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The Agony & The Ecstasy: A Comprehensive History of The Football League Play-Offs

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The Agony & The Ecstasy: A Comprehensive History of The Football League Play-Offs

12.99 14.99
sale

The Football League Play-Offs have journeyed from a rescue plan to the single most lucrative one-off game in world sport. Joy, heartache, excitement and anger; this is The Agony & The Ecstasy.

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The Football League Play-Offs have journeyed from a rescue plan to the single most lucrative one-off game in world sport. Joy, heartache, excitement and anger; this is The Agony & The Ecstasy.

By Richard Foster

A comprehensive history of the Football League Play-Offs from their relatively troubled conception to the current day boom for the winners and bust for the losers. Born in English football's darkest hour as part of a desperate rescue plan, it has now become home to the single richest match in world sport. From the exquisite pain of losing to the unadulterated high of success, this is the Agony & the Ecstasy.

'Amazingly this is the first book on what has become a hugely important and immensely enjoyable part of the season. It's a fantastic read as it is both comprehensive and entertaining; in fact I'm enjoying it so much I don't want to finish it' - Martin Tyler, Sky Sports

'Football fans thrive on misery just as much as joy. Luckily the Play-Offs give us a season’s worth of both and it’s over in two weeks. That’s why we love them. If you love the Play-Offs you’ll love this book' - Kevin Day, writer and comedian

Author Bio

Richard Foster is a freelance sportswriter and author, mainly focusing on football. He is a regular features contributor for The Guardian Sport Network, plus a variety of websites and blogs including The Sabotage Times and The Football League.

Extract

Although the modern Play-Offs were introduced in the mid-1980s, the concept’s roots stretch back to the very beginnings of league football in England when a similar idea was used some ninety-odd years before. William McGregor, the Scottish founder of the Football League, was influenced by the model used by American sports such as baseball in which play-offs were employed to determine the Championship from the outset in the 1880s. The adaptation of the system was distinctively British in its execution as it concentrated on the movement between divisions rather than determining the champions.

The Football League was founded to provide some order and meaning to the stream of friendly matches that were being played, but had no ultimate purpose. Phil Shaw pointed out in his piece on McGregor for the Football League’s 125th anniversary that “as a spectacle, the league was hamstrung by a chronic lack of organisation”. There were far too many occasions when clubs pulled out of their fixtures at the last moment because either they had a better offer or they simply could not be bothered to turn up. It was a little like some of the more haphazard Sunday morning football experiences than a gathering of the leading clubs in the country. Such disorganisation adversely affected the revenues of the clubs and the spirits of the fans who had grown tired of watching one-sided friendlies or were frustrated by the number of ‘no shows’. So McGregor’s brainchild of “a regular and fixed programme” of matches was born, with the main aim of bringing order where there was previously chaos. In many ways this need for a new structure that would reinvigorate the moribund state of the game had close parallels with the issues faced in the mid-1980s. Both situations required strong action that could provide a sense of direction and purpose.

In 1892, four years after the Football League was formed, the league expanded into two divisions to accommodate a further dozen clubs. The powers that be, led by McGregor, wanted to encourage movement between the divisions and decided to give the teams from the lower division the opportunity of reaching the top division. The ethos of promotion was an important facet established at the very beginning of this extra division and this is where English football was different to those American leagues from which the concept of play-offs was originally copied. There was, though, to be no automatic promotion at first, but rather a series of one-off ‘test matches’ pitching the bottom three teams from the First Division against the top three teams from the newly formed Second Division to determine the final places in the respective leagues. The joint involvement of teams from both divisions was repeated in the first two years of the 20th century Play-Offs, and so it is possible to trace the lineage of the modern Play-Offs back to Victorian times and acknowledge the precedent set from more than a hundred years ago, albeit in a slightly different format.

Some themes that have come to characterise the modern Play-Offs were also prevalent back in the late 19th century, such as those clubs who were perennial failures, the yo-yo teams that spent their time criss-crossing between divisions, and even Iain Dowie’s rather 21st-century concept of ‘bouncebackability’. They all manifested themselves in the McGregor era only to reappear a century later, proving one of the sport’s eternal truths: football is cyclical. One of the first of these test matches in 1893 featured Newton Heath, the team that spawned Manchester United, who preserved their First Division status by overcoming Second Division Champions, Small Heath (the team that would later become Birmingham City) over two legs. So even in these earliest of days of league football and well before the reign of Alex Ferguson, Manchester United had the edge on their rivals.