EFL League One play-offs

The EFL League One play-offs are a series of play-off matches contested by the association football teams finishing from third to sixth in the EFL League One table and are part of the English Football League play-offs. As of 2021, the play-offs comprise two semi-finals, where the team finishing third plays the team finishing sixth, and the team finishing fourth plays the team finishing fifth, each conducted as a two-legged tie. The winners of the semi-finals progress to the final which is contested at Wembley Stadium.

For the first three years, the play-off final took place over two legs, played at both side's grounds. Swindon Town won the first League One play-off final in 1987, requiring a replay to defeat Gillingham. From 1990, the play-off final was a one-off match, hosted at the original Wembley Stadium, while from 2001 to 2006, the final was played at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff as Wembley was being rebuilt. Since 2007, the match has been hosted at Wembley Stadium except for the 2011 final which took place at Old Trafford to avoid a clash with the 2011 UEFA Champions League Final.

When the third tier play-offs were first contested in 1987, they were known as the Football League Third Division play-offs. From 1993 to 2004, following the creation of the FA Premier League as a breakaway from the Football League, the competition became known as the Second Division play-offs, and since 2005 has taken its current name as the League One play-offs following a rebranding of the remaining three divisions of the Football League.


An example of the play-off format, from the 2000 Second Division play-offs

As of 2021, the League One play-offs involve the four teams that finish directly below the automatic promotion places in EFL League One, the third tier of the English football league system. These teams meet in a series of play-off matches to determine the final team that will be promoted to the EFL Championship. The team finishing in third place plays the sixth-placed team in a two-legged tie, while the team in fourth plays the fifth-placed team over two legs, referred to as the "play-off semi-finals". The first match of the semi-finals is played at the side with the lower league position's home ground while the second match takes place at the higher-ranking side's ground. According to the EFL, "this is designed to give the highest finishing team an advantage".[1]

The winner of each semi-final is determined by the aggregate score across the two legs, with the number of goals scored in each match of the tie being added together. The team with the higher aggregate score qualifies for the final. If, at the end of regular 90 minutes of the second leg, the aggregate score is level then the match goes into extra time where two 15-minute halves are played. If the score remains level at the end of extra time, the tie is decided by a penalty shootout. The away goals rule does not apply in the play-off semi-finals.[1]

The clubs that win the semi-finals then meet at Wembley Stadium, a neutral venue, for a one-off match referred to as the "play-off final". If required, extra time and a penalty shootout can be employed in the same manner as for the semi-finals to determine the winner. The runner-up and losing semi-finalists remain in League One while the winning side are promoted.[1] The match, along with the finals of the Championship and League Two play-offs, usually takes place over the long weekend of the second bank holiday in May.[2]


The mid-1980s saw a decline in attendances at football matches and public disenchantment with English football. A number of instances of violence and tragedy struck the game. In March 1985 at the semi-final of the 1984–85 Football League Cup between Chelsea and Sunderland where more than 100 people were arrested after various invasions of the Stamford Bridge pitch and more than 40 people, including 20 policemen, were injured.[3] Nine days later, violence flared at the FA Cup match between Millwall and Luton Town: seats were used as missiles against the police and resulted in Luton Town banning away supporters.[4] On 11 May, 56 people were killed and 265 injured in the Bradford City stadium fire and less than three weeks later, 39 supporters died and more than 600 were injured in the Heysel Stadium disaster where Liverpool were playing Juventus in the European Cup final.[5]

Initially the Play-Offs would operate for two years, but if they proved popular with spectators they could become a permanent part of the calendar.

Heathrow Agreement[6]

In an attempt to persuade fans to return to the stadia, the Football League had rejected a £19 million television deal to broadcast matches live on the BBC and ITV before the 1985–86 Football League season with League president Jack Dunnett suggesting that "football is prepared to have a year or two with no television".[7] In December 1985, the "Heathrow Agreement" was agreed which aimed to revitalise the financial affairs of the league. It was a ten-point plan which included a structural reorganisation of the league, reducing the top tier from 22 clubs to 20, and the introduction of play-offs to facilitate the change.[8] The play-offs were introduced to the end of the 1986–87 Football League season.[9] They were initially introduced for two years but with the proviso that if they were successful with the general public, they would be retained permanently.[6]


In the first two seasons, the team one place above the relegation zone in the Second Division, along with the three clubs below the automatic promotion positions in the Third Division, took part in the play-offs.[9] In the inaugural play-offs, Second Division Sunderland were eliminated in the semi-finals by Third Division side Gillingham and suffered relegation to the third tier of English football for the first time in their history.[10] In the final, Gillingham faced Second Division Swindon Town but they could not be separated over the two home-and-away legs, so the tie was settled in a replay. Played at a neutral ground, Crystal Palace's stadium Selhurst Park in Croydon, Swindon Town won the game 20 to gain promotion to the First Division, while Gillingham remained in the Second Division.[9][11] A replay was also required the following season when Walsall and Bristol City ended their two-legged final 33 on aggregate.[12] A penalty shootout was used to determine which side would host the replay, which Walsall won.[13] Played at Fellows Park two days after the second leg took place there, the match ended 40 to Walsall who were promoted.[12]

