By Richard Foster

It is early March, the evenings are getting lighter, the temperatures are gradually on the rise and winter is almost behind us at last. We will finally know the season has changed for good when the winter high-vis ball is replaced by the plain old white one. So to bastardise Queen Victoria’s favourite poet Alfred Lord Tennyson this is the time that a young person’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of the Play-Offs. There are just a dozen games left across the three divisions and the battle for those twelve spots is about to intensify.

Following on from last year there seems there will be another strong Yorkshire contingent in the mix. In the Championship, potentially joining last year’s beaten finalists Sheffield Wednesday (who admittedly do need to buck their ideas up a tad) both Huddersfield Town and Leeds United are looking strong candidates for one of those Play-Offs berths. If these two do meet then it will be a much-anticipated encounter after the touchline stramash between David Wagner and Garry Monk when the two sides met at the John Smith’s Stadium. Add the spicy tension that always accompanies these post-season games and this has all the makings of a classic confrontation.

Leeds will not be overly keen on their chances considering their history of their previous four failures and any team facing Huddersfield should try to avoid a penalty shoot-out as they are the acknowledged kings, having won all four they have been involved in – 1995, 2004, 2011 & 2012. There is even the remote chance that all four Play-Offs semi-finalists could be from the White Rose county as Barnsley who are in touching distance of Wednesday may repeat last year’s surge into the League One top six from being bottom in December.

Most of those clubs that are straining to get into the frame are showing signs of inconsistency with the exception of Fulham and Preston. Fulham will be keen to rid themselves of being the only London club not to have won a single Play-Offs match in their two previous attempts, while Preston will be dreaming of repeating breaking their duck back in 2015 when they easily beat Swindon 4-0 after a run of nine failures. Or is there an outside chance of the most successful manager in Play-Offs history, Neil Warnock adding Cardiff City as the fourth club he has been in charge of to win the Play-Offs?

In League One there is also a couple of Yorkshire clubs right in the mix with last year’s beaten semi-finalists, Bradford City as well as their conquerors Millwall who fell at the last hurdle. On the back of Billy Sharp’s goals, Sheffield United look likely to avoid their regular Play-Offs humiliation by gaining automatic promotion. By contrast Fleetwood Town are one of only five clubs boasting a 100% record in the entire league. Meanwhile the chances of another club with a perfect record, AFC Wimbledon repeating their League Two triumph over Plymouth seems a long way off but they did achieve a similar late run under Neal Ardley last year.

Scunthorpe’s recent drop-off in form has seen their grip on an automatic spot weakened and the Play-Offs are looming and if they do they would be one of the most seasoned practitioners with seven attempts yielding two promotions including the latest in 2009 where they beat Millwall in the Final, a fate that the Lions experienced last year against Barnsley. Just outside the top six are Southend and Peterborough who are amongst the more successful clubs, with five promotions between them. Perhaps the most interesting of the chasing pack are Oxford United who are one of only five clubs currently in the Football League to have never participated in the Play-Offs.

In League Two there is also another club that are looking to take their Play-Offs bow, Exeter City under Paul Tidsdale, the second longest-serving manager in English football. If both Exeter and Oxford make their respective Play-Offs then that will mean 98 clubs will have competed in the Play-Offs. While Doncaster look unlikely to need to test their 100% record as automatic promotion is probable, Plymouth seem to be heading towards a repeat of last year’s ultimately fruitless foray and maybe even another match-up with Portsmouth who they overcame in the semi-finals. Of the others in with a chance there are relatively few with too much experience, the seven clubs occupying 4th to 10th having only competed 13 times between them over the thirty-year history.

The next two months will involve plenty of jostling for position until the picture clears in late April/ early May as the twelve semi-finalists are decided. As ever, there are bound to be certain clubs who enter the Play-Offs with a spring in their step, as Barnsley did last season whereas others will be treading warily having seen the chance of automatic promotion slip from their grasp, just as Accrington Stanley did in the very last minute of their league campaign. Then over the last two weekends in May the fate of the six finalists will be decided at Wembley with all the accompanying agony and ecstasy.

The Agony & The Ecstasy by Richard Foster is available here for just £12.99



As 2016 draws to a close we asked The Agony & The Ecstasy author, Richard Foster, to give us an overview of how this season's Play-Off runners and riders are shaping up.

As we have heard on countless occasions all three divisions of the Football League are a slog. The relentless schedule of 46 matches, which barely offers a chance to rest and recuperate throughout the season, is a test of strength and depth as much as it is of quality. Then of course there is the added dimension of the Play-Offs for a dozen clubs who have to gather themselves for the vicissitudes of this perpetually dramatic version of Russian roulette that reach their climax at Wembley in May.

