I love the play-offs, writes Kate Jackson.
I know that may sound strange coming from a Lincoln City fan, especially as we’ve only ever actually won three matches across our six campaigns, and we are one of the few clubs with a 0% winning record from multiple attempts (Brentford hold the record with no wins from nine participations), but as we head into our seventh play-off campaign in nineteen years, I’m still as excited as ever.
Some of the most iconic moments in recent British footballing history have come from the play-offs. You can’t simply say “Deeney” without automatically thinking of that goal for Watford vs Leicester, or Blackpool completing the “tangerine dream” under Ian Holloway eleven years ago (more on that later). Goals that would normally only get mild cheering are suddenly celebrated like they’re a winning goal in the World Cup final. The play-offs are special.
The play-offs represent a great opportunity to secure promotion in arguably the best possible way, but one thing that often gets banded around is that being at home in the second leg is an advantage. I’ve never really subscribed to that. Whilst your fans can help you over the line, the first leg can actually see the opposition build up momentum, making the second leg very difficult.
If you want a perfect example of this, in the 2009/10 season, many were fancying Morecambe to progress against Dagenham and Redbridge because not only did they have the second leg at home, but the game was to be the last ever match at Christie Park (whilst I still maintain is a better stadium than the one they have now), so what better motivation? Dagenham won the first leg 6-0, making the second leg a glorified friendly.
Whilst results like that are obviously not common, it does go to show that there can be a certain advantage to being at home first.
So based on that, and that the Imps are likely to be at home in the second leg of the play-offs, unless Blackpool and Sunderland somehow conspire to lose against already relegated teams, I’ve decided to look into the history of the play-offs (Football League only), to see if playing at home in the second leg is as big of an advantage as people make out. I’ll also look at how the aforementioned teams have performed in the play-offs, and how they’ve done when away in the second leg.
Let’s start with something easy. This will be City’s seventh attempt at the play-offs, and the second since returning to the Football League four seasons ago. We’ve been at home in the second leg just once, the 2006/7 season. We lost the first leg and once Bristol Rovers scored twice in the opening eleven minutes of the second leg to make it 4-1 on aggregate, we failed to get closer than two goals again.
In the other five attempts at the play-offs, City have a mixed record. We progressed from ties against Scunthorpe and Macclesfield, both after winning the first leg at Sincil Bank, but went out to Huddersfield, Grimsby and Exeter.
History shows us that if City take a lead into a second leg then we will progress, but if we don’t then we fail to go through to the final.
The Imps have held a mixture of play-off records down the years. We’re still the only club to qualify for the Football League play-offs in five straight seasons (a few non-league sides have matched the achievements), and we even held the records for highest scoring play-off match (the 5-3 win over Scunthorpe, shared with Sunderland 4-4 Charlton), and the rather unfortunate one of the joint largest defeat in the Play-off Final, both records going in 2015 (Swindon drawing 5-5 with Sheffield United before then losing 4-0 in the final to Preston).
Overall Play-Off Records
Throughout the history of the play-offs, most people believe that playing at home in the second leg is a significant advantage, and yes, there have been more teams that have progressed from the semi-finals after being at home in the second leg, but it isn’t nearly as one-sided as you would think.
Since the play-offs started in 1987, there have been 15 seasons in which there were as many teams progressing having played away in the second leg as those that played at home. In fact, during the history of the play-offs, there have only been a surprisingly 13 times in which more teams progressed across the six ties after being at home in the second leg. 2014/15 is the only season in which every single team that played at home in the second leg progressed. On the flip side, there have only been six occasions in which teams progressing having been away second outnumbered those in the latter category. There has never been an away team clean sweep.
In terms of League One, recent history has favoured teams playing at home in the second leg. In the last 10 seasons, only four of the twenty semi-final ties have seen the second-leg away side progress. Overall, there have been 204 semi-final ties in Football League Play-offs. 120 have been won by the team at home in the second leg, so near enough 3/5. If there is an advantage to playing at home in the second leg, it isn’t a massively large one,
The north east side started their play-off history in a controversial fashion, getting promoted on a technicality. Sunderland had progressed to the final thanks to a second leg (away from home) win over local rivals Newcastle, and whilst they would lose to Swindon at Wembley, the Wiltshire side admitted 36 breaches of League rules and were double-relegated as punishment, giving Sunderland the subsequent promotion by default.
