The Play-Offs – The True Saviour of English Football

A seminar as part of the Sport Business Centre Seminar Series

Given by: Richard Foster

Lankaster Lecture Theatre (University College London – UCL)
Medawar Building
Malet Place (off Torrington Place) 
London WC1

20th May 2014, 6pm

For directions click here


At a value estimated to be in excess of £120 million for the winner, The Football League Championship Play-Offs Final is the richest single sporting match in the world. But when the concept was introduced almost 30 years ago it was considered a stopgap measure unlikely to last its trial period of a couple of years. That they are now considered to be one of the most important parts of the league calendar is a testament to their longevity and enduring appeal. In this presentation writer and journalist Richard  Foster first explains why the play-offs were introduced, then why they have become so successful, and finally, speculates on whether the time has come to re-assess the format of the play-offs. The following offers a flavour of the issues that Richard will follow in his presentation.


“In May 1985 English football reached a nadir, as within the space of a few months there was a series of riots at grounds including Millwall fans attacking police at Luton, a young Birmingham fan killed after trouble broke out with Leeds, the Bradford City Valley Parade fire disaster, followed by the Heysel stadium disaster. The Football League, then responsible for the organisation of all four top divisions of English professional football, responded by setting up a working party to try and find a positive solution to the many ills afflicting the game. The resulting Heathrow Agreement was a 10 point rescue plan and the Play-Offs formed an insignificant and largely ignored element. The first play-offs took place in1987.

The first two years of the play-offs were considered to be a trial and merely a mechanism for reducing the old First Division by two clubs in line with smaller top leagues in Europe. However, the play-off format proved so exciting and provided such a stimulus to league football, that they were maintained. Interestingly, media coverage in these early years was minimal. The proof of the pudding of the format’s success as a stimulus for interest in lower division football was how attendances grew impressively in all three lower divisions whilst the top division was still in decline. The roots of the later renaissance of football were established by the Play-Offs and proved to be the catalyst for the improved health of the game. The moving of the Finals to Wembley proved to be a masterstroke and took the Play-Offs to a new level.

One of the main reasons for their popularity was that the lower league teams – players, managers, fans etc. – enjoyed the rare pleasure of being the focus of attention at the end of the season. When the Premier League started in 1992/93 the Play-Offs were well established and moved from strength to strength. Media interest is now intense and the blanket coverage is a stark contrast to its early years.

The very first Play-Offs Final to get into the top division was worth an estimated £47,500 to Charlton who overcame Leeds. In 2013 Crystal Palace’s victory over Watford was valued at a minimum of £120 million. As a barometer of how football finances have changed this is one of the clearest illustrations. Parachute Payments and Premier League media rights have reached an unprecedented level and have exacerbated the gap between the haves and have-nots of English football.

The fact that the Play-Offs system has been adopted and adapted in every major domestic league as well as for International qualification e.g. World Cup, Euro Championships underlines how important they have become. A crucial part of the football calendar that can determine the fate of a club for many years, their humble origins belie their significance.

So what will happen to the Play-Offs in the next five to 10 years? There have been calls to expand them to more teams but having stayed pretty much the same for almost three decades is there really a need to tinker with what has proved to be one of football’s most successful innovations?”


Richard Foster is an Oxford University graduate who spent (too) many years working in sales & marketing in media, including a thirteen year stint at the Financial Times. In 2006 he experienced an epiphany and, coupled with a full-blown mid-life crisis, became a journalist and writer. Since then he has been a regular contributor to Harpers and has also written for The Guardian, the Football League and a variety of websites & blogs, including Sabotage Times. He is currently writing his first book, “The A-Z of Football Hates” which is due to be published this August by Amberley.

Richard has conducted lengthy research into the Play-Offs and their far-reaching significance and is currently pitching the idea of a tv documentary entitled  “Up, Up and Away”, the captivating story of the English Football League Play-Offs and the birth of the biggest money game in world sport. His support of Crystal Palace is unwavering, the rock on which his life is based, poor bugger.


Contact details

For further details on this seminar series contact:

Sean Hamil
Department of Management
Birkbeck College
Malet Street

Tel: 020-7631 6763

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