It is enshrined in English football’s accepted wisdom that the playoff final – one high-stakes step away from the Premier League – offers a guaranteed source of annual entertainment.
Other cup finals toil under the weight of their own status, but the playoffs always apparently come to a perfect boil. That’s all thanks to six years in the mid-to-late-1990s, which produced five certifiable barnstormers for the ages.
1993: No Doddle for Hoddle
Perhaps it should have been no surprise that the play-offs – already a highly tense affair by design – should explode into chaotic life soon after the newly-invented Premier League became the prize for prevailing at Wembley.
In 1993, Swindon were back in the play-off final, three years after being denied promotion to the top flight for financial irregularities. 35-year-old player manager Glenn Hoddle had dragged them out of that mire, and brought his unique brand of man-management to the County Ground.
Swindon player-manager Glenn Hoddle motivating John Moncur in training by being four thousand times better than him, c.1993 pic.twitter.com/YX2QmryEDk
— Adam Hurrey (@FootballCliches) December 15, 2016
That upward momentum helped them to a 3-0 lead within an hour against Leicester in front of a near 74,000-strong crowd (a new record for a playoff final), kicked off by a particularly Hoddlesque moment of quality from the edge of the box, on one of his frequent departures from his deep midfield station.
Top scorer Craig Maskell doubled the Robins’ lead with a curling finish off the post that was given an audible flourish by a goal-mounted TV microphone (there is no finer sound in football) before a rather more rudimentary third. The gumshield-wearing warrior of a centre-back Shaun Taylor put his head where boots wouldn’t dare to fly and Brian Little’s Leicester were staring play-off final ignominy right in the expensive face.
But the Foxes had some flair and brawn of their own. Julian Joachim – an electric 18-year-old who Little had already compared favourably to Romario, no less – thumped home a loose ball to claw one goal back almost immediately, with ITV’s David Pleat pronouncing it “Jo-ay-chim”, just because he’s David Pleat.
Without much further ado, Leicester’s own defender-turned-goalscorer joined the party. The dashing Steve Walsh headed home his 16th of the season to begin the Swindon jitters before Steve Thompson completed a 13-minute comeback with a preposterously ice-cool equaliser, as if he was walking in the cake-icer in a 5-0 win.
Just as it seemed the momentum had now shifted entirely from red to blue, Swindon substitute Steve White raced on to a Hoddle pass, was felled by Leicester keeper Kevin Poole (more on whom later) and – with six minutes left – there was about to be a final, decisive twist. Paul Bodin, six months away from a penalty miss that meant Wales had to watch USA ‘94 on TV, made no mistake from the spot.
Swindon were in the big time, albeit without the Chelsea-bound Hoddle, although their spectacular ascent was undermined the following season by a Goals Against column of precisely 100, finishing 13 points from Premier League safety.
1995: Burn After Reading
Leicester – and Steve Walsh’s eye for goal – returned to Wembley with better fortune in 1994, but the rollercoaster came roaring back the following year.
The upstarts were undoubtedly Reading, aiming for the top flight for the first time in their 124-year existence. That giddiness was nothing compared to when Lee Nogan slalomed through the Bolton defence in the fourth minute to open the scoring…
…followed by a second from Adrian Williams eight minutes later. Reading! 2-0 up! Premier League in sight! And then, just after the half-hour, Michael Gilkes was chopped down by Bolton’s Jason McAteer. Stuart Lovell stepped up…
“And who knows!”, roared ITV’s Brian Moore. “That might just turn things around!”
Bolton had to wait until the 75th minute to begin their fightback. Owen Coyle headed home an absolute peach of a John McGinlay cross before substitute Fabian de Freitas dragged Bolton level with four minutes left.
Far from having their hopes and dreams sucked out of them, Reading went on the offensive in extra time, but Bolton picked them off twice.
Even though co-player-manager Jimmy Quinn belted home a consolation, Reading’s long, long wait for a seat at the top table of English football went on – it would be another 11 years before they finally reached the Premier League.
1996: Hoarse and Claridge
“The ball just sat up and I’ve shinned it in, so…ah, it’s brilliant…I can’t feel my legs, it’s just cramp and everything…ah, just a great feeling, unbelievable, best feeling in the world.”
Steve Claridge’s legs had already been round the block a few times in his career, and had dragged him round the Wembley pitch for 119 minutes before….this:
And that was pretty much that, save for the curious sub-plot of Martin O’Neill bringing off his no.1 goalkeeper Kevin Poole just seconds before Claridge’s glorious miskick. On came 6ft 7in Australian Zeljko “The Spider” Kalac – later, somehow, of AC Milan – who told his manager “don’t worry, I’ll win it for you”, as a penalty shootout loomed.
The distraction of the bold move alone perhaps made Kalac true to his word. Sort of.
1998: For Me, Clive
“I really didn’t want to take one, it was something I just didn’t want to do. I was a Sunderland boy, living the dream playing for my local team, and I just didn’t want to be the person responsible for us losing such an important match.”
The mother of all play-off final ding-dongs?
Goals were always likely. Charlton boasted 28-goal, Sunderland-born Clive Mendonca, while, on the other side, 35-goal Kevin Phillips was just two years away from the European Golden Boot.
Mendonca drew first blood with a seriously tidy opener and, although Phillips later edged Sunderland into a 2-1 lead, would have the final word in extra time to make it 4-4.
The support acts were half-decent, too. Niall Quinn – one of the handiest men to have around for the big occasion – rifled home with head and boot…
…only for Charlton to be rescued by a first ever senior goal for Richard Rufus to force the drama beyond ninety minutes and, ultimately, to penalties.
13 spot-kicks were all expertly dispatched, until Michael Gray reluctantly trudged forward to try and drag Sunderland level for the seventh time in the shootout.
“After Niall scored, I was looking around to see who was left to take one because I didn’t want to,” Gray later recalled to the Guardian. “I looked at Danny [Dichio]. He was sat in the centre-circle with his boots off by his side, so it obviously wasn’t going to be him. I think I was the oldest person left who hadn’t stepped up yet, so I decided I’d better have a go.”
None of those words, in retrospect, scream confidence and Gray duly Southgated his effort into the waiting arms of Charlton keeper Sasa Ilic.
“Nobody’s interested in my England caps, in me finishing seventh in the Premier League with Sunderland or Blackburn…none of the good stuff. All they want to hear about is that bloody penalty.”
1999: Picked Off By Dickov
The fat lady was well into her vocal warm-ups. Gillingham – on their very first Wembley appearance – were 2-0 up against Manchester City with four minutes to go, thanks to goals from Carl Asaba and Bob Taylor. Tony Pulis was heading for the First Division.
City fans made for the Wembley exits, only to think twice when Kevin Horlock rifled home to halve the deficit and set up an almighty climax. That came in the fifth minute of injury time thanks to the 5ft 6in ball of competitive fury that is Paul Dickov, who provided the sort of last-gasp City heroism not seen again until Martin Tyler implored us to “drink it in” with Sergio Aguero and his extra vowels 13 years later.
In fact, the two moments fit together rather too well.
That energy-sapping conclusion to normal time gave way to a goalless extra time and then a hapless penalty shootout: Dickov struck the post but Gillingham missed three of their four, sending City’s keeper Nicky Weaver off on one of the all-time great Wembley celebrations.
The play-offs, especially for that adrenaline-drenched period of the 1990s, represent the most acute lesson in being so close and yet so far.