Charlton Athletic made history in May of 1987 when they became the first club in English football to win the newly-conceived Division One playoffs as they beat Leeds United in dramatic fashion to secure their top-flight lives.
Compared to today’s standards the post-season playoffs were rather more chaotic in nature as - rather than the teams finishing third, fourth, fifth and sixth playing for the right to gain promotion - a convoluted and slightly confusing system provided the ultimate in end-of-season drama.
That’s because, back then, the format not only involved the teams that ended just below the automatic promotion places, but also the ones who finished towards the bottom too; as the winners of the semi-finals progressed through to a crunch game as the victor either gained promotion or avoided relegation.
This meant that teams which would previously have had nothing to play for would now have an opportunity to gain a playoff place and earn promotion via this rather controversial back-door route or escape relegation in the most agonising way imaginable.
Initially created to trim down the First Division from 22 teams to 20 as talk of a breakaway “Super League” threatened the existence of the game as we knew it, the format was replicated throughout all four divisions.
But only when the playoffs began in earnest at the end of the 1986/87 season did the realisation sink in that, as entertaining as they may be, a team could finish sixth in the table and be promoted at the expense of a club that had finished some way ahead of them.
Either way, the playoffs resulted in a feast of football with twenty matches played over 15 days; producing 45 goals; over £1 million in gate receipts with more than 300,000 people turning out to enjoy the action across the country.
So with Leicester, Manchester City and Aston Villa all falling through the First Division trap door by the more traditional means, by finishing fourth from bottom Lennie Lawrence’s Charlton Athletic earned the dubious honour of being entered into the inaugural playoff tournament where they would fight to preserve their top-flight status against those who were just as eager to take their place.
Having won promotion to the old First Division in 1986 a 2-1 home win over QPR on the final day of the season saw Charlton secure 19th position at the expense of Leicester – taking 10 points from the last 15 available – meaning they were now thrust into an end-of-season play-off lottery which would decide their fate.
After securing a 0-0 draw away against Ipswich at Portman Road on May 14, Charlton ensured their place in the final of the new-fangled playoffs with a 2-1 victory at Selhurst Park, three days later thanks to a brace from Jim Melrose – who subsequently had to cancel his summer holiday to Spain as a result of the extra fixture.
Meanwhile, in the other semi-final, Billy Bremner’s Leeds squeezed past Oldham – the side they had finished some way behind in the regular season - on away goals with the two sides locked together 2-2 on aggregate after two enthralling legs which set up the ultimate battle of boom and bust as one side battled it out to save their First Division lives while another looked to stake their claim back in the big time.
“We finished seven points clear of Leeds, so to go out on away goals to them means there is something unjust,” Oldham boss Joe Royle later complained, an argument which still rumbles on after over three decades of playoffs in English football.
Melrose was Charlton’s match winner again in the first-leg of the final, his 88th-minute strike at Selhurst Park giving the Addicks a slender advantage going into the second game at Elland Road with everything still to play for.
And the biggest crowd of the season at Elland Road, more than31,000, turned out just two days later as what was promised to be an epic encounter threatened to boil over with the enormity of what was at stake quickly becoming clear to both players and spectators alike.
Despite weathering the expected early onslaught and giving as good as they got, Charlton were unable to prevent Brendan Ormsby pulling the home side level not long after half time to ensure this enthralling fixture would provide a third and equally exciting instalment as the two sides faced each other once more four days later in a replay at the home of Birmingham City.
With the game to be held on a Friday night the police, perhaps not surprisingly, limited the attendance to just 18,000 with Leeds fans thought to have made up over three quarters of that number on the evening as they vastly outnumbered their rivals who had travelled from South London.
As if the stakes weren’t high enough, if the game wasn’t settled after 120 minutes at St Andrew’s then a penalty shootout would decide the future of both of these famous old clubs for better or for worse - an experience that Charton would eventually endure over a decade later at Wembley.
So when the game drifted into extra time it looked for all the world that it would be spot kicks which finally separated the two sides, only for a fantastic free-kick from the £1million-rated John Sheridan to give Leeds the lead in the 99th minute and seemingly condemn Charlton to the most agonising and costly of defeats.
But with their season on the line The Addicks started the second-period like men possessed and brought the tie level once again through Peter Shirtliff who calmly slotted home with just seven minutes to go and with just three minutes of the game remaining it was that man Shirtliff once more who found the net following a clever free kick to send the smattering of Charlton fans who were in the ground wild with delight.
“We were by far the better side so we just carried on playing and showed good patience,” Charlton’s two goal hero later recalled. “Over the season’s 42 games, there was no way we deserved to be relegated.”
Charlton had lived to fight another day with the big boys having stared down the barrel at relegation with just seven minutes of the season remaining; but they were the fortunate ones as, since the playoffs began in 1987, many clubs have found to their cost that you don’t always get what you deserve.