This month, Huddersfield Town played in their 10th play-off campaign, reaching their 6th play-off final in the process. Lee Morris takes a brief look at the club’s history in everyone’s favourite end of season knock-out.
For all the times we’ve been in them, younger Town fans would be forgiven for thinking that the Football League play-off system has always been around. But that’s not true. In fact, it’s still a relatively recent addition to the football calendar.
During the 1980s, football was in decline and so were attendances. Football violence and unemployment were two of the biggest reasons for this, and then in 1985, two disasters occurred within three weeks. Firstly, there was the Heysel Disaster on May 11th, 1985, when Liverpool fans rushed Juventus fans before the European Cup final and 39 supporters were killed. Some weeks later, a fire broke out at Bradford City’s Valley Parade and 56 supporters died, including two from their opponents Lincoln City.
In efforts to encourage supporters to return to watching football, a £19 million television deal was rejected by the Football League, meaning that no live games would be broadcast on terrestrial television during the 1985-86 season. In December 1985, a 10-point plan was formulated to revitalise the fortunes of English football. What followed was the Heathrow Agreement.
The Heathrow Agreement
The Heathrow Agreement included a structural reorganisation of the Football League, which saw the top tier reduced from 22 teams to 20. It also introduced the idea of play-offs to facilitate this change and the first play-offs took place at the end of the 1986-87 season.
Initially, the play-offs were very different to today. The semi-finals were played between the side that finished immediately above the relegation zone in the higher league and the three sides that finished below the automatic places in the division below. This remained the format until the 1988-89 season when it was changed to include the four teams in the “play-off zone” in Divisions 2, 3 and 4.
The semi-finals have always been a two-legged home and away affair but between 1987 and 1989 the finals were of the same format. By 1990, the format had changed, and the final was played at Wembley Stadium.
Play-off Campaign #1: 1991-92 - Semi-Finalists
Following relegation in 1987-88 under Malcolm Macdonald, Town had been kicking around in Division 3 under manager Eoin Hand. Town had flirted with the play-offs in 1989-90 but Hand’s first three seasons had been average with finishes of 14th, 8th and 11th.
However, during 1991-92, Town started well and went eight games unbeaten at the start of the season. They maintained their form throughout the rest of 1991 and into 1992 they were firmly planted in 4th place.
Following the New Year, a poor run of form followed with a six-match winless streak. Despite the bad results, Town only dropped a place to 5th, eventually picking up a couple of wins in February to take them back up to 4th.
For a side that had spent much of the first part of the season unbeaten, the second part was the complete opposite and from January to March, Town played 12 games and won just two. This saw them slip down to 6th following a 2-0 defeat away at Peterborough United. That result proved to be the final straw for the board of directors. They sacked Hand the following day after just under four years in charge.
Hand was replaced by his assistant manager Ian Ross, under whom the form picked up. After seven wins in the final eight games, Town finished 3rd and subsequently qualified for their first ever play-off campaign. Ross had brought in former Town apprentice Peter Butler on loan in March and he made an immediate impact. However, after negotiations with his parent club Southend United fell through, he would play no part in the play-offs. He was a huge miss.
Town, having finished 3rd and on 78 points, played 6th placed Peterborough United, who had finished on 71 points. The away tie finished 2-2, with Iffy Onuora and a David Robinson own goal on the scoresheet. Town looked like they’d be coming back to Leeds Road with the win but The Posh equalised in the last minute.
Town were confident heading into the second leg and 16,167 spectators were at Leeds Road to witness what would become known as Black Thursday. The atmosphere was electric. Referee George Courtney has since said that it was the closest to a European tie that he’d ever officiated. An early goal from Phil Starbuck put Town 3-2 up on aggregate, but in the second half, Peterborough scored two late goals to knock Town out.
The season ended on a sour note as West Yorkshire Police made 31 arrests during and after the game, with clashes on and off the pitch between rival supporters. It had begun just minutes into the game, with some Town fans being ejected from the away end. At half time, Steve Kindon and Chris Marsden went over to fans at the corner of the terrace and open end to appeal for them to keep off the pitch and avoid trouble. At the end of the game, violence occurred on the pitch with a number of police horses and dogs charging the Town fans who invaded the pitch. At least 12 people were taken to hospital, including one with stab wounds and four police officers received minor injuries. A planned lap of honour was scrapped due to the continuing violence on the pitch.
