This is the weekend when the nation usually stops to watch some of the finest, most frantic and fraught matches on the English football calendar.
The play-offs rarely disappoint, and so – in their absence – Sky Sports has been speaking to many of those who helped make past games so memorable.
- Play-off finals greatest games: 15-11
Here you can enjoy our countdown from 10 to six, featuring two last-minute winners, a teenage penalty-scoring hero, and another Wembley screamer.
10 – Bolton 4-3 Reading – Division One play-off final, 1995 – “You get nothing for finishing second”
Reading hold the unfortunate record of being the only team to finish second in England’s second tier and not get promoted. With the Premier League – then the Premiership – reducing from 22 teams to 20, only Middlesbrough gained automatic promotion in 1995.
That forced Reading into the play-offs and two goals in the first 12 minutes from Lee Nogan and Adrian Williams had them dreaming of back-to-back promotions and their first-ever season in the top flight. But when your luck is out, it is really out.
The Royals should have been home and dry when Stuart Lovell stepped up to take a penalty 10 minutes before half-time, but he missed and Bolton rallied.
Owen Coyle and substitute Fabian de Freitas forced extra-time and momentum proved key, as goals from Mixu Paatelainen and a second from De Freitas turned the game on its head.
Reading’s player-manager Jimmy Quinn did his best to lead by example and pulled a goal back late on, but the damage was done. It really was not Reading’s year!
9 – Rotherham 2-2 Leyton Orient – League One play-off final, 2014 – “I was hoping his trousers would drop below his kneecaps as he ran down the touchline”
This game had it all: A second-half comeback, a 30-yard Alex Revell lob against his former team, penalties and almost a flash of Steve Evans’ underpants.
So comfortable were Leyton Orient with their 2-0 half-time lead thanks to goals from Moses Odubajo and Dean Cox, that Evans said some O’s players “thought they were already in the Championship, the way they were behaving”.
Evans fired his players up and within 10 minutes of the second half, Revell poked home to pull one back. If that was scrappy, his equaliser five minutes later certainly was not.
That sent Evans sprinting down the touchline, with his belt just about preventing an embarrassing Wembley wardrobe malfunction.
“I was so hoping his trousers would drop below his kneecaps, but he just managed to drag them up in time as he ran down the touchline,” then Orient boss Russell Slade said.
Embarrassment spared, Evans and his team regained their composure to win the resulting penalty shoot-out and earn Rotherham a second successive promotion.
8 – Charlton 2-1 Sunderland – League One play-off final, 2019 – “These Charlton players write their legend!”
Two play-off titans who are no strangers to each other. Twenty-one years on from their notorious 1998 meeting, they met again at Wembley, desperate for an exit from a league arguably too small for them. It was a gruelling season in England’s third-tier though, with Luton and Barnsley going up automatically.
Sunderland had been vying for automatic promotion all term following heavy investment, while Charlton won seven of their remaining eight regular-season games, setting the stage for a mouthwatering battle between the two former Premier League clubs.
The Black Cats faced their second trip to London in a matter of weeks following their agonising defeat to Portsmouth in the EFL Trophy final, played in front of a record crowd of 85,021. Anyone who has seen Sunderland Till I Die on Netflix knows exactly what happened next…
“These Charlton players write their legend!” screamed Gary Weaver from the commentary box, as Patrick Bauer won the game in the 94th minute. Two famous finals, two famous wins for the south London club.
“We just kept pushing and pushing and thankfully got that goal,” boss Lee Bowyer said. “My emotions got the better of me, but the fourth official told me there was only six seconds left and I knew they wouldn’t score in that time – so we could relax!”
7 – Crystal Palace 1-0 Sheffield United – Division One play-off final, 1997 – “David Hopkin looking to curl one… Absolutely amazing!”
With half a minute to go, it was more relief than joy for Crystal Palace when captain David Hopkin sealed a 1-0 victory to beat Sheffield United and win promotion to the Premier League. “I was relieved that it wasn’t going to extra time!” the Scotsman admitted.
“I remember the ball being cleared to the edge of the box, and running towards the ball and hitting it early. It was a fantastic finish on a fantastic day, on the back of a very successful season we were having.”
Hopkin had enjoyed a stand-out campaign in south London, also scoring a key goal in the semi-final second-leg defeat to Wolves, which helped them progress to Wembley. “I spoke to somebody at Palace, and they said ‘You have to remember you got two Player of the Year awards, you scored in the semi-final and then the final… and then you left!'”
He arrived at Leeds, who paid £3.25m for his services. But his heart still belonged to Palace, and just four years after leaving, Hopkin returned to Selhurst Park for a second stint. “It’s a fantastic club and I have fantastic memories,” he added. “It’s a club that will be with me and my family for the rest of my days.”
6 – Birmingham 1-1 Norwich – Division One play-off final, 2002 – “Steve Bruce had us replicating the walk to the spot!”
Darren Carter promoted Birmingham to the Premier League with his match-winning penalty against Norwich in 2002, writing himself into Blues folklore. The Solihull man always had his heart set on taking a spot-kick thanks to boss Steve Bruce and his meticulous planning.
After downing Millwall over two semi-final legs, fifth-placed Birmingham set up a Millennium Stadium final with sixth-placed Norwich, which went down to the wire in front of 71,597 fans. Luckily, Bruce had put extra emphasis on penalty taking in his pre-match preparations.
Reflecting on the win, and asked if he wanted to take part in the shootout, Carter said: “Yes – I always get asked that question and people are always astonished by my answer. We practiced them all the way up to the final, Steve Bruce had us replicating the walk from the halfway line.
“He wanted us in a routine. We were taking penalties after every training session and I always felt supremely confident. I had no nerves, even when we got to the shooutout. To this day, I have Birmingham fans coming up to me and asking if they can buy me a coffee or a drink, it’s the same for my dad!
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