EFL League One play-off nomenclature
Years Name
1987–1992 Football League Third Division play-offs
1993–2004 Football League Second Division play-offs
2005–2015 Football League One play-offs
2016–present EFL League One play-offs

The primary objective of the play-offs was achieved within the first two seasons, namely the reorganisation of the four leagues with 20 clubs in the first tier and 24 in the second to fourth tiers.[14] However, the popularity of the play-offs was such that the post-season games were retained and the play-offs were the first to feature four teams from the Third Division:[14] Port Vale defeated Bristol Rovers over two legs in the 1989 Football League Third Division play-off Final.[15] From 1990, the format of the final changed to a single match played at a neutral venue, initially the original Wembley Stadium. The first winners of the inaugural one-off final were Notts County who beat Tranmere Rovers 20 in front of 29,252 spectators.[16]

Wembley underwent renovations early in the 21st century and the 2000 final was the last to be hosted at the original stadium. Subsequently the finals were hosted at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff, where Walsall needed extra time to beat Reading 32 in the final watched by a crowd of 50,496.[17] The Millennium Stadium held the finals until 2007 when the match was moved to the renovated Wembley Stadium, the first such final seeing Blackpool defeat Yeovil Town 20.[18]

The game was relocated to Manchester United's ground, Old Trafford, for a single season as a result of a scheduling clash with the 2011 UEFA Champions League Final.[19] The most recent final, in 2020, was held behind closed doors as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic in the United Kingdom: Fulham defeated Brentford 21 after extra time in front of an official attendance of 0.[20]

Since the first play-off final, the third tier of English football's league itself has undergone a number of re-brands. In 1993, the Premier League was formed,[21] a move which caused the third-tier league to be renamed as the Second Division.[22] In 2004, the Second Division was re-branded as Football League One,[23] before the League's adoption of English Football League (EFL) led to a 2016 renaming as the EFL League One.[24]


The financial value of winning the EFL League One play-off is derived from the additional remuneration clubs receive in the Championship. As of 2018 clubs in the third tier receive around £1.4 million, comprising a "basic award" and a "solidarity" payment, the latter of which is funded by the Premier League.[25] In the second tier, the total funding rises to a total of around £7 million, a fivefold increase in revenue.[26][27] The winners of the final receive a trophy.[28][29]