Play-off Campaign #2: 1994-95 - Winners
Following the departure of Ian Ross at the end of the 1992-93 season, Neil Warnock was appointed the new manager. Despite a poor start, which left him deeply unpopular, Warnock got most of the fanbase on board towards the end of the 1993-94, helped in part by a cup run in the Autoglass Trophy, culminating in a Wembley appearance in the final.
There was much excitement surrounding the 1994-95 season as it would be the first in Town’s new home, then called the Alfred McAlpine Stadium. And although they lost the first game at the new ground, against Wycombe Wanderers, they would only lose another three home games all season.
After that loss, Town embarked on a 13-match unbeaten run and topped the table from October onwards. Bad form saw them slip to 2nd at the end of November and they then dropped to 4th at Christmas. As the season wore on, Town were looking like title challengers, and as there was only one automatic promotion spot available, it would be winner takes all.
After winning four games on the bounce in March, Town topped the table once again and with just four games left, they were still there. However, they slowly but surely slipped away after taking just two points from 12 in the final matches and dropped down to 5th, the final play-off spot.
This would be Neil Warnock’s third play-off campaign, having already won two of them at Notts County, where he’d taken them from Division Three to Division One. Town faced Brentford in the semi-finals, with the McAlpine hosting its first play-off game on May 14th. The game finished 1-1 with a goal from Chris Billy, one of two players who remained from the 1992 play-offs.
May 17th saw Town travel to Griffin Park in what has become a famous night in the club’s history. Brentford went 1-0 up (and 2-1 on aggregate) after converting a penalty, but Andy Booth levelled the scores. After plenty of goalmouth action in both the second half and extra time, the game remained poised at 2-2 on aggregate. Town would take part in their first penalty shootout in the play-offs.
Although Pat Scully missed his penalty (saved by Kevin Dearden), Brentford missed two of their spot-kicks, with Steve Francis saving both. This paved the way for Darren Bullock to score the winning penalty to send Town to their first play-off Final and their second Wembley appearance in a year.
Bristol Rovers would be Town’s opponents and on May 28th came the club’s first appearance in a play-off final. A total of 27,000 Town fans made the trip to the national stadium and saw Town dominate the first half. They got their rewards when Andy Booth scored a header after 45 minutes. They’d barely had time to celebrate as Marcus Stewart went straight up the other end of the pitch and equalised before half-time.
The run of play switched in the second half as Bristol Rovers dominated but didn’t capitalise. With 11 minutes remaining, Warnock brought on ‘super-sub’ Iain Dunn, who immediately changed the game, crossing the ball for Chris Billy to head in the winner on 81 minutes. Despite Bristol’s frantic attempts to get an equaliser, Town held out and claimed their first ever Wembley victory. Lee Sinnott became the first Town captain to lift a trophy at Wembley—though fans may remember that he promptly dropped it on his head.
That victory took Town back into the second tier, now named Division One, for the first time since they were relegated in 1988.
Play-off Campaign #3: 2001-02 - Semi-Finalists
Town had endured a terrible start to the 2000-01 season and after picking up one win in 11, Steve Bruce was sacked. Lou Macari took over the reins and results started to pick up as the season wore on. Macari had given Town a fighting chance of survival, but they were cruelly relegated on the final day of the season where a variety of results went against them.
Macari remained in his post for the 2001-02 season and despite losing some of their better players, such as Nico Vaesen and Dean Gorre, Town started well and briefly topped the division in September. Helped by the inspired signing of 19-year-old Leon Knight on loan from Chelsea, Town mounted a play-off push and eventually secured their play-off place by finishing 6th in Division Two.
Town went into the play-offs without Knight, who was suspended for a red card and 10 accumulated bookings in early April. Ironically, they faced Brentford on April 28th. The first leg was played at home and ended in a 0-0 draw, with Town heading to Griffin Park on May 1st, for the deciding leg.
Despite Andy Booth putting them in front after just two minutes, Town failed to defend the lead and lost 2-1. Lou Macari was sacked shortly afterwards and replaced by Mick Wadsworth. By the end of the 2002-03 season, Town had been relegated to the fourth tier, then known as Division Three, and almost been liquidated.