Sunderland’s last play-off participation was in 2018/19, where they faced Portsmouth, and won the home leg, before then securing progression with a draw at Fratton Park. Prior to that, they were again involved in a semi-final tie where the team away in the second leg progressed, but it wasn’t in their favour this time as Crystal Palace progressed to the 2003/4 Final.
Their 4-4 draw with Charlton in the 1997/8 play-off Final is widely considered the greatest ever final, although Sunderland would lose on penalties. They had, however, progressed to the final courtesy of beating Sheffield United on aggregate, being the home side in the second leg.
Participations – 4 (1 win on a technicality)
Semi-Finals Won – 3 (two being the away side in the second leg)
Blackpool the most successful club in play-off history. No-one else even comes close. The men from Bloomfield Road not only hold the record for the most play-off Finals with seven appearances across the various venues, but they have also won more play-offs than anyone else, with five, as well as a record run of wins in the end-of-season lottery, with ten straight victories between 2001 and 2012). They are also one of only two clubs to have won the play-offs in each of the three Football League divisions, the other being Huddersfield.
Despite the Imps having a decent recent results record against Blackpool, only losing one of the previous four meetings, compared to two victories and a draw, history shows that Blackpool are the most difficult opponents that the Imps could face at any point during the play-offs. Their first stab at the play-offs came in the 1990/91 season, finishing 5th in Division 4. They would beat Scunthorpe over two legs in the semi-finals, securing the progression to the final with a second leg home victory over the Iron. They would lose the final to Torquay on penalties.
A year later, they had a second crack, this time beating Barnet in the semi-finals, and again, the second leg at Bloomfield Road. A year after losing to Torquay on penalties in the final, luck flipped itself as the Tangerines would go on to beat Scunthorpe 4-3 in a shoot-out, securing their promotion to the third division. Blackpool’s next participation was in the 1995/6 season, but they suffered their first home defeat in the second leg, losing 3-0 at home to Bradford, making it 3-2 on aggregate to the visitors.
The Lancashire team became history makers in 2000/1. After overcoming Hartlepool 5-1 on aggregate, with the second leg being away. Despite conceding within the first minute to Leyton Orient at the Millennium Stadium, Blackpool would win 4-2 to become the first side to win the fourth tier play-offs after finishing in the final qualifying spot.
It was a Lancashire derby (well, not really a derby as they’re 55 miles apart by road) in 2006/7 as the Tangerines faced Oldham. Blackpool easily brushed their Lancashire rivals, with a 3-1 win at Bloomfield Road securing a 5-1 aggregate win. Yeovil were also comfortably beaten in the final, with a 2-0 victory in the first League One final to be held at the new Wembley.
2009/10 featured one of the biggest play-off surprises in the history of the Football League. Blackpool weren’t much fancied, but ended up seeing off Nottingham Forest 6-4 on aggregate, with an impressive 4-3 win at the City Ground in the second leg. Ex-Imp Gary Taylor-Fletcher would score an equalising goal in the final against Cardiff, just minutes before Ormerod put the Tangerines ahead, and they would hold out to secure promotion to the Premier League for the first time.
It was a short-lived trip to the Premier League though. Despite a promising start and winning many friends along the way, the Tangerines were relegated straight back to the Championship. They earned a shot at a promotion straight back as they qualified for the play-offs, a 2-2 draw in the second leg away at Birmingham City secured a 3-2 aggregate win, but it became a rare case of play-off heartbreak for the coastal side as a late Vaz Te goal won the final for West Ham. Two of Blackpool’s team in the final would go on to secure the 2018/19 League Two title with Lincoln City, Matt Gilks and Neil Eardley.
A few relegations later and Blackpool were back in the fourth tier for the first time since they became the first team to win the play-offs at that level from the final qualifying position, but it was a case of history repeating as a 3-3 draw at Luton in the second leg secured a 6-5 aggregate win, all before being Exeter City in the final. This secured their 5th successful play-off campaign from 8 attempts.
Play-off Campaigns – 8 (5 wins)
Semi-Finals Won – 7 (4 away)