Stockport’s pinnacle | Rochdale 2-3 Stockport | League Two (2008)
Revisiting these play-off finals emphasises how football clubs’ fortunes can change so quickly, and this is the best example of them all.
For Stockport, this victory in the 2008 League Two final was their pinnacle.
Jim Gannon’s side scored three goals in the middle of Rochdale’s two, with Anthony Pilkington – who would go on to play Premier League football for Norwich – starring.
But their League One campaign was one of the worst in the club’s history, and by 2014 – via administration, three months of Dietmar Hamann as manager, and more hopeless financial mismanagement – they were relegated into the sixth tier of English football.
Defeat from the brink of victory | Southend 1-1 Wycombe | League Two (2015)
Wycombe Wanderers fans, look away now.
The Chairboys had spent the majority of the season in the automatic promotion spots and missed out on third place by just one point before making it to Wembley.
The game itself was 0-0 after 90 minutes, thanks to an impressive display from Southend goalkeeper Dan Bentley.
Wycombe went ahead five minutes into extra time as Joe Jacobson rattled a free kick against the post, which deflected in off the back of Bentley, and were heading for League One until the 122nd minute.
Southend winger Myles Weston whipped in a hopeful cross and, after a nod down, striker Joe Pigott netted with the last kick of the game to force penalties.
The Shrimpers’ promotion was confirmed after Bentley tipped Sam Wood’s penalty onto the post to win the shoot-out 7-6.
Brendan in the big time | Swansea 4-2 Reading | Championship (2011)
Brendan Rodgers announced himself on the biggest stage in the most Brendan Rodgers manner imaginable at Wembley in 2011.
The Swansea side that the Northern Irishman led to victory over Reading featured three players – Joe Allen, Fabio Borini and Scott Sinclair – who he would go on to sign for future clubs and forever be associated with.
His team won an entertaining final 4-2, foreshadowing his ‘We’ll score more than you’ Liverpool team that would go so close to winning the Premier League three years later.
Reading put up a good fight, reducing their deficit from 3-0 to 3-2 at one stage and then hitting the post, but a Sinclair hat-trick ensured that Swansea and Rodgers made it to the big time.
Steve Evans’ celebration | Leyton Orient 2 – 2 Rotherham United | League One (2014)
Most neutrals were rooting for Orient back in 2014. Partly because the underdogs had managed to keep pace with the automatic promotion race until late March, but mainly due to the identity of Rotherham’s manager.
Steve Evans, pantomime villain or odious criminal – depending on how seriously you take fraud, falsification of contracts, bribing a witness and indecent exposure – has always managed to unite fans of any club other than his.
But it was he who was celebrating on the hour mark after Alex Revell’s looping, 30-yard volley – his second goal in five minutes – had brought the Millers level having trailed 2-0 at half time.
And what a celebration it was. The waddling run down the touchline, the sudden realisation that he needs to pull his trousers up, the gesture to his bench to calm down as he makes his way back – it has so many different elements. No wonder it’s since become classic meme fodder (‘When your mum says, ‘Let’s get a takeaway’).
Here is a man who just doesn’t give a sh*t what you think of him. And, annoyingly, that just winds you up even more.
Alexander’s wonder goal | Millwall 2-3 Scunthorpe | League One (2009)
“That is one of the greatest goals you will ever see at Wembley.”
That was then-Sky Sports commentator Ian Darke’s summary of Gary Alexander’s 35-yard volley that drew Millwall level in the 2009 League One play-off final.
Unfortunately for the Lions, it counted for nothing.
Alexander put his side ahead just two minutes later with a header that Scunthorpe goalkeeper Joe Murphy fumbled over the line, but Scunthorpe responded in the second half.
An equaliser from midfielder Matt Sparrow and tidy finish from Martyn Woolford five minutes from time rendered Alexander’s goal academic and secured an immediate return to the Championship for the Iron.
