Championship

The best EFL play-off finals of all time

Mitchell Wilks
Dean Windass putting the passion on show after a stupendous winner for Hull in 2008
Dean Windass putting the passion on show after a stupendous winner for Hull in 2008 / Clive Rose/Getty Images
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For all the money thrown at the Premier League to globally broadcast some of 'the biggest games in the world', the truth is that British footballing entertainment comes from elsewhere.

In fact, peak British football comes from the divisions below the top flight, at the end of the season when teams face off in a one game shootout to try and clinch promotion to the league above.

It takes tireless work to get into a play-off final and thus the games we get from finals are entertaining, emotional, a bit rubbish and everything in between. Here are the top 30.


30. Blackpool 2-1 Exeter (2017)

Armand Gnanduillet, Will Aimson
Blackpool are back on the up / Catherine Ivill - AMA/Getty Images

A League Two play-off final that presented Blackpool the chance to finally turn around some torrid fortunes and start climbing back up the divisions after years of tumbling down.

A sea of orange flooded London as Blackpool strolled back into League One to send their fans heading back up north with some serious party fever.

29. Derby 1-0 West Brom (2007)

Stephen Pearson
It peaked here for Derby / Phil Cole/Getty Images

After the slog of reaching the Championship play-off final, Derby County did their best to grind out a 1-0 victory and reach the promised land.

The only thing that land promised, though, was the lowest points tally recorded in Premier League history in 2007/08 and a ticket back down to the second tier. Apologies, Derby fans, but if you don't laugh then you cry.

28. Fulham 2-1 Brentford (2020)

Scott Parker, Bobby Decordova-Reid, Joe Bryan
Geezers need excitement / Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

The COVID-19 pandemic robbed it of fans, but Fulham's ability to overcome the Championship's biggest 'streets won't forget' side in a while was pretty special.

See also: Scott Parker's garms, Scott Parker sounding like he should be in The Streets post-match. Good fun.

27. Reading 2-4 Swansea (2011)

Scott Sinclair
Scott Sinclair bagged a hat-trick in the final / Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

Having stormed into a 3-0 lead come the end of the first half, a two goal comeback from Reading after the break seriously tested the nerve of Swansea.

Enter a young Scott Sinclair, bagging a hat-trick to make it four for Swansea and ensuring they became the first Welsh side to play in the Premier League.

26. Brighton 1-3 Notts County (1991)

Neil Warnock
Yes, that is a young Neil Warnock in charge of Notts County / Getty Images/Getty Images

Reaching right into those scary depths of the pre-Barclays era, oldest professional club in the world Notts County reached the summit in 1991.

Tommy Johnson and Dave Regis fired the Magpies into the First Division (yes kids, the First Division) in front of 25,000 County fans.

25. Birmingham 1-1 Norwich (2002)

Birmingham City celebrate victory
Birmingham did it the hard way / Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

Goalless after 90 minutes doesn't scream great or even 'First Division/Championship' all that much, but the 2002 final burst into life after extra time.

Norwich drew ahead but couldn't make the lead stick, before losing the game 4-2 on penalties, missing twice from the spot. That's more like it.

24. Burnley 1-0 Sheffield United (2009)

Steven Caldwell
Burnley needed a moment of magic to make it to the top / Bryn Lennon/Getty Images

With a spot in the Premier League on the line, a goal after just 13 minutes was the difference at Wembley in 2009.

Sounds disappointing, until you realise it was a David Beckham-esque curler from Wade Elliott to send Burnley to the top flight after 33 years. His family still haven't heard the end of it.

23. Leyton Orient 2-2 Rotherham (2014)

Leyton Orient v Rotherham United - Sky Bet League One Playoff Final
Leyton Orient won on penalties / Mike Hewitt/Getty Images

Four goals and a penalty shootout, that's more like it.

Moses Odubajo put Rotherham ahead with a stupidly good volley, and they doubled their lead before Orient pulled proceedings back square in the second half. The game dragged through to penalties, with Adam Collins saving to send Rotherham up to the Championship.

22. Wigan 2-3 Gillingham (2000)

Andy Thomson
Andy Thomson sends fans wild / Gary M. Prior/Getty Images

After heartbreakingly missing out on promotion to the First Division a season prior with play-off defeat, Gillingham bounced back against Wigan.

They nearly lost again, though. Wigan drew ahead in the 99th minute, but an Andrew Thomson strike won it for Gillingham with two minutes left to play, sending fans into frenzy.

21. Burnley 2-1 Stockport (1994)

Gary Parkinson
Gary Parkinson celebrates a Burnley victory / Getty Images/Getty Images

A Second Division clash for the ages, Stockport were making their fourth appearance in the play-offs but again couldn't shake off a poor record.

County scored after just two minutes, but Burnley headed into half-time level and later managed to turn the game on its head after an hour through Gary Parkinson.

