The English Football League Championship play-offs are a series of play-off matches contested by the teams finishing from 3rd to 6th in the EFL Championship table. The semi-finals are played over two legs, with 3rd playing 6th and 4th playing 5th, with the return fixtures following. The final is played at Wembley Stadium, although from 2001 to 2006, it was played at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff while Wembley was being rebuilt. The first play-offs at this level were contested in 1987, when it was the Football League Second Division. From 1993 to 2004, following the creation of the FA Premier League as a breakaway from the Football League, it became the Division One play-offs, and since 2005 has taken its current name as the Championship play-offs following a rebranding of the remaining three divisions of the Football League.
There is no single sporting event in the world more valuable to the winners, who end up approximately £170m better off than the losers, mainly due to the increased commercial television revenue from being promoted to the Premier League. However, by convention the two finalists agree that the loser will keep all the gate receipts from the game, so as to slightly soften the financial blow of missing out.
At the end of each season, the top two teams in the Football League Championship gain automatic promotion to the Premier League. The next four teams (those that finished third, fourth, fifth and sixth in the Championship) enter a play-off competition.
Semi-final matches are played over two legs. In the first leg, the two teams who finished in third and fourth place play away from home; the third-placed team plays against the sixth and the fourth-placed team against the fifth. The second leg is a return match of the same pairs - this time the two teams who finished in third and fourth place playing at home. The winner of each semi-final (based on the aggregate score of the first and second legs) goes forward into the play-off final.
In the second leg, if the aggregate scores are level at the end of ninety minutes (away goals do not count as a tiebreaker in the play-off semi final matches), extra time is played. If the scores remain level at the end of extra time the tie is determined by the taking of kicks from the penalty mark.
The play-off final is normally played at Wembley Stadium. In the final, if the score is level at the end of 90 minutes, extra time is played, followed - if necessary - by kicks from the penalty mark. The winning team is then promoted to the Premier League.
|1987-1992||Football League Second Division play-offs|
|1993-2004||Football League First Division play-offs|
|2005-2015||Football League Championship play-offs|
|2016-present||EFL Championship play-offs|
In addition to the branding changes which affected English football in 1992 and 2004, the Championship play-offs have also changed in format.
When they were introduced for the 1986-87 season, the play-offs originally featured a top-flight team as well as the three second-tier clubs. This format was continued for the 1987-88, but discontinued afterwards to include only the four teams who finished behind the team or teams winning automatic promotion. As before, the semi-final and final were both two-legged and held at the home grounds of the two teams involved, apart from 1987, when Charlton Athletic and Leeds United could not be separated over two legs with the tie settled at a third match at St. Andrews, Birmingham. Charlton won the game to retain their First Division status, while Leeds remained in the Second Division. A year later, however, Middlesbrough won the play-offs to win promotion to the First Division with their opponents Chelsea being relegated.
Since 1989-90, the final has been a single game (contested between the winners of the semi-finals, which remain two-legged) has been held either at Wembley or the Millennium Stadium. The first winners of the one-match play-off final were Swindon Town, who beat Sunderland 1-0 in 1990 but were later denied promotion due to financial irregularities, with Sunderland being promoted instead.
Birmingham City have reached the Championship play-offs four times consecutively from 1999-2002, losing the first three attempts before, in 2002, reaching the play-off Final at the Millennium Stadium, finally winning promotion to the Premier League after extra time and then penalties. They suffered an additional play-off failure in 2012. Their local rivals Wolverhampton Wanderers were beaten three times in the play-offs between 1995 and 2002 before finally winning at the fourth attempt in 2003. They suffered a further play-off failure in 2007.
Ipswich Town were actually the first team to qualify for the play-offs four times consecutively, finally winning promotion in 2000 after being defeated in the semi-finals during the three preceding seasons. They had also been losing semi-finalists in the inaugural Second Division play-offs in 1987, and were also on the losing side in the Championship semi-finals of 2004, 2005 and 2015.
Leicester City (Division One play-off winners in 1994 and 1996) were the first team to win the play-offs twice at this level, their 1994 triumph being the first time in seven attempts that they had won a match at Wembley Stadium, having lost the previous two play-off finals there, as well as four FA Cups between 1949 and 1969. Crystal Palace's Championship play-off triumph in 2013 made them the first team to reach the top flight of English football as play-off winners on four occasions.
West Ham United, Watford, Bolton Wanderers, Hull City and Swindon Town have also won the second-tier play-offs on two occasions, although Swindon have only won promotion once, as promotion was withdrawn following the first play-off victory due to financial irregularities.
