The Paddy Power guide to the greatest play-off games ever

The play-offs can always be relied upon for drama, to whet the appetite we’re rounding up some of the most memorable tussles from years gone by.


Play-off season is nearly upon us and we’re fastening our seat belts for the annual roller coaster ride of ecstasy, heartbreak and plain mental-ness.

An entire season rests on a matter of minutes and entire careers can be made or ruined by moments of genius or idiocy. For fans of the teams involved, it is pure agony, but for the neutrals, there’s nothing better than watching someone else go through the ringer.

With all normal rules of football, and often physics, out of the window, the play-offs have created so many incredible moments that we even left out Swindon 5-5 Sheffield United, a game so unrealistic it seemed like a depressing sequel to When Saturday Comes.

Watford 3-1 Leicester City: Championship play-off semi-final 2012-13

If you ever wanted to explain why the play-offs are so great to extra-terrestrials, you could simply show them the last two minutes of this game.

Locked at 2-2 on aggregate, Leicester won a last-minute controversial (e.g incorrect) penalty for a place at Wembley, only for Manuel Almunia of all people to make a stunning double save from the permanently hapless Anthony Knockaert.

The ball went straight back up the other end, basketball style, Fernando Forestieri found Jonathan Hogg to Troy Deeney and Watford won it while Kasper Schmeichel was flapping around all over the place. The Danish ‘keeper would never amount to anything.

Quite rightly the Watford fans went apes**t. Of course, they lost to Crystal Palace in the final so it was all in vain, but what an 180-seconds to be a Hornets supporter it truly was.

Sunderland 4 Charlton 4: Football League First Division play-off final 1997-98

As if the eight goals and a sudden death penalty shoot-out weren’t enough, this game could be made into a movie just for the way it tore Clive Mendonca in two.

A lifelong Sunderland fan, Mendonca became the first player to score a hat-trick in a play-off final, but tragically he did so for Charlton.

Sunderland led three times, but the striker turned pub landlord staunchly refused to let his beloved Black Cats win and ensured the game went to a shoot-out.

After a staggering 13 penalties found the net, Michael Gray waddled up the spot, clearly wishing he was literally anywhere else in the world and was denied by Sasa Ilic.

Mendonca notched another hat-trick on the opening day of the next season, but comparisons to Diego Maradona proved premature and he retired two years later through injury. Alan Curbishley, who had led Charlton to the Premier League, could revel in the knowledge he’d be the go-to call for any club in a relegation battle for next decade.

Man City 2 Gillingham 2: Football League Second Division play-off final 1998-99

When Pep Guardiola lifts the Premier League trophy, he should really be dedicating the triumph to Kevin Horlock and Paul Dickov, but it’s safe to say he probably won’t.

Having managed to reach rock bottom, Man City were floating back up when they reached the final of the Second Division play-offs, but Joe Royle’s men were 2-0 down with a minute left and staring another season with Wrexham and Colchester in the face.

That is until a certain Kevin Horlock clawed one back and Paul Dickov pounced four minutes into injury time, mastering the kind of scrappy comeback their city rivals United had made their own.

They didn’t need to bother taking penalties after the blow that dealt the Gillingham players, but they did anyway for the sake of propriety and City inevitably triumphed.

The rest is history – City became the wealthiest club in the world, Gillingham did not.

Bolton 4 Reading 3: Football League First Division play-off final 1994-95

Reading can lay a good claim to the unluckiest season in history after this heartbreaker.

Having finished second in the league in the one season ever when only one team was promoted automatically due to the Premier League shrinking from 22 to 20 teams, the Royals then went 2-0 up in the final, only to blow it.

Worse still, at 2-0 ahead Reading’s Aussie Stuart Lovell missed a penalty that surely would have killed the game off, and from then on, the tide turned.

Owen Coyle and super sub Fabian de Freitas made it 2-2 before Mixu Paatelainen proved as easy to mark as to spell and De Freitas struck again.

Jimmy Quinn pulled one back, but it was the least consolation of any consolation goal – Bolton were up, Reading were not and we presume Lovell moved to the Outback and never saw another living soul.

Blackpool 3 Cardiff 2: Championship play-off final 2009-10

This five-goal thriller rounded off a crazy 2009-10 season for Blackpool and helped make Ian Holloway a household name.

Holloway would become renowned as a poet, a philosopher and the first skeleton to return to life and manage in the Premier League.

He owed his success to playing a style of football reminiscent of a stoned student playing FIFA.

Amazingly, his gung-ho attacking style worked. Cardiff led 1-0 through Michael Chopra, but Blackpool answered with a stunning Charlie Adam free-kick. Joe Ledley scored to make it 2-1, only for Gary Taylor-Fletcher wrote his long name on the score sheet.

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