to the division above. In the Championship and League One these are the teams finishing in third, fourth, fifth and sixth place, while in League Two (with its greater number of teams automatically promoted), it is the teams finishing in fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh place that enter the play-offs.
The highest-finishing team 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 higher an advantage. This is the same for the teams that finished second highest and second lowest of the four teams, with the advantage being with the team that finished the higher.
The winner of a semi-finals is decided by the team's aggregate score after the two legs. If the aggregate score is level at the end of the 90 minutes of the second leg, then an additional 30 minutes of extra time is played to try to create a winning team. If the score at the end of extra time is still level then the tie is decided by penalty kicks.
The two winners from the semi-finals meet at a neutral venue in the final. The final must be decided on the day, so extra time and penalties may be carried out if the scores are level. The winner of the tie gains promotion to the league above.
Changes to format
During the first two stagings of the play-offs in 1987 and 1988, the four teams involved were the three clubs that finished directly below the automatic promotions positions, plus the club which finished directly above the automatic relegation places in the division above, similar to the Football League test matches of the 1890s.
This was part of the league's two-season-long restructuring that would reduce the number of teams in the top tier (from 22 to 20) while increasing them in the lower divisions (creating three divisions of 24 clubs); during these seasons, only one club (Charlton Athletic in 1987) that entered the play-offs in a relegation place managed to win the play-offs and therefore retain their divisional status.
In the seasons prior to the 1990 play-offs, the finals were two-legged ties with both teams hosting the other once. If the two teams could not be separated, a tie-breaker was then staged at a neutral venue. This was used on three occasions: the 1987 Second Division 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 a neutral venue, as Walsall was one of the clubs involved).
Since 1990 a one-off final match has been used to determine the play-off winners, which has traditionally been staged at the old Wembley Stadium. Between 2001 and 2006 the final was instead moved to Cardiff's Millennium Stadium while the new Wembley Stadium was being constructed. In 2011 the Football League was forced to use Old Trafford for the League One and League Two play-off finals because Wembley was unavailable, being used instead for the 2011 UEFA Champions League Final.
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 launched by then-Ipswich Town chairman David Sheepshanks, after his club had twice lost on away goals in 1997 and 1999. Since then away goals have played no part in the play-off system.
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.
- Most play-off promotions: 5 – Blackpool (1992, 2001, 2007, 2010, 2017)
- Most play-off finals: 7 – Blackpool (1991, 1992, 2001, 2007, 2010, 2012, 2017)
- Most play-off final defeats: 4 – Sheffield United (1997, 2003, 2009, 2012), Reading (1995, 2001, 2011, 2017), Brentford (1997, 2002, 2013, 2020)
- Most play-off participations: 10 – Preston North End
- Most unsuccessful play-off participations: 9 – Brentford (from 9 participations), Preston North End (from 10 participations)
- Most play-off participations without making the Play-off final: 4 – Nottingham Forest, MK Dons
- Most play-off participations without winning final: 9 – Brentford (from 9 participations)
- Teams without any unsuccessful play-off participations: AFC Wimbledon (1 time), Dagenham & Redbridge (1), Doncaster Rovers (1), Manchester City (1), Coventry City (1)
- Most consecutive games won: 10 – Blackpool (2001–2012)
- Biggest aggregate win: Crewe Alexandra 9–3 Walsall (Third Division Semi-final, 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: Preston North End 4–0 Swindon Town (League One, 2015); Exeter City 0–4 Northampton Town (League Two, 2020)
- Highest scoring final: 8 goals – Charlton Athletic 4–4 Sunderland (First Division, 1998)
- Highest scoring play-off match: 10 goals – Swindon Town 5–5 Sheffield United (League One Semi-final second leg, 2015)
- Highest scoring tie (aggregate): 13 goals – Swindon Town 7–6 Sheffield United (League One Semi-final, 2015)
- Highest attendance: 87,347 – Derby County vs QPR (Championship Final, 2014)
- Lowest attendance (excluding games behind closed doors): 3,606 – Torquay United vs Cheltenham Town (League Two Semi-final, 2012)
- Blackpool and Huddersfield Town are the only clubs to have won all three divisional play-offs.
- Huddersfield are the only club to have won three finals on penalties in 2004, 2012 and 2016.
- Reading, Brentford, Leeds United, 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).
- "Sky Bet EFL Play-Off Rules". EFL. 11 August 2014. Retrieved 1 June 2017.
- Shaw, Dominic (14 May 2018). "Play-off dates, away goal rule & new technology". Gazette Live. Retrieved 9 May 2019.
- "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.