Winners and semi-finalists

Key to list of winners and semi-finalists
Year Link to play-off article for specified year
Venue Location(s) of the final match(es)
Winner (X) Team that won play-off final, (X) indicates cumulative number of play-off final victories
Final Link to play-off final article for the specified match
^ Final played over two legs
R Final decided by a replay
Final decided in extra time
Final decided by a penalty shootout
Runner-up Team that lost play-off final
Semi-finalists Two teams that lost in play-off semi-finals
Sheffield Wednesday celebrating victory in the 2005 Football League One play-off Final at the Millennium Stadium
The 2008 Football League One play-off Final at Wembley Stadium was won by Doncaster Rovers.
Scunthorpe United and Millwall players line up before the 2009 Football League One play-off Final at Wembley Stadium.
Huddersfield Town and Sheffield United flags flying before the 2012 Football League One play-off Final
Yeovil Town supporters at Wembley before the 2013 Football League One play-off Final
Winners of the EFL League One play-offs along with runners-up and semi-finalists
Year Venue Winner Final Runner-up Semi-finalists Ref.
1987 Priestfield Stadium/County Ground ^ Swindon Town (1) 2–2 Gillingham Sunderland
Wigan Athletic
1987 (R) Selhurst Park 2–0
1988 Ashton Gate/Fellows Park ^ Walsall (1) 3–3 Bristol City Notts County
Sheffield United
1988 (R) Fellows Park 4–0
1989 Twerton Park/Vale Park ^ Port Vale (1) 2–1 Bristol Rovers Fulham
Preston North End
1990 Wembley Stadium (original) Notts County (1) 2–0 Tranmere Rovers Bolton Wanderers
1991 Tranmere Rovers (1) 1–0 Bolton Wanderers Brentford
1992 Peterborough United (1) 2–1 Stockport County Huddersfield Town
Stoke City
1993 West Bromwich Albion (1) 3–0 Port Vale Stockport County
Swansea City
1994 Burnley (1) 2–1 Stockport County Plymouth Argyle
York City
1995 Huddersfield Town (1) 2–1 Bristol Rovers Brentford
Crewe Alexandra
1996 Bradford City (1) 2–0 Notts County Blackpool
Crewe Alexandra
1997 Crewe Alexandra (1) 1–0 Brentford Bristol City
Luton Town
1998 Grimsby Town (1) 1–0 Northampton Town Bristol Rovers
1999 Manchester City (1) 2–2 [lower-alpha 1] Gillingham Preston North End
Wigan Athletic
2000 Gillingham (1) 3–2 Wigan Athletic Millwall
Stoke City
2001 Millennium Stadium Walsall (2) 3–2 Reading Stoke City
Wigan Athletic
2002 Stoke City (1) 2–0 Brentford Cardiff City
Huddersfield Town
2003 Cardiff City (1) 1–0 Queens Park Rangers Bristol City
Oldham Athletic
2004 Brighton & Hove Albion (1) 1–0 Bristol City Hartlepool United
Swindon Town
2005 Sheffield Wednesday (1) 4–2 Hartlepool United Brentford
Tranmere Rovers
2006 Barnsley (1) 2–2 [lower-alpha 2] Swansea City Brentford
Huddersfield Town
2007 Wembley Stadium Blackpool (1) 2–0 Yeovil Town Nottingham Forest
Oldham Athletic
2008 Doncaster Rovers (1) 1–0 Leeds United Carlisle United
Southend United
2009 Scunthorpe United (1) 3–2 Millwall Leeds United
Milton Keynes Dons
2010 Millwall (1) 1–0 Swindon Town Charlton Athletic
Huddersfield Town
2011 Old Trafford Peterborough United (2) 3–0 Huddersfield Town Bournemouth
Milton Keynes Dons
2012 Wembley Stadium Huddersfield Town (2) 0–0 [lower-alpha 3] Sheffield United Milton Keynes Dons
2013 Yeovil Town (1) 2–1 Brentford Sheffield United
Swindon Town
2014 Rotherham United (1) 2–2 [lower-alpha 4] Leyton Orient Peterborough United
Preston North End
2015 Preston North End (1) 4–0 Swindon Town Chesterfield
Sheffield United
2016 Barnsley (2) 3–1 Millwall Bradford City
2017 Millwall (2) 1–0 Bradford City Fleetwood Town
Scunthorpe United
2018 Rotherham United (2) 2–1 Shrewsbury Town Charlton Athletic
Scunthorpe United
2019 Charlton Athletic (1) 2–1 Sunderland Doncaster Rovers
2020 Wycombe Wanderers (1) 2–1 Oxford United Fleetwood Town
2021 Blackpool (2) 2–1 Lincoln City Oxford United


Six clubs have secured promotion from the third tier of English football through the play-off final twice, Walsall becoming the first to do so in 2001 and most recently Rotherham United who beat Shrewsbury Town in the 2018 final. Brentford have failed to be promoted via the play-offs on seven occasions. Along with Bristol City, they have lost in the final three times.[59]


  1. Manchester City won the 1999 Football League Second Division play-off Final with a 3–1 penalty shootout victory over Gillingham.[38]
  2. Barnsley won the 2006 Football League One play-off Final with a 4–3 penalty shootout victory over Swansea City.[44]
  3. Huddersfield won the 2012 Football League One play-off Final with a 8–7 penalty shootout victory over Sheffield United.[49]
  4. Rotherham United won the 2014 Football League One play-off Final with a 4–3 penalty shootout victory over Leyton Orient.[51]


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  3. Foster 2015, p. 12.
  4. Foster 2015, p. 13.
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  6. Foster 2015, p. 27.
  7. Foster 2015, p. 19.
  8. Foster 2015, p. 18.
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  12. Foster 2015, p. 196.
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  15. Foster 2015, p. 198.
  16. Foster 2015, p. 200.
  17. Foster 2015, p. 211.
  18. Foster 2015, p. 217.
  19. "Old Trafford to host League One and Two play-off finals". BBC News. 21 January 2011. Archived from the original on 25 January 2011. Retrieved 6 May 2020.
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  21. Foster, p. 23
  22. "Division One renamed The Championship". The Guardian. 10 June 2004. Archived from the original on 11 August 2017. Retrieved 20 January 2021.
  23. Rej, Arindam (1 August 2004). "Pop goes the Championship". The Guardian. Archived from the original on 25 March 2021. Retrieved 21 March 2021.
  24. Rumsby, Ben (12 November 2015). "Rebranded Football League changing its name to English Football League as EFL unveils new logo". The Daily Telegraph. Archived from the original on 29 September 2017. Retrieved 21 March 2021.
  25. "Premier League reveals funding for EFL clubs in 2019/20". Premier League. 18 December 2020. Retrieved 7 May 2021.
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  28. Miller, Nick (29 May 2016). "Barnsley promoted to Championship with play-off final win over Millwall". The Guardian. Retrieved 7 May 2021.
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  50. Foster 2015, p. 223.
  51. Foster 2015, p. 224.
  52. Foster 2015, p. 225.
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