As well as enabling lower placed teams to gain promotion which would not have been achieved under the format of only having automatic promotion places, many third placed teams who missed out on going up automatically have missed out on promotion after being beaten in the play-offs. In 1995, a reorganisation of the league meant that only the champions went up automatically, and the second-placed team had to navigate the play-offs for a chance of a Premier League place. The affected team, Reading, missed out on promotion in dramatic fashion - they were leading Bolton Wanderers 2-0 in the play-off final after more than 70 minutes, but two Bolton goals forced extra time and they ended up losing the game 4-3, and having to wait 11 more years before winning promotion to the Premier League. Portsmouth, who only missed out on automatic promotion on goal difference in 1993, were beaten in the play-offs and had to wait 10 years before winning promotion. Millwall finished third a year later and lost in the play-offs, and more than 20 years on they have still yet to reach the Premier League.
|Year||Winners (number of wins)||Runners-up||Semi-finalists|
|1987||Charlton Athletic (1)||Leeds United||Oldham Athletic, Ipswich Town|
|1988||Middlesbrough (1)||Chelsea||Bradford City, Blackburn Rovers|
|1989||Crystal Palace (1)||Blackburn Rovers||Watford, Swindon Town|
|1990||Swindon Town (1)1||Sunderland1||Newcastle United, Blackburn Rovers|
|1991||Notts County (1)||Brighton & Hove Albion||Millwall, Middlesbrough|
|1992||Blackburn Rovers (1)||Leicester City||Derby County, Cambridge United|
|1993||Swindon Town (2)||Leicester City||Portsmouth, Tranmere Rovers|
|1994||Leicester City (1)||Derby County||Millwall, Tranmere Rovers|
|1995||Bolton Wanderers (1)||Reading||Wolverhampton Wanderers, Tranmere Rovers|
|1996||Leicester City (2)||Crystal Palace||Stoke City, Charlton Athletic|
|1997||Crystal Palace (2)||Sheffield United||Wolverhampton Wanderers, Ipswich Town|
|1998||Charlton Athletic (2)||Sunderland||Ipswich Town, Sheffield United|
|1999||Watford (1)||Bolton Wanderers||Ipswich Town, Birmingham City|
|2000||Ipswich Town (1)||Barnsley||Birmingham City, Bolton Wanderers|
|2001||Bolton Wanderers (2)||Preston North End||Birmingham City, West Bromwich Albion|
|2002||Birmingham City (1)||Norwich City||Wolverhampton Wanderers, Millwall|
|2003||Wolverhampton Wanderers (1)||Sheffield United||Reading, Nottingham Forest|
|2004||Crystal Palace (3)||West Ham United||Sunderland, Ipswich Town|
|2005||West Ham United (1)||Preston North End||Ipswich Town, Derby County|
|2006||Watford (2)||Leeds United||Preston North End, Crystal Palace|
|2007||Derby County (1)||West Bromwich Albion||Wolverhampton Wanderers, Southampton|
|2008||Hull City (1)||Bristol City||Crystal Palace, Watford|
|2009||Burnley (1)||Sheffield United||Reading, Preston North End|
|2010||Blackpool (1)||Cardiff City||Nottingham Forest, Leicester City|
|2011||Swansea City (1)||Reading||Cardiff City, Nottingham Forest|
|2012||West Ham United (2)||Blackpool||Birmingham City, Cardiff City|
|2013||Crystal Palace (4)||Watford||Brighton & Hove Albion, Leicester City|
|2014||Queens Park Rangers (1)||Derby County||Wigan Athletic, Brighton & Hove Albion|
|2015||Norwich City (1)||Middlesbrough||Brentford, Ipswich Town|
|2016||Hull City (2)||Sheffield Wednesday||Brighton & Hove Albion, Derby County|
|2017||Huddersfield Town (1)||Reading||Sheffield Wednesday, Fulham|
|2018||Fulham (1)||Aston Villa||Derby County, Middlesbrough|
|2019||Aston Villa (1)||Derby County||West Bromwich Albion, Leeds United|
|2020||Fulham (2)||Brentford||Cardiff City, Swansea City|
1: Due to financial irregularities, Swindon Town were prevented from taking their place in the top division, which was instead awarded to the losing finalists, Sunderland.
Ipswich Town have been in the Championship play-offs a joint record eight times: 1987, 1997-2000 inclusive, 2004, 2005 and 2015, making the final only once in 2000 (when they won promotion). Derby County have also made the playoffs 8 times, with their only success coming in 2007. Leicester City have reached the Championship play-off final four times (in the space of five seasons), losing two in 1992 and 1993 and winning two in 1994 and 1996. Crystal Palace have appeared in the final five times, losing in 1996 and winning in 1989, 1997, 2004 and 2013, the most wins by any club.
The team finishing third in the league has succeeded in winning promotion via the playoffs twelve times out of thirty-three seasons, up to and including 2019, with the 4th-placed team managing six promotions, the 5th-placed team managing ten and the 6th-placed team managing five.
The play-off winners have managed to finish above the Championship winners and runners-up in the subsequent Premier League season on seven occasions: Blackburn Rovers in 1992-93, Leicester City in 1996-97, Ipswich Town in 2000-01, West Ham United in 2005-06 and 2012-13, Swansea City in 2011-12, and Crystal Palace in 2013-14.