20. Wycombe 4-2 Preston (1994)

Gareth Ainsworth
Gareth Ainsworth of Preston / Ben Radford/Getty Images

Same year, league below. Wycombe and Preston played out to a six goal thriller in 1994 in an attempt to make it into the Second Division.

This one had everything. A sublime overhead kick from Preston's Ian Bryson was immediately cancelled out with an equaliser from kick-off. Preston regained the lead, but choked after the break as Wycombe came from behind again and stormed to victory.

19. Blackpool 4-2 Leyton Orient (2001)

Blackpool v Orient
Kit clash? What's that? / Phil Cole/Getty Images

A proper British final, being held at the Millennium Stadium gave this one an extra tasty feel, with Wembley under reconstruction.

Leyton Orient pulled ahead inside a minute after a howler from Blackpool goalkeeper Phil Barnes. And when the Seasiders equalised, they were behind again just moments later. They equalised on the stroke of half-time, before threading together a thrilling comeback to secure promotion to the Second Division.

18. Barnsley 2-2 Swansea (2006)

Rory Fallon, Anthony Kay
The Swans lost on penalties / Mike Hewitt/Getty Images

Swansea were one game away from the Championship in stunning style, with penalties standing between them and back-to-back promotions.

A thrilling 2-2 scoreline couldn't muster up a winner after 120 minutes, thus spot kicks it was. A certain Adebayo Akinfenwa stepped up for the Swans, blazing it over the bar to cause defeat. He's done alright since, though.

17. Blackpool 1-2 West Ham (2012)

Julien Faubert, Matt Phillips
Blackpool couldn't get it done / Richard Heathcote/Getty Images

Jubilation and glee for West Ham was at the expense of sorrow and uncertainty for Blackpool in a clash for Premier League football in 2012.

Blackpool's chance to get back to the Premier League after falling back into the second tier felt rather now or never. And despite the efforts of Tom Ince, a late winner from Ricardo Vaz Te sent the Hammers back to the top flight at the death.

16. Bolton 3-0 Preston (2001)

Gareth farrelly
Farrelly smashes one home / Stu Forster/Getty Images

With a place back in the top flight up for grabs, Bolton weren't messing about.

It took 17 minutes for Gareth Farrelly to put them in the driving seat, before another two goals put them into the Premier League for a few years of fun, which would involve some serious cult heroes.

15. Huddersfield 0-0 Reading (2017)

TOPSHOT-FBL-ENG-HUDDERSFIELD-READING
The Terriers did what nobody had them down for doing / GLYN KIRK/Getty Images

120 minutes of goalless football doesn't exactly scream Championship or play-off classic, but context and drama spice it up.

Huddersfield - who hadn't seen the English top flight since 1971/72 - pulled off the unthinkable when David Wagner's finely crafted side snuck beyond Reading. A 4-3 win on penalties defied the odds and sent them on their way for two seasons of Premier League football.

14. Bournemouth 5-2 Lincoln City (2003)

Ben Futcher of Lincoln City scores their first goal for Lincoln
Keeper's had a shocker / Stu Forster/Getty Images

Bit of everything in this Third Division barn burner.

Lincoln did their best to disrupt Bournemouth's desire to play rather progressive football with some top draw route one stuff, but finely threaded counter attacking and well worked possession saw the Cherries pick holes in an eight goal thriller.

13. Millwall 2-3 Scunthorpe (2009)

Neil Harris, Ian Morris
VAR would have none of this today / Bryn Lennon/Getty Images

With the Championship on the line, this 2009 final was a dramatic one.

Having lost out on the Johnstone's Paint Trophy weeks before, Scunthorpe took the lead but a Millwall turnaround involving a wonder strike sent them into half-time ahead. The Iron drew level with 20 minutes to play, and punished Millwall for not taking chances by scoring a dramatic winner with five minutes left to play.

12. Preston 4-0 Swindon (2015)

Jermaine Beckford
Jermaine Beckford; the EFL's favourite journeyman / Carl Court/Getty Images

Yeah sure, end to end thrillers are fun. But sometimes, you have to appreciate a complete trouncing.

Preston secured promotion to the Championship in fine fashion in 2015, with a veteran Jermaine Beckford balling out and bagging a hat-trick to end a torrid run of nine failed play-off campaigns.

11. Huddersfield 0-0 Sheffield United (2012)

Ryan Flynn, Matt Lowton
A Yorkshire final went right down to the death / Jamie McDonald/Getty Images

The Terriers simply don't enjoy goal fest finals. But they love a penalty shootout.

In a shootout to determine who would head up to the Championship, it went all the way down to goalkeeper Alex Smithies for Huddersfield. Smithies saved two and scored one himself for victory. The goalkeeper got the winner.

10. Hartlepool 2-4 Sheffield Wednesday (2005)

Drew Talbot
That's a picture for the living room... / Ian Walton/Getty Images

Hartlepool were in pole position for the Championship when Jon Daly fired them ahead after 71 minutes. They capitulated, though, when Chris Westwood was sent off and gave away a penalty ten minutes later.