The 11-man shoot-out | Huddersfield 0-0 Sheffield United | League One (2012)
This final may have finished 0-0, but it didn’t lack for goalmouth action.
After four penalties each, the pattern from normal time seemed to have spilt over into the shoot-out, with each team scoring just once to set up a lengthy sudden-death showdown.
But both teams scored all of their next six kicks – including a solid punt down the middle from a young Harry Maguire – to set up one of football’s simple pleasures: penalty-taking goalkeepers.
Huddersfield’s Alex Smithies held his nerve, but his opposite number could not reciprocate. Steve Simonsen spooning the ball over the bar is still difficult to watch all these years on.
The Glenn Hoddle final | Leicester 3-4 Swindon | Division One (1993)
Player-manager stints rarely work as well as this one.
Not only did Glenn Hoddle coach Swindon to the Premier League in 1993, but he even set them on their way by scoring the opening goal of this play-off final, caressing the ball into the bottom corner.
The Robins moved into a 3-0 lead inside an hour before Leicester hit back, scoring three goals in 12 minutes to make it 3-3.
Fortunately, Hoddle – who left for Chelsea just days later – did not designate himself Swindon penalty-taker, stepping aside to allow Paul Bodin to net the winner from 12 yards with six minutes remaining.
Tangerine dream | Blackpool 3-2 Cardiff | Championship (2010)
Brett Ormerod scored for Blackpool in their 4-2 victory against Leyton Orient in the 2001 Third Division play-off final.
Nine years later, he netted the winner against Cardiff as the Tangerines were promoted to the top flight for the first time in 39 years.
The journeyman had been through six different clubs in the interim, before coming back to Bloomfield Road after his release from arch-rivals Preston in January 2009.
What a homecoming it proved out to be.
Ian Holloway’s side twice came from behind at Wembley before going in 3-2 up at half time, a result they held onto until the end.
City’s comeback | Gillingham 2-2 Manchester City | Division Two (1999)
This remains City’s first – and only, presumably – season outside the top two tiers of English football. But it was almost so different.
After Gillingham had taken the lead in the 81st minute and then doubled it in the 86th, only 17 seconds of normal time remained when Kevin Horlock pulled one back for City.
Five minutes were added on – a rarity back then – but the ball was still deep in City’s half as the clock ticked past 94:00, before one long ball, a flick-on and a fortuitous ricochet saw it fall at the feet of Paul Dickov in the penalty area.
The Scotsman and Gills keeper Vince Bartram, who were old acquaintances from Arsenal, had been best men at each other’s weddings, but that didn’t stop him from slamming home to keep City alive and take the game to extra time.
Nicky Weaver went on to save two of the Gills’ penalties before hopping over the advertising hoardings and embarking on a wild lap of honour, as City completed the greatest comeback seen since their illustrious local rivals had completed the treble in Barcelona four days earlier.
They were promoted back to the Premier League the following season, and moved into a brand-new stadium three years later, clearing the way for Sheikh Mansour, Pep, and all the rest.
Gillingham, meanwhile, would be back at Wembley in 12 months’ time, scoring twice against Wigan in the last six minutes of extra time to, belatedly, reach Division One for the first time in their history.
The Mendonca final | Charlton 4-4 Sunderland | Division One (1998)
Charlton and Sunderland produced the greatest slugfest the play-offs have ever seen in 1998.
It is a game that will forever be synonymous with the performance of lifelong fan Clive Mendonca, who netted a Wembley hat trick.
Mendonca, who had bagged 25 goals in all competitions throughout the season, scored the opener for Charlton 23 minutes in before chaos ensued.
Sunderland responded, taking the lead on three separate occasions in the second half and extra time, but were pegged back each time by another two Mendonca goals and a Richard Rufus header.
The hat-trick hero was first up in the shoot-out, converting one of 13 successful penalties, before the unfortunate Micky Gray rolled the 14th into the arms of Sasa Ilic.
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