Play-off Campaign #4: 2003-04 - Winners
The 2003-04 season marked the return of former manager Peter Jackson and assistant manager Terry Yorath, four years after they’d originally left the club. Town were in a bit of a mess when they took over, although the threat of liquidation had been staved off thanks to Ken Davy, the chairman of Huddersfield Giants, who stepped in to buy the club.
As preparations began for Town’s first season in the fourth tier since 1980, just eight players turned up for pre-season training. ‘Jacko’ certainly had his work cut out and by the time the season started, he’d put together a team of free transfers and youth players along with some of those who were already at the club.
Despite a slow start to the season, Town had bounced back after Christmas 2003, pushing their way into the automatic places by March, As the season was drawing to a close, they were looking likely to get automatic promotion and needed just one win from their final three games to secure that 3rd spot.
A hard-fought draw away at Hull City followed but a 3-1 home loss to Mansfield Town and a 1-1 draw away at Cheltenham Town sealed Town’s fate and they dropped down to 4th and into the play-offs.
This set up a semi-final clash with Lincoln City. To add some context here, there’d been a bit of a clash of personalities between Jackson and the Lincoln boss Keith Alexander when the sides had met back in February. Town won the game 2-1 after Pawel Abbott got the winner in extremely controversial circumstances. Beforehand, Alexander had been derogatory towards Town in the press and the subsequent goal did nothing to ease the tension. Although thought to be quite a way offside, the linesman had judged the ball to have come off a Lincoln player and therefore although in an offside position, Abbott was in fact onside.
Town faced Lincoln in the first leg at Sincil Bank on May 15th and won the match 2-1 with goals from Iffy Onuora and David Mirfin. This was the first time Town had won a match in the semi-finals.
For the home leg, on May 19th, 19,467 spectators attended the match, though after the first half, they probably wished they hadn’t bothered as Town put in an abject display and after conceding two quick goals were now 3-2 down on aggregate. For the second half, a much-improved display followed and really took it to The Imps. Town had a shout for a penalty for handball waved away by the referee and soon afterwards, Andy Booth was tripped in the box. Once again, the referee gave nothing. Luckily, the linesman had seen it and a penalty was awarded. Danny Schofield converted from the spot, and as it stood, Town were heading for extra time. Then, on 83 minutes, Rob Edwards fired a shot into the bottom corner and sent Town to their second play-off final.
As Wembley Stadium was in the process of being constructed, all finals were held at Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium between 2001 and 2007. Town faced Mansfield Town on May 31st. The game ended 0-0 after extra time, although there was a scare in the last minute of normal time when Mansfield’s Colin Larkin scored. The linesman had spotted that the ball had previously gone out of play and it was ruled out.
Town took part in their second play-off penalty shootout and converted all four, with Edwards, Tony Carss, Danny Schofield and Lee Fowler taking the kicks. Paul Rachubka saved Wayne Corden’s effort and Liam Lawrence hit the bar with a cheeky, albeit unsuccessful, chip.
At the first time of asking, Jackson had managed to get the club back into Division Two. After what had gone on 12 months previously, it is possibly one of the most important moments in the club’s history.
Play-off campaign #5: 2005-06 - Semi-Finalists
Following the promotion in 2004, Town had done well in League One, finishing just one point off the play-offs in 2004-05. As the 2005-06 season wore on, they were in the top three for much of the early months and by December were 2nd. However, after drawing Chelsea in the 3rd Round of the F.A. Cup, they went on an eight-game winless run.
Despite that blip, Town didn’t drop below 5th for the rest of the season and eventually finished 4th, which led to a semi-final with local rivals Barnsley. Despite being the better side in the away leg, Town could only manage a 1-0 win at Oakwell, courtesy of a Gary Taylor-Fletcher goal. In the home leg, it was a night to forget as Town fell to a 3-1 defeat on the night. Although Jon Worthington had put Town 2-1 ahead on aggregate, two goals in eight minutes towards the end of the game ended Town’s dream, losing 3-2 aggregate.
Jackson never really recovered from this defeat and after being unable to mount another play-off push during the following season, was sacked in March 2007 after nearly four years at the helm.