2-2. It wasn't vintage, but Sheffield Wednesday were back in the game, and they made it count in extra time. Glenn Whelan pulled the Owls ahead, before a 120th minute fourth secured promotion.

9. Derby 0-1 QPR (2014)

Bobby Zamora
A Zamora snapshot sent QPR back to the top flight / Ben Hoskins/Getty Images

Having been sat in the Championship with tails between their legs after spending aimless money in the top flight but getting relegated, QPR had the chance to correct things.

For all the money spent in previous years, it was primed poacher Bobby Zamora to tap in a last-minute winner for ten man QPR, sending Wembley into complete frenzy. Absolutely monumental scenes.

8. Hull 1-0 Bristol City (2008)

Dean Windass
Have it! / Clive Rose/Getty Images

There are very few better ways to go up to the Premier League than to be volleyed up their out of thin air by a 39-year-old heavyweight.

Dean Windass, rocking a bleach blonde buzzcut and built like a 90s WWE champion, plucked the ball out of the air on the edge of the box. Unmarked, he rifled it first time into the top corner to send his hometown club into the top flight. Oosh. Beautifully English.

7. Charlton 2-1 Sunderland (2017)

Ben Purrington
Heartbreak for Sunderland, but jubilation for Netflix series enthusiasts / Harriet Lander/Copa/Getty Images

Heartbreak after heartbreak, Sunderland were a game away from escaping the grips of League One in 2017 and were agonisingly close. But didn't.

After Charlton scored a calamitous (and secretly hilarious) own goal after just five minutes, it looked like it could finally be Sunderland's day. Charlton equalised after 35 minutes and the game dragged on, until Patrick Bauer punished the Black Cats in essentially the last kick of the game.

6. Crystal Palace 1-0 Sheffield United (1997)

Bruce Dyer
Bayern Munich in the play-offs? Almost / Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

With a place in the still somewhat enigmatic yet significantly lucrative Premier League on the line, it was one moment of magic that separated the two sides in 1997.

Palace - decked out in a Bayern Munich-esque kit - snatched a corner in the 90th minute which was batted away from goal, but only as far as David Hopkin. Hopkin channels his inner David Beckham, wraps foot around the ball and whips it into the far corner for an unbelievable last minute winner.

5. Gillingham 2-2 Manchester City (1999)

Man City players
A result that ensured City are where they are today / Alex Livesey/Getty Images

Manchester City were already on the brink of disaster in 1999 having dropped as low as the third tier. Falling 2-0 down to underdogs Gillingham in a play-off final looked to be another nail in the coffin.

Two goals in the last ten minutes put Gillingham 2-0 up, but an unworldly and incredibly last gasp comeback saw David Horlock and Paul Dickov force the game to extra time and penalties. City won to head back to the First Division, and the rest is history.

4. Blackpool 3-2 Cardiff (2010)

Charlie Adam
Football needs more orange kits / Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

Everyone loves an underdog story. Even more so when a place in the Premier League and Blackpool are involved.

The seaside town side came back from behind twice in ultimate babyface fashion at Wembley, with Brett Ormerod smashing in the eventual winner before half time. Back at the top with ballsy football and orange Carbrini kits. Yes please.

3. Swindon 4-3 Leicester (1993)

Paul Bodin of Swindon Town and Leicester City goalkeeper Kevin Poole
Cool as you like / Mike Hewitt/Getty Images

Swindon probably still owe their fans compensation for the sheer heart in mouth moment they provided in this one.

The Robins stormed to a 3-0 lead against Leicester in the First Division play-off, with player-manager Glenn Hoddle on the scoresheet. Somehow, they blew the lead entirely as Leicester clawed it back, but secured Premier League status from the 12-yard spot with six minutes to go. Never in doubt, right lads?

2. Ipswich 4-2 Barnsley (2000)

Matt Holland
Ipswich emerged victorious / Mark Thompson/Getty Images

A thunder strike from Craig Hignett caused a freak own goal from Ipswich goalkeeper Richard Wright to put Barnsley 1-0 up inside six minutes.

Such poor fortune would deflate any side and trick them into thinking it's not their day. Ipswich got back to their feet, though, and fought hard through a masterclass of long ball football to steal a 3-1 lead after 58 minutes. Barnsley tested their nerve by making it 3-2, but Martijn Reuser scored Premier League football for Ipswich with a fourth in the last minute.

1. Charlton 4-4 Sunderland (1998)

The Charlton Athletic team
Charlton just squeezed beyond Sunderland / Getty Images/Getty Images

What made Sunderland's 2017 defeat that bit more sour was that it was the second time they'd been beaten by Charlton in the play-off final, with the first being the greatest play-off final ever.

A packed out old Wembley, a Clive Mendonca hat-trick and eight goals that weren't enough to decipher a winner. Even penalties went to sudden death in a contest between two teams so evenly matched, you couldn't fit a cigarette between them. A save from Sasa Ilic in the Charlton goal was the only difference in an endlessly enthralling fixture.

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