English Football League play-offs

The English Football League play-offs are an annual series of association football matches to determine the final promotion places within each division of the English Football League (EFL). In each division it involves the four teams that finish directly below the automatic promotion places. These teams meet in a series of play-off matches to determine the final team that will be promoted.

English Football League play-offs
Region England
Number of teams12 (4 per division)
Television broadcastersSky Sports
2021 English Football League play-offs

The play-offs were first introduced in 1987 and have been staged at the conclusion of every season since. Since 1990 the winners of each division's play-off competition have been determined in a one-off final. Blackpool are the most successful club in play-off history, winning six times (1992, 2001, 2007, 2010, 2017 and 2021).


The four teams finishing directly below the automatic promotion places in each of the three Football League divisions enter the play-offs in a chance to win promotion to the division above. In the Championship and League One these are the teams finishing in third, fourth, fifth and sixth place, while in League Two (with its greater number of teams automatically promoted), it is the teams finishing in fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh place that enter the play-offs.

The highest-finishing team of the four plays the team that finished lowest, with the first leg being held at the home of the team that finished lowest and the second leg being held at the home of the team that finished highest. This is designed to give the team that finished higher an advantage. This is the same for the teams that finished second highest and second lowest of the four teams, with the advantage being with the team that finished the higher.

The winner of a semi-finals is decided by the team's aggregate score after the two legs. If the aggregate score is level at the end of the 90 minutes of the second leg, then an additional 30 minutes of extra time is played to try to create a winning team. If the score at the end of extra time is still level then the tie is decided by penalty kicks.[1]

The two winners from the semi-finals meet at a neutral venue in the final. The final must be decided on the day, so extra time and penalties may be carried out if the scores are level.[1] The winner of the tie gains promotion to the league above.

Changes to format

During the first two stagings of the play-offs in 1987 and 1988, the four teams involved were the three clubs that finished directly below the automatic promotions positions, plus the club which finished directly above the automatic relegation places in the division above, similar to the Football League test matches of the 1890s.

This was part of the league's two-season-long restructuring that would reduce the number of teams in the top tier (from 22 to 20) while increasing them in the lower divisions (creating three divisions of 24 clubs); during these seasons, only one club (Charlton Athletic in 1987) that entered the play-offs in a relegation place managed to win the play-offs and therefore retain their divisional status.

In the seasons prior to the 1990 play-offs, the finals were two-legged ties with both teams hosting the other once. If the two teams could not be separated, a tie-breaker was then staged at a neutral venue. This was used on three occasions: the 1987 Second Division final was played at Birmingham City's St. Andrews; the 1987 Third Division final was played at Crystal Palace's Selhurst Park; and the 1988 Third Division final was played at Walsall's Fellows Park (though this was not a neutral venue, as Walsall was one of the clubs involved).

Since 1990 a one-off final match has been used to determine the play-off winners, which has traditionally been staged at the old Wembley Stadium. Between 2001 and 2006 the final was instead moved to Cardiff's Millennium Stadium while the new Wembley Stadium was being constructed. In 2011 the Football League was forced to use Old Trafford for the League One and League Two play-off finals because Wembley was unavailable, being used instead for the 2011 UEFA Champions League Final.

Before the 1999–2000 season away goals were used as a tie-breaker after extra time had been played, however, this was abolished following a club initiative launched by then-Ipswich Town chairman David Sheepshanks, after his club had twice lost on away goals in 1997 and 1999. Since then away goals have played no part in the play-off system.[2]

Proposed changes

A change to the format of the play-offs was proposed by Crystal Palace chief executive Phil Alexander in 2003. Alexander recommended expanding the number of teams in each play-off series from four to six, providing more clubs with a chance at promotion. Additionally, the two-legged semi-finals would have been replaced by one-off quarter-final and semi-final games, both of which would give home advantage to the team that finished higher during the league season. The two highest placed clubs in the play-off series would advance directly to the semi-final, while the other four clubs would contest the quarter-final.[3]

The proposed changes were narrowly approved by Football League chairmen and were set to be voted upon at the league's annual general meeting.[4] The motion was withdrawn however, due to objections received from the Premier League and The Football Association.[5]

Past winners

Year Division Two Division Three Division Four
1987Charlton AthleticSwindon TownAldershot
1988MiddlesbroughWalsallSwansea City
1989Crystal PalacePort ValeLeyton Orient
1990Swindon Town1Notts CountyCambridge United
1991Notts CountyTranmere RoversTorquay United
1992Blackburn RoversPeterborough UnitedBlackpool
Year Division One Division Two Division Three
1993Swindon TownWest Bromwich AlbionYork City
1994Leicester CityBurnleyWycombe Wanderers
1995Bolton WanderersHuddersfield TownChesterfield
1996Leicester CityBradford CityPlymouth Argyle
1997Crystal PalaceCrewe AlexandraNorthampton Town
1998Charlton AthleticGrimsby TownColchester United
1999WatfordManchester CityScunthorpe United
2000Ipswich TownGillinghamPeterborough United
2001Bolton WanderersWalsallBlackpool
2002Birmingham CityStoke CityCheltenham Town
2003Wolverhampton WanderersCardiff CityBournemouth
2004Crystal PalaceBrighton & Hove AlbionHuddersfield Town
Year Championship League One League Two
2005West Ham UnitedSheffield WednesdaySouthend United
2006WatfordBarnsleyCheltenham Town
2007Derby CountyBlackpoolBristol Rovers
2008Hull CityDoncaster RoversStockport County
2009BurnleyScunthorpe UnitedGillingham
2010BlackpoolMillwallDagenham & Redbridge
2011Swansea CityPeterborough UnitedStevenage
2012West Ham UnitedHuddersfield TownCrewe Alexandra
2013Crystal PalaceYeovil TownBradford City
2014Queens Park RangersRotherham UnitedFleetwood Town
2015Norwich CityPreston North EndSouthend United
2016Hull CityBarnsleyAFC Wimbledon
2017Huddersfield TownMillwallBlackpool
2018FulhamRotherham UnitedCoventry City
2019Aston VillaCharlton AthleticTranmere Rovers
2020FulhamWycombe WanderersNorthampton Town

1: Due to financial irregularities, Swindon were prevented from taking their place in the top division, which was awarded to the losing finalists, Sunderland.


See also


  1. "Sky Bet EFL Play-Off Rules". EFL. 11 August 2014. Retrieved 1 June 2017.
  2. Shaw, Dominic (14 May 2018). "Play-off dates, away goal rule & new technology". Gazette Live. Retrieved 9 May 2019.
  3. "Play-offs set for shake-up". BBC Sport. 7 March 2003. Retrieved 8 May 2011.
  4. Warshaw, Andrew (5 June 2003). "Radical plan for expansion of play-offs to be rejected". The Independent. Retrieved 8 May 2011.
  5. "Play-off plans shelved". BBC Sport. 5 June 2003. Retrieved 8 May 2011.
  6. Foster 2015, pp. 194–225.