With the mid-point for each division almost reached, it is time to assess the likely contenders in what will be the 30th anniversary of their introduction and those that might be dreading it and others who will be relishing the prospect. Looking at the tables from this stage of last season nine of the clubs who qualified for the Play-Offs were already in the top 8 of their respective divisions and this is a regular pattern so it is safe to assume the majority of this year’s semi-finalists are already there or thereabouts. By contrast last season’s surprise packages Barnsley were rock bottom of League One and AFC Wimbledon were beginning their rise up the League Two table from 13th and so Shrewsbury and Mansfield should take heart, all is not lost. 

Starting with the Championship, Newcastle seemed destined to return to the Premier League at the first time of asking and as their only experience of the Play-Offs was a semi-final defeat to Sunderland they will be desperately keen to go up automatically. The same will be true of Brighton who have suffered three semi-final failures in the last four years. Reading and Leeds are teams that both have an unhappy record, having contested three Finals each but still no promotions. By contrast Huddersfield have prospered with three promotions from eight attempts but they have never been involved in Championship Play-Offs. Meanwhile all of Derby’s six appearances have been in the second tier where they have gained one solitary promotion. Sheffield Wednesday will have painful memories of last year’s Final loss to Hull but will hope to bounce back like Middlesbrough did the previous year and they would want to emulate their only other Play-Offs experience, a win in 2005. Both Birmingham and Norwich have secured one Play-Offs promotion, with the Blues beating the Canaries back in 2002 whilst Norwich beat Middlesbrough in 2015.

In League One Scunthorpe have a reasonable record with two promotions out of seven in 1999 and 2009. The same cannot be said of Sheffield United who will have a morbid fear of the Play-Offs having the joint worst record of eight attempts, four Finals and still not one promotion. Bolton and Bradford have both notched up two successful campaigns whilst Rochdale are still to taste triumph in their three campaigns. Peterborough boast the best record in this division with three promotions from four attempts and will be keen to revenge their only Play-Offs loss to date against Leyton Orient in the 2014 semi-final.  Fleetwood Town are one of only five teams in the League who have a 100% record after their 2014 success over Burton. Southend have clocked up two promotions and beat Wycombe on penalties in their last Final appearance in 2015.

League Two leaders Plymouth suffered at the hands of AFC Wimbledon last year but did win their only other Final back in 1995. Carlisle are relative novices having lost both their semi-finals to date. Doncaster’s finest hour in their recent history was their victory over Leeds in 2008 League One Final, which is their only appearance. Portsmouth lost out to Plymouth in the semi-finals last season, which mirrored their only other appearance in 1993 when they also lost 3-2 on aggregate. Luton’s only experience of the Play-Offs ended in a semi-final defeat to Crewe in 1997. Wycombe won their first Play-Offs in 1994 under Martin O’Neill but have failed in their subsequent three attempts. Blackpool are still the only club out of 96 to have been involved since 1987 to have won the Play-Offs in all three divisions. Barnet would need to improve from their three semi-final failures whilst Cambridge would want to replicate their solitary triumph in 1990 when they became the first team to win a Wembley Play-Offs Final courtesy of a Dion Dublin goal.

There will be the odd club that appears out of nowhere to appear in the Play-Offs picture, which is one of the main attractions of the system as it provides a route to a successful season for nearly every club at this stage of the season. As the race hots up over the coming months nerves will become frayed and the hopes of fans realised and dashed in equal measure. Welcome to The Agony & The Ecstasy.

The Agony & The Ecstasy is available here for the discounted price of just £12.99, order quickly if needed in time for Christmas!



Here at Ockley Books we know time is precious and sometimes 24 hours just isn't enough. We got to thinking and realised a single Black Friday wouldn't cover it, so we're having a Black Long Weekend lasting 4 days to give you the time to order as and when you can.

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Coming soon from Ockley Books: Beyond The Turnstiles by photographer Leon Gladwell.

Featuring over 200 pages of photographs from Leon's travels across Great Britain and into Europe watching football, and essays from Stuart Roy Clarke, David Bauckham, Stuart Fuller and many more, Beyond The Turnstiles looks at the modern game through a beautiful lens.

Full product information and pre-order link coming soon, all enquiries (press, buyer or other wise) to drh@ockleybooks.co.uk



The 2016 Play-Offs were possibly the cruellest of all. For those who argue about their fundamental unfairness and the inequity of the system there is plenty of supporting evidence. After 30 years, this is the first one in which none of the top ranked Play-Offs teams has qualified for a Final. To add fuel to the fire all three suffered missing out on automatic promotion by a whisker, thwarted at the death by the narrowest of margins.

