The Swans entry into the Championship play-offs this season will be the 7th time the Swans have entered the end of season lottery that can be the play offs and they head into it in search of a 5th play off final and a 3rd promotion via this route.
It was 1986/7 when the play-offs were first introduced into the Football League and with them now in their 34th season they have generated some of the most nail biting moments that football can produce and some of the most heartbreaking ones at the same time.
As Swans fans we have experienced both ends of the spectrum and I am sure between now and August 4th there will be a full range of emotions that we will go through as will fans of Brentford, Fulham and Cardiff as we all compete for a place at the top table of English football for next season.
So what of our play-off pedigree? Six previous appearances have resulted in four finals, two of which have been won and two of which have been cruelly snatched away from us in ways that you just never forget. So let’s take a walk back down the memory lane that is Swansea City in the play-offs.
1987-88. In just the second season of the play offs, the Swans secured their play off place – wait for this – on the last day of the season with a win to take them to 70 points (are you looking for an omen?) The play offs were different back then, they were contested in the opening two seasons by one club from the division above and three from the division you were trying to get promoted from.
As the last side into the play offs it meant that we were drawn against the highest ranked side which was Rotherham who were in the then second division. Sean McCarthy scored home and away to give the Swans a 2-1 aggregate win and a move into the play off final.
The final was also a two-legged affair – this was before the days of Wembley finals – and a frantic last 20 minutes in the first leg at the Vetch saw McCarthy and Ian Love put the Swans 2-0 up before a late consolation goal set up the second leg nicely (at least from a neutral view)
And what a second leg it was as the Swans were two up inside half an hour – Paul Raynor and that man McCarthy again but Torquay were on level terms before half time. The late Alan Davies scored soon after the restart but we were again pegged back and a nervy last 25 minutes or so saw us hang on for a 5-4 aggregate win and promotion to Division Two for Terry Yorath’s side. The highs of the play-offs.
1992-93. If 87/88 was a high then 92/93 was most definitely a low. The Swans had finished in a very respectable 5th place in Division 2 (as it was at the time) but a massive 12 points behind their semi final opponents, 4th placed West Brom.
The first leg – again at the Vetch – saw us move though in a 2-0 lead through Andy Macfarlane and Martin Hayes before Andy Mac put through his own goal to give West Brom hope in the second leg. Two early goals at the Hawthorns were followed by two red cards – including Colin West for the Swans and promotion to the second tier was nothing more than a dream as the Swans were consigned to another season in Division 2.
1996-97. John bloody Frain. I think I probably don’t need to say any more but as this is looking back over play-offs then I guess I have to. Whilst the top 3 that season finished well clear of the play off pack, there were just 3 points that separated Northampton in 4th and Cardiff in 7th.
It doesn’t always follow that the two highest ranked teams reached the final but this time around it did. Northampton won home and away against Cardiff, the Swans followed up a 0-0 draw at Chester with a 3-0 win at the Vetch to reach the final – a second leg remembered for a horrendous injury to Steve Jones that saw him leave the Vetch in an ambulance.
This took the Swans back to Wembley where thousands travelled up the M4 hoping to make the second visit as memorable as the first (when we won the Autoglass in 1994) Football can be a cruel game though at times and after a game that we deserved to win, we were beaten by a last minute, twice taken free kick that was taken second time from the wrong spot. I could see it, you could see it, 46000 people in Wembley could see it, even John bloody Frain could see it. But not the referee – yes you Terry Heilbron – who whistled, Frain scored. We lost. But I’m over it now, honest I am…
1998-99. Just two years later John Hollins took us back into the play offs, this time in 6th place. Once again just three points though separated the four play off teams and the Swans were pitted against Scunthorpe in the semi finals.
Matthew Bound’s first half goal at the Vetch was enough to send us up North on a midweek night in May with a one goal advantage, a one goal advantage wiped out in the first few minutes of the second leg. Extra time beckoned and Scunthorpe went 2-0 up but Tony Bird’s goal pulled us back into the game before our hearts were broken once again when Gareth Sheldon scored his second of the night.
I can tell you now that Scunthorpe is a long way away from Swansea. On a midweek night it s a really long way away from Swansea. On a midweek night when you have lost a play off semi final in extra time I think the moon is closer to Swansea. The only thing that could have made it worse would have been had John bloody Frain been on the mini bus!
2005-06. The year Swansea took over the Millennium Stadium twice. We had already won the LDV Vans trophy with a win over Carlisle in Cardiff just a few months earlier when we secured our place in the play offs once again thanks to a 6th placed finish.
Now if you want another omen then look no further than a play off semi final against Brentford. Sam Ricketts late goal at the Liberty cancelled out Brentford’s away goal but it was Leon Knight who scored twice inside 15 minutes at Griffin Park to take us back to the Millennium Stadium and a final against Barnsley. This surely was to be one of our crowning glories, a promotion in the city of our nearest neighbours.
We were one down but Rory Fallon – oh I can remember that finish so clearly – and Andy Robinson put us ahead before Daniel Nardiello (he’d been on loan to us at one stage FFS) equalised and the game went to extra time and penalties.
Just like the Frain moment 9 years earlier, time stood still as Bayo stuttered over his penalty before lifting it over the bar to hand Barnsley the advantage. Alan Tate missed as well (oh what if he had put in the goal in stoppage time?) and heartbreak was there again. It was a long way back from Scunthorpe in 1999 but it was a very quiet train journey back to Swansea that evening.
2010-11. Our crowning glory, the season the Premier League got its first Welsh team. A superb end to the season had seen us finish 3rd in the division, level with Cardiff but ahead of them on goal difference.
Talk was about the potential of an all welsh play-off final at Wembley but first we had to see off Nottingham Forest and Reading respectively. When Neil Taylor was sent off inside two minutes I distinctively remember uttering the words “I f***ing hate the play offs” before watching the Swans hold on for a hugely important draw.
The second leg at the Liberty will live with me forever. Leon and Dobbie had us coasting at 2-0 but Earnshaw scored ten minutes before the end and I swear that 10 minutes (plus stoppage time) lasted for about three weeks before Darren Pratley scored that magical goal from the halfway line into an empty net and the Liberty shook. I was so far from my seat at that time I needed a GPS to get back to it but the Swans were one game away from the Premier League.
For most teams a play off final where you are 3-0 up at half time is party time. For the Swans it’s a knowledge that its only a 3 goal lead and that can be wiped out quicker than you can say “John bloody Frain”. It was 3-2 before the hour mark and if it wasn’t for Garry Monk we would have had one of the most humiliating play off final defeats in history. But we had Monk and we had Scotty Sinclair and his hat-trick remains one of only three in play off final history and we were a Premier League team.
The memories of Bayo and Frain had been banished forever (well, that’s not true but they had gone for that moment in time anyway!) and at roughly 5pm on 30th May 2011 I remembered just why I love the play offs.
For me the play offs are – single handedly – the best way to get promoted but they are also in exactly the same way the worst way to not be promoted. Missing out on promotion by a point hurts, looking back on a game you should have won but lost and that made a difference also hurts. Losing a play off final in the last minute hurts as much now as it did 23 years ago. But winning at Torquay to go up or Scott Sinclair slotting in a penalty with 10 minutes to go are moments you never forget.
6 play offs. 2 play off final wins. 2 play off final defeats. 2 play off semi final losses. That is some level of symmetry there – will Cooper’s Swans be a lucky 7 of is there a John bloody Frain sitting around the corner?
Let the fun commence!