As the 2016/17 season enters its final throes, clubs across the three EFL divisions will be desperately attempting to extend it by finishing in the promotion play-off places.
For the winners of the Championship play-off final, a place in the top flight awaits, along with the riches of the Premier League and the many commercial rewards that come with it.
The Wembley spectacle is often laden with nerves, incident and drama, yet the game repeatedly carries the tasteless label as ‘the richest game in football’.
Modern-day football coverage and its heavily scripted PR machine will have us believe that the Premier League is every second tier club’s holy grail, not for the glory of sporting success, but rather the financial gain to be pocketed.
This has not always been the case. In 1995, Bruce Rioch guided Bolton Wanderers to the top tier via the play-offs, with a dramatic 4-3 extra-time victory over Reading.
Although there was money to be made from moving up a division, Rioch insists that achieving promotion was the only motivation for him and his club.
“It wasn’t financial. We didn’t look at the aspect of finance,” said Rioch.
“When I first went there, I didn’t have any money to spend so getting loan deals in and wheeling and dealing was how we did it until we had the cup runs.
“The cup runs generated some money from the games with Liverpool, Arsenal and so on, but we had to be very careful how we spent it and the type of players we bought.
“But we didn’t think of the play-off final as a cash fund as they do today, it was promotion and getting to the Premier League. Money wasn’t the motivator for us.
“The players obviously weren’t earning anywhere near the money today’s players earn, and the club wasn’t going to get the income that they do today.
“So it really was different. Everything was grounded and it wasn’t built around money, a totally different outlook.”
Whilst attitudes towards the one-off game may have changed since 1995, trends within it have not.
Late goals settled the outcome in 2014, 2013 and 2012, proving that the drama on the pitch is still very much a part of the play-offs.
Bolton’s victory in 1995 had been exhausting. Reading had finished second in the league that season, but had missed out on automatic promotion due to the Premier League’s downsizing to 20 teams from 22.
The Royals had raced into a first half lead through goals from Lee Nogan and Ady Williams. Stuart Lovell missed the chance to put Reading 3-0 up when his spot-kick was saved by Keith Branagan.
On the bench, Rioch stayed calm, plotting a way back into the game.
Recalling the day, the former Aston Villa midfielder said: “As the half-time whistle went, I walked across the pitch and I met the referee almost in the centre circle. I said to him ‘referee I’m going to make a change’.
“I used a bit of advice I’d had from my chief scout, Ian McNeil, who was previously a manager. He said to me: ‘You can never have too many strikers, collect them’.
“So I went with four strikers. That was John McGinley on the right, Owen Coyle and Fabian De Freitas up the middle and Mixu Paatelainen on the left; four goalscorers. I was thinking the opposite to what many think, in other words take a striker off and put another one on.
“And it was the strikers who scored the goals.”
Although the Trotters had not performed well during the first half, Rioch was calm and uplifting with his half-time instructions.
“I got into the dressing room and Alan Stubbs was sat with his head was on the floor. I just walked in and said to Stubbsy ‘get your head up, don’t you dare put your head on the floor, get it up’.
“I went round and said ‘Listen, we know if we get the next goal, we’re back in this game in a big way. So we’re going to go for the next goal, Neil [McDonald] I’m taking you off and Fabian [De Freitas] you’re on and we’re going to go 4-2-4’.
“And that really was the team talk.
“The team was confident. We’d got to the play-off final through getting good results and we’d been in the League Cup final (against Liverpool) so we were having a good season. It was just about getting their heads up again, waiting for the bell to go and saying ‘first goal’.
“We got the first goal back in the second half [through Coyle] and the momentum shifted, we were on a run then. There’s one of the goals in the game that started with the right-back Scott Green.
“There’s about six, one-touch passes that leads eventually to the cross for the goal. It was fantastic, I mean a classic goal and those types of goals lift your team and lift your players.”
De Freitas equalised with four minutes remaining before Paatelainen and de Freitas added further goals in extra time to complete a sensational turnaround in what had looked like a one-sided final.
Jimmy Quinn’s late reply for Reading came too late to trouble Bolton as they saw out the game to win 4-3.
Winning in such dramatic fashion was exhilarating for all involved with Bolton on the day, but the emotions felt by all inside the stadium did not go unnoticed by Rioch.
“There were two experiences that I learned from the play-off final that I’ll never forget”, said the man who led Middlesbrough to the top flight in 1987.
“One is the obvious one, coming from behind and winning the game. That euphoria for the team and the fans was enormous.
“But the other one that I’ll always remember would be, over 90 minutes and extra time, how a match can change the emotions of 100,000 people. 50,000 from Reading and 50,000 from Bolton.
“At half time, one end of Wembley was euphoric, which was Reading, absolutely euphoric 2-0 up going in at half-time. And the other end: dead.
“And within the space of an hour, the game had changed and one end instead of being euphoric was in agony and the other end was ecstatic.
“I’d known about it before but this was when it really hit home the impact football can have on people.
“I felt enormous pleasure for the Bolton fans, my board, my family, myself and the players.
“But I had a large degree of feeling for the Reading fans because I had never experienced it to that scale before. They’re the aspects of life that football can give you and it taught me a great deal on that occasion.”
If a place in the Premier League today is worth hundreds of millions of pounds, one can only imagine the parties thrown by the victorious clubs.
The Bolton celebration experience of 1995 was rather more low-key, however. Further proof that it really was the sporting triumph that mattered to all involved.
“We stopped on the way back after the game in St Albans at the hotel we’d stayed at,” smiled Rioch.
“We rang ahead and had some sandwiches organised, we had a couple of bottles of champagne in the hotel.
“Then the boys and their wives got back onto the buses and drove up to Bolton and I went home to Harpenden in Hertfordshire round the corner, because that’s where Jane (Rioch’s wife) lived.
“I had a flat up in Bolton but my home was in Harpenden, so I drove the 25 minutes home and had a Chinese takeaway and a cup of tea.”
For Rioch, promotion to the Premier League signalled the end of his time in charge of the Burnden Park club, as a phone call from Arsenal vice-chairman David Dein asking him to take over from George Graham proved too inviting to turn down.
Having taken over the reigns in 1992 with the club in the second division, Rioch had taken the Trotters into the Premier League. And although relegation followed the very next season, the club would go on to become an established top-flight club and even experience European football.
With pride, Rioch reminisced: “[It was] a great feeling. The fan base went from 5,500 up to 25,000, so the fan base was always there.
“That’s why I went to the club, because I’d played at Bolton when I was at Everton in front of 50,00 people. So I knew there was a fan base and it was just a matter of getting results and getting them back to where they should be.
“The players, I had a fantastic relationship with them all, they were a brilliant group of lads and we worked hard with them on the training ground. I had a great staff and an absolutely magnificent chairman [Gordon Hargreaves]. The best.”
Feature Image courtesy of the BBC