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The Football League play-offs at 30: a quick fix that survived and thrived

The ‘unjust’ play-offs were introduced in 1987 as a temporary measure to help the First Division lose two clubs but they are now more popular than ever

By Richard Foster for The Agony and the Ecstasy of the Guardian Sport Network

On the evening of Thursday 14 May 1987, six matches kicked off across the country that would determine which three clubs would snap up the last available places in each division of English football. A combined attendance of 77,452 witnessed the very first series of play-off matches in the Football League, with as few as 4,164 gathered at the Recreation Ground in Aldershot and as many as 29,472 assembled at Elland Road. There was no great fanfare, with the media pretty much shunning the games. It would have been feasible to blink and miss the arrival of the play-offs.

Television coverage was almost non-existent, apart from the odd local news clip tucked away in the sports bulletin. The written press paid scant attention to the arrival of this new-fangled competition, with newspapers reports perfunctory at best. The Times summed up the Division Four semi-final first leg in a single sentence: “Gary Johnson raised Aldershot’s hopes of Third Division football next season with a goal 13 minutes from the end.” A Minor Counties versus Glamorgan cricket match was given more coverage than any of the semi-finals. Oh, how the Times and times have changed.

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