Play-Off Facts & Figures 1987-2023 – Appendix
The 2023 play-offs were the 37th time the end-of-season fixtures have been played since the system was (re)introduced in 1987. In that time, a number of clubs, managers and players have set notable records. This post gathers a few of the Football League play-off facts and figures over the past five decades.
In 2023, Salford City became the 103rd club to compete in the play-offs. Luton Town and Carlisle United took the total of different play-off winners to 70, with Charlton Athletic the only club to retain their status in the very first edition of the modern play-offs.
The clubs with most play-off appearances are Brentford, Huddersfield and Preston, with ten each. The most successful however are Blackpool, having reached eight finals and won six promotions. They and Huddersfield are the only clubs to have been promoted from each division via the play-offs. Brentford, Preston and Sheffield United have each suffered nine unsuccessful end-of-season campaigns, with the South Yorkshire side yet to win a play-off promotion. Lincoln City missed out five times in a row in the Third Division play-offs between 2003 and 2007, including two defeats in the final. Exeter City later lost three finals in four seasons in the same division (2017, 2018 and 2020).
Notts County are the only club to win consecutive promotions through the play-offs, in 1990 and 1991. Manager Neil Warnock won two more play-offs in the 1990s, with Huddersfield in 1995 and Plymouth in 1996, among his record total of eight promotions. Simon Grayson has won the play-offs both as a player (twice with Leicester) and manager of three different clubs: Blackpool, 2007; Huddersfield, 2012; and Preston, 2015.
The play-off final has been settled by a penalty shoot-out fourteen times since the format of a one-off decider was introduced in 1990. Huddersfield Town have uniquely gained promotion from each division on penalties, all after goalless draws (in 2004, 2012 and 2017).
Above: David Kelly, Walsall – 1988 play-offs
Below (L-R): Clive Mendonca, Charlton Athletic – 1998 play-off winners; Scott Sinclair, Swansea City – 2011 play-off winners; Jermaine Beckford and Simon Grayson, Preston North End – 2015 play-off winners
Tony Cascarino was the first player to score a hat-trick in the play-offs (for Gillingham in the 1987 semi-final against Sunderland), while David Kelly scored a treble in the replayed final of 1988 for Walsall at home to Bristol City. Kelly’s play-off total of seven that season is still a record, though achieved over five matches. Clive Mendonca scored the first hat-trick in a Wembley final, for Charlton against his home-town club Sunderland in 1998. He also converted a penalty as Charlton won the shoot-out after a 4-4 draw, the highest-scoring final to date. The only players to achieve the feat since are Scott Sinclair (Championship final 2011, Swansea v Reading) and Jermaine Beckford (League One final 2015, Preston v Swindon).
The only player to score four in a play-off game is Josh Scott of Dagenham, in a record 6-0 win against Morecambe in the 2010 League Two semi-final. The last play-off hat-trick was Mark Cullen’s for Blackpool against Luton in 2017. Marcus Stewart scored for four different clubs in the play-offs (Bristol Rovers 1995, Ipswich 2000, Sunderland 2004, Yeovil 2007).
Among many dramatic play-off moments is Steve Claridge’s 120th-minute winner for Leicester at the expense of Crystal Palace in the First Division final of 1996. Palace were themselves promoted the following year when David Hopkin scored in the 90th minute against Sheffield United. All the goals in the 1999 Second Division final came in the last ten minutes, Manchester City recovering from 2-0 down to Gillingham with two injury-time strikes, the second by Paul Dickov to set up City’s shoot-out win.
Dean Windass was the scorer of the winning goal in the 2008 Championship play-off final, which took Hull City into English football’s top division for the first time. His son Josh scored Sheffield Wednesday’s winner in the last minute of extra-time in the 2023 League One final.
During the redevelopment of Wembley Stadium, play-off finals moved to Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium between 2000 and 2006. As Wembley hosted the 2011 Champions League Final, the Second and Third Division final were moved to Old Trafford. The 2020 play-offs were played behind closed doors, with attendances also restricted for the following season.
2023 had the highest average attendance since the play-offs began in 1987 – 29,557 – in contrast to the average of 12,994 registered in 1989 (before the introduction of Wembley finals). The highest goal tally is 51 (3.4 per game) in 2015, with the lowest total of 23 (1.53 per game) registered in 2009. Bournemouth are the only team to score five in a play-off final, beating Lincoln 5-2 in 2003 (Third Division).
Many play-off facts and stories are found in Richard Foster’s book The Agony & the Ecstasy: A Comprehensive History of the Football League Play-Offs, first published in 2015 and updated in 2017.
The (re)introduction of the play-offs in the 1980s is one of the topics in my book Before the Premier League: A History of the Football League’s Last Decades.