Play-off campaign #6: 2009-10 - Semi-Finalists
Following the failed 2005-06 campaign, Town had struggled in League One and failed to mount a play-off push under Andy Ritchie. Stan Ternent was sacked after barely six months in the job and Lee Clark was appointed in December 2008. He achieved some stability in 2008-09. For the 2009-10 season, backed by new chairman Dean Hoyle, Clark signed a number of new players, and the aim was clear—play-offs.
After playing some of the best football seen in years, with exciting young players such as Anthony Pilkington and Jordan Rhodes in the side, the high-scoring and exciting Town side finished 6th in the 2009-10 season, which set up a play-off semi-final with Millwall.
The first leg was at home on May 15th. It ended in a 0-0 draw, with Town still yet to win a home tie in the play-offs. This meant that it was all to play for in the away leg at the New Den on May 18th.
Sadly, Town never got going in the game and froze in front of a hostile home crowd, losing the match 2-0. In the end, Town’s young side lacked the experience to carry them over the line but in what was Clark’s first full season in charge, it was a good achievement.
Play-off campaign #7: 2010-11 - Finalists
Another promotion push was expected for the 2010-11 season. Although the season didn’t start too well, Town eventually established themselves in the play-off places before Christmas 2010. From January 1st, Town did not lose another league game for the rest of the season.
As the season came to a close, Town were battling with Southampton for 2nd place and although they did spend some of March and April in 2nd, ultimately finished 3rd with an incredible 87 points. That points haul would have guaranteed automatic promotion in previous years and remains Town’s highest ever points tally. Nonetheless, Town secured their second play-off campaign in as many seasons and their 7th overall. Lee Clark became only the second manager to lead Town to two play-off campaigns and as they went into the play-offs, they were 25 games unbeaten in the league.
Town faced A.F.C. Bournemouth in the semi-finals, with the first leg taking place at Dean Court. Kevin Kilbane put Town ahead in the first half, but the game ended 1-1 after Donal McDermott equalised for the home side.
It was all to play for in the home leg and the fans certainly got their money’s worth. Lee Peltier put Town ahead in the first half and although the Cherries equalised just before half-time with a penalty from Stephen Lovell, Danny Ward put Town 2-1 up in added time. Lovell then equalised in the second half to take the tie to extra time. Danny Ings put the visitors ahead in the first half of extra time and Antony Kay equalised two minutes later to make it 3-3 on the night and 4-4 on aggregate.
Town then took part in their third play-off penalty shootout. Once again, all four Town players converted, with Lee Novak, Ward, Kevin Kilbane and Antony Kay all scoring. Two Bournemouth players missed their penalties and Town reached their third play-off final.
As the Champions League Final was taking place at Wembley Stadium, the tie was held at Manchester United’s Old Trafford. In a twist of fate, Town would face Peterborough United, the side that’d dumped them out of their first ever play-off campaign in 1992. Town fans felt it was time for revenge and many were confident of victory on the day, with 32,000 making the short journey to Manchester on May 29th.
Peterborough didn’t read the script. After a baffling decision from Lee Clark not to play top scorer Jordan Rhodes, Town were downed by two quick goals late in the second half, before Peterborough scored a third to rub salt in the wounds. Town lost 3-0, with the goals coming in just eight minutes. The loss still leaves a bitter taste in the mouths of many a Town fan and it was the closest Lee Clark ever came to gaining promotion at the club.
Play-off Campaign #8: 2011-12 - Winners
Following the failure in the previous season, expectations were high for the 2011-12 season. The unbeaten run continued into the season. It wasn’t until November that Town lost a match. In fact, they’d lost just three by the time Lee Clark was sacked in February 2012.
Simon Grayson was appointed as Clark’s successor and safely guided Town to 4th place. They faced Milton Keynes Dons in the semi-finals, with the first leg coming away at Stadium:mk. Town picked up a rare play-off win in Milton Keynes, with Jordan Rhodes and Jack Hunt securing a 2-0 victory. In the home leg, Jordan Rhodes made it 3-0 on aggregate and although MK got two goals back, it wasn’t enough to force it to extra time. Although they lost 2-1 on the night, Town progressed to the final 3-2 on aggregate.
The 2012 play-off final was Town’s first appearance at the new Wembley Stadium and they became the first side to play a play-off final in four different grounds: old Wembley, new Wembley, the Millennium Stadium and Old Trafford. On the day, Town faced Sheffield United in a scorching heat. It was a tense affair, with hardly any action at either end, though Town did have a shot cleared off the line towards the end of normal time. With no goals in extra time, the match went to penalties.