In the Championship Brighton lost out on goal difference to Middlesbrough, whom they faced in their last regular league match and could only draw. Walsall were squeezed out by Burton Albion in League One by a solitary point and most heartbreaking of all, Accrington Stanley were denied by an added time winner by Bristol Rovers in the very last game.

The accumulated gap between these three vanquished clubs and their semi-final conquerors was a massive 35 points, which is no consolation to those who feel the anguish and pain of their clear superiority over 46 matches being wiped out in the cut and thrust of the two-legged semi-finals. And yet to counterbalance these tales of woe there are some extraordinarily positive and life-affirming stories. 

AFC Wimbledon completed a quite remarkable rise up the leagues in securing their sixth promotion in the space of 13 seasons. From their first-ever match in the Combined Counties League, the tenth tier of the pyramid, in August 2002 they will kick-off their campaign in the third tier of English football this coming August. The delicious backdrop to this heady rise, which surpasses the ascent of the original Wimbledon FC to the First Division back in the 1980s, is the prospect of meeting their nemesis in the shape of MK Dons as league rivals next year. 

Their victory over Plymouth Argyle in the Final was fully deserved as the impressive Lyle Taylor’s accomplished finish set them on the way before Ade Akinfenwa delivered what may prove to be the perfect swan-song to his AFC Wimbledon career with his penalty in 100th minute to wrap up the game. That this match was played out in front of nearly 58,000 spectators - the second highest for a fourth tier Play-Offs and higher than the previous day’s League One Final - clearly shows that the popularity of the Play-Offs is alive and kicking. 

Saturday’s Championship Final saw Hull return to the Premier League at the first time of asking, a match that was lit up by Mohamed Diame’s exceptional strike midway through the second half. Weirdly, in the post-match interviews Carlos Carvalhal appeared the happier manager as he rightly praised the magnificent support the team had received from 40,000 raucous Wednesdayites throughout the game and long afterwards. Their show of support in wake of defeat was as impressive as it was rare. Whilst Steve Bruce was relatively downbeat, uncertain whether he will continue at Hull despite becoming the first manager to achieve four promotions to the Premier League. 

The best story came in the League One Final where Barnsley achieved the most remarkable renaissance since Iain Dowie coined the word “Bouncebackability” 12 years ago after Palace’s promotion from the fringe of relegation at Christmas. The Tykes outdid that as they recovered from being rock bottom in early December to become the only side to win a Play-Offs Final from that position. Added to this, Paul Heckingbottom took over after Lee Johnson upped sticks to go to Bristol City in February when Barnsley were 12th in the table. In his second care-taking role at Oakwell, Heckingbottom had already taken them to Wembley when they won Football League Trophy the month before he guided them to an accomplished win against Millwall.

That Final was lit up by Adam Hammill’s superb strike in the 18th minute, which even surpassed Diame’s the day before, and established Barnsley’s superiority following Ashley Fletcher’s clever finish in only the second minute. Fletcher was a danger all afternoon and comparisons with his Manchester United peer Marcus Rashford suggest he could have a bright future. Millwall could not cope with the early tempo of a Barnsley side brimming with confidence and even though Beevers pegged one back in the first half, there was an inevitability about Barnsley’s third although quite how the smallest player on the pitch, Isgrove was allowed to head in from a corner will remain a mystery.

Barnsley’s extraordinary triumph was slightly tarnished by the ugly scenes that followed the third goal when Millwall fans in the upper tier confronted their Yorkshire counterparts. But nothing should be allowed to take away from Heckingbottom’s achievements and in any other season he and Neil Ardley would surely be considered the managers of the year were it not for Claudio Ranieri. For the vast majority of fans the dramatic denouements enjoyed at Wembley over the last weekend are proof enough that the Play-Offs are an essential and vibrant element of English football. 

Fittingly the last words should come from Andy Williamson who after 45 years of service at the Football League retired this year. He was involved in the original decision to introduce the Play-Offs describing them as “the single most beneficial change in the history of the Football League.” It was also his idea to bring the Finals to Wembley, which added gravitas and a sense of occasion. Williamson admitted that there were a few doubters early on “but Richard Foster’s book says it all – it will be ecstasy for some but agony for others!” And we would not have it any other way.

You can buy Richard's book The Agony & The Ecstasy: A Comprehensive History of the Play-Offs here