When a tenacious team outside the top flight plays stylish football all season and finishes the campaign head and shoulders above the rest, it’s difficult to claim their promotion was undeserved.
Football isn’t always fair, though…
8. Leicester, 1994
Leicester fans must have felt a sickly sense of déjà vu during their 1994 First Division play-off final against Derby when Tommy Johnson fired the Rams in front. The Foxes had fallen at this same hurdle two seasons running, losing to Blackburn in ’92 and Swindon the following year. In fact, Wembley was a hideous ground for them in general, having lost there on each of their six previous visits.
Leicester probably should have lost this one too.
Brian Little’s side eventually turned the game around and ended their Wembley hoodoo, however, thanks to a double from Steve Walsh – but not without courting controversy along the way. The Leicester equaliser four minutes from the interval should have been ruled out for a Iwan Roberts foul on Derby goalkeeper Martin Taylor, and Simon Grayson – who was involved in the winning goal – was lucky to avoid a straight red card on the hour mark.
Cruel twists of fate aside, this was a park-the-bus job from Leicester, who lined up with a five-man defence and nicked a smash-and-grab winner against the run of play. “That isn’t really how we want to play,” said manager Little, “but it’s been working.”
7. Swindon, 1993
Perhaps Leicester deserved a spot of luck in 1994 after what happened to them in their play-off final against Swindon one year previously. This seven-goal Wembley showdown between Foxes and Robins is often cited as the greatest promotion contest of all time – and it’s easy to see why.
After a quiet first half, Swindon headed into the break with a slender 1-0 lead thanks to a goal from player-manager Glenn Hoddle. But the Robins started the second period with a bang. Less than 10 minutes after the restart, the Wiltshire side were 3-0 to the good and coasting towards the top flight – only for Leicester to stage one of the comebacks of the season.
Well, almost. Julian Joachim’s 57th-minute effort put wind in the Foxes’ sails, and quickfire strikes from Steves Walsh and Thompson drew them level with 20 minutes left to play. A thrilling tie hung in the balance, but sadly it was a contentious penalty that decided it six minutes from time.
After their almighty fightback, Leicester’s top-flight ambitions were derailed when goalkeeper Kevin Poole was harshly adjudged to have fouled Steve White in the area. Paul Bodin stepped up and buried the spot-kick that fired the Robins to a new nesting ground: the Premier League.
6:28 for that dodgy dive
6. Rochdale AND Bradford, 1969
Successful promotion campaigns usually involve attractive football, lengthy winning sprees and consistently outclassing the opposition, but that wasn’t the case where Rochdale and Bradford were concerned during the 1968/69 season.
Both sides were playing their football in the old Division Four back then and, incredibly, won automatic promotion with more draws on the board than wins. They ended the campaign with an identical record of 18 wins, 20 stalemates and eight defeats.
These were the days of two points for a win, when defensive solidity was better rewarded – as was the case with Rochdale in particular, who shipped a league-low 35 goals and came out with a league-high goal average of 1.943.
Almost 50 years later, in 2013, Scunthorpe became the first team to win promotion with more draws than wins during the three-point era when they finished second in League Two (W20, D21, L5).
5. Ruthin Town, 2016
It must really sting when a table-topping season ends not in promotion but a red-tape barrier blocking your path to the division above. That’s what happened to Welsh outfit FC Nomads during the 2015/16 campaign, when they won the Welsh National League Premier only to be told that their ground was unsuitable for the nation’s second tier.
This meant that Ruthin Town, who finished as runners-up behind the Flintshire outfit by three points (and 25 fewer goals scored), were promoted to the Huws Gray Alliance in their place. Gutting.