Ranking the 5 best Championship play-off semi-finals of all time
Bog-standard mind games and injury-time heroics feature in our rundown of the division’s best end-of-season drama...
5) Brighton 0-2 Crystal Palace (agg 0-2), 2013
No wonder Sir Alex Ferguson liked the look of Wilfried Zaha.
He had already convinced Manchester United to splurge £10m on the winger and loaned him back to Crystal Palace by the time this virtuoso performance downed Brighton in 2013.
With the tie – defined by the rivalry between the two – in the balance, Zaha’s second-half brace was enough to send Palace to Wembley, and start the hosts’ run of three play-off semi-final defeats in four seasons.
Yet Palace’s foulest motivations were not uncovered until after the match, when it was revealed that they had been confronted by excrement – dumped by a Brighton member of staff that day – upon arrival in the Amex Stadium’s away dressing room.
Palace boss Ian Holloway was thankful, saying of the culprit: “How stupid is that person? Whoever it was got Palace playing like that.”
Zaha, meanwhile, was presumably equally as grateful for his hosts’ bog-standard defending.
Quite an evening of shenanigans, then, yet bettered by the following matches.
4) Cardiff* 2-3 Leicester (agg 4-4), 2010
Yann Kermorgant, cover your eyes.
This entertaining play-off tie between Cardiff and Leicester rose to prominence after the Frenchman’s feeble shoot-out penalty – the sort you could hardly manage worse than if you tried.
With the sides not separated by 210 minutes of breathless action and three spot-kicks each, the then-Leicester striker Kermorgant’s effort was to be decisive.
And – considering that he has since proved himself to be more than useful from the spot – the pressure told.
Cardiff ‘keeper David Marshall had time to go down to his right, regain his balance and pat the weak chip back to the striker, who slammed the worthless rebound home with something approaching the power that might have been advisable seconds earlier.
After Leicester had reversed a two-goal deficit in the tie to force a shoot-out, a few words were likely exchanged in the away dressing room after the defeat.
If Kermorgant hadn’t made a run for it by then.
3) Derby* 2-3 Southampton (agg 4-4), 2007
This semi-final tie resulted in Derby heading for Wembley, despite Southampton having the better of a pulsating second leg.
Billy Davies’ hosts carried a 2-1 lead back to then-named Pride Park, an advantage they added to after just three minutes through centre-half Darren Moore.
The visitors were not finished, though, finding inspiration through midfielder Jhon Viafara – a signing from neighbours Portsmouth – who scored twice.
And after Derby regained their lead, it came down to former Ram Grzegorz Rasiak to drive home a last-minute equaliser, sending the eccentric Davies irate.
Not that the Scot was frenzied for long.
His side held their nerve to win the subsequent penalty shoot-out, and confirm their place in the first Championship play-off final at the new Wembley.
Of course, that wasn’t the end of the story for Derby.
Their victory in the final resulted in the most dismal campaign in Premier League history, as they registered just one win and 11 points.
But the primal nature of this match earns it third place in this list.
2) Nottingham Forest 3-4 Blackpool (agg 4-6), 2010
Blackpool’s promotion from the Championship in 2010 was arguably the division’s biggest ever shock.
In May 2009, Ian Holloway – whose lengthy unemployment preceding this job included building chicken coops and training in self-sufficiency in a bid to save money – was handed the keys to a team scraped together with little investment and plenty of guesswork.
Yet 12 months later, the league’s third-highest scorers produced this performance at much-fancied Nottingham Forest – the climax of a season based on entertainment and irresistible momentum.
The visitors – featuring an on-loan Seamus Coleman and talisman Charlie Adam – were not prepared to just defend their 2-1 first-leg lead, and were pegged back twice by Robert Earnshaw.
But a devastating seven-minute three-goal spell of counter-attacking in the second half – in which DJ Campbell completed a hat-trick – saw off Forest, and sent the manic goal-celebrator Holloway into ecstasy.
The manner of the win means that the Tangerine assault on the play-offs earn second place here.
1) Watford 3-1 Leicester (agg 3-2), 2013
On 25 June 2012, Troy Deeney was sentenced to 10 months in prison for affray.
Little over 10 months later, he scored one of the most dramatic goals English football – let alone the Championship play-offs – has ever seen.
The Hornets’ controversially-assembled team of international loans actually had Manuel Almunia to thank for getting them out of jail, though.
Anthony Knockaert’s 95th-minute tumble had earned a penalty that looked sure to take Leicester – featuring an on-loan Harry Kane, Jamie Vardy and Danny Drinkwater on their bench – to Wembley.
The Spaniard saved from the Frenchman not once, but twice, and prompted 20 seconds of unfathomable chaos.
The Hornets sprung a trademark counter-attack, resulting in Jonathan Hogg nodding down Fernando Forestieri’s cross, and Deeney powering in his 20th goal of an emotional season – the most seismic he had, would, or will score.
Watford boss Gianfranco Zola, who dirtied his suit tripping up as he skipped down the touchline to celebrate with his striker, was submerged by the pandemonium that followed, as thousands poured onto the Vicarage Road turf.
And Deeney reflected on the incident as lucidly as anybody in Tales From The Vicarage.
“When I’m older I can look back on it. That goal does prove that it’s never done until it’s done. It’s why we love it, for moments like that.”
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