You’d be hard pushed to find a team that has won a shootout after missing their first three penalties, but that’s exactly what Town did. Tommy Miller, Damien Johnson and Alan Lee all missed their spot kicks, but then so did Sheffield United’s Lee Williamson and Matthew Lowton. After Andy Taylor missed their fourth penalty, and Peter Clarke scored his, the scoreline was even. From then onwards, each player converted their penalty. After 10 penalties each, it came down to the goalkeepers. Alex Smithies converted his while Steve Simonsen blasted his over the bar. Town won promotion to the Championship, playing in the second tier for the first time since 2001.
Play-off Campaign #9: 2016-17 - Winners
In November 2015, German manager David Wagner arrived in Huddersfield from Borussia Dortmund reserves. Within weeks, he’d got the team playing a completely different style of football and looking like a group of new players. Although he steered Town to a lowly 19th place at the end of 2015-16, the Town fans sensed something special was about to happen.
In the summer, Wagner brought in a number of new players, including record signing Christopher Schindler, Chris Löwe, Elias Kachunga, Kasey Palmer, Michael Hefele and Aaron Mooy. Before a ball was kicked, Town were tipped for relegation by all the experts. Town topped the table for much of the first few weeks of the season, yet they were still tipped to fall away eventually and were constantly written off throughout the season. It didn’t happen, and after spending just one week of the season outside the play-offs, they were secured in April.
Town eventually finished 5th, setting up a semi-final with 4th placed Sheffield Wednesday. Town were the underdogs going into the game and all the experts were sure of a Sheffield Wednesday vs. Fulham final. The first leg took place at home on May 14th, ending in a 0-0 draw.
As the second leg was a mere formality for Wednesday, many of their supporters had already booked their hotels and train tickets for Wembley. All they had to do was turn up and Town would roll over. Town obviously hadn’t been informed. Although they went 1-0 down, they fought back to 1-1, with Tom Lees scoring an own goal. (To try and belittle Town’s achievements that season, people mention that the club got promoted without scoring a goal in the play-offs. But the last time we checked, own goals still count). The game eventually ended 1-1 and Town were involved in their fifth penalty shootout in the play-offs. Danny Ward (the other one) was the hero as he saved two penalties and secured Town’s first Championship play-off final appearance and their fifth overall.
Town would face Japp Stam’s Reading and although Michael Hefele, Izzy Brown and Martin Cranie all went close during the game, it finished 0-0 after extra time. This meant that Town would be involved in their sixth penalty shootout in the play-offs.
Although Hefele missed his penalty, Löwe, Nahki Wells and Mooy all converted. Since two Reading players missed their penalties, it was down to Christopher Schindler to take the decider. He scored the spot-kick and sent Town up to the Premier League for the first time in their history and to the top tier for the first time in 45 years.
The following season, Town were tipped to come straight back down but against all the odds, they survived by four points and finished in 16th place. David Wagner eventually left the club in January 2019 with Town bottom of the league. Relegation was confirmed in March.
Play-off campaign #10: 2021-22 - ?
After a lacklustre 2020-21 season, Carlos Corberan somehow remained in his post after winning just 3 of the last 24 games of the season. As the 2021-22 season began, Town fans were hoping for survival and not much more.
What has transpired has been beyond anything anyone could have expected. A total of 23 wins and just 10 losses all season, amassing 82 points in the process, with Town becoming very difficult to beat and putting in efficient performances. Town secured the play-offs back in April and although they drew 1-1 down at Kenilworth Road, they won the return leg 1-0 on a Monday night, booking their place in the final—their sixth.
As Town head into the final, they have the opportunity to break some long-standing records. They’ve already put one to bed, winning their first ever home play-off tie on Monday night. Town have won four play-off campaigns and each time they’ve done so, they’ve finished on 81 points. During the five failed play-off campaigns, Town have finished on 78, 78, 73, 80 and 87 points.
Can Town break that hoodoo and secure promotion via the play-offs with different points total for the first time?
Huddersfield Town will face Nottingham Forest in the 2022 Championship play-off final at Wembley Stadium on Sunday May 29th.