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The best-ever Championship play-off finals

It’s hardly a secret that the Championship play-off final is the most lucrative game of football across the world, with the winners typically picking up anywhere between £140 million and £170 million. The staggering windfall to the victor can go a long way to securing that club’s financial future for the next decade or more, but something that is more apparent in recent Championship play-off finals is that the quality of football has declined.

Obviously, the riches of reaching the Premier League will see the two finalists adopt a more cautious approach as they embark to reach the promised land, but the games themselves are less exciting. Naturally, this got us thinking about some of the most enthralling and gripping finals from years gone by, and we’ve picked five of the best for you to reminisce about.

Ipswich Town 4-2 Barnsley (1999/00)

Although Ipswich Town were unable to avoid the drop to League One this season, the Tractor Boys were a Championship force to be reckoned with in the late 1990s. The 1999/00 season was the fourth consecutive year that Ipswich qualified for the playoffs, but this was the first time they made the final.

Barnsley finished the season as top goal scorers after finishing fifth, but it was their defensive frailties that were evident at the old Wembley Stadium. An own goal from Jermaine Wright and a Craig Hignett penalty weren’t enough for the Tykes, as Town ended up 4-2 winners with goals from Tony Mowbray, Richard Naylor, Marcus Stewart and Martin Reuser proving enough for the Suffolk-based club.

Blackpool 3-2 Cardiff City (2009/10)

They might have been one of the bookies favourites for relegation at the start of the 2009/10 campaign, but Blackpool had the last laugh after they secured Premier League football for the first time in their history. The Seasiders had been surpassing expectations all season and Cardiff City had no answer to Ian Holloway’s side.

The Bluebirds actually led 1-0 and 2-1 with goals from Michael Chopra and Joe Ledley, but a certain Charlie Adam had temporarily levelled proceedings. Blackpool forced the equaliser just four minutes before the break and Brett Ormerod made sure the Tangerines held a 3-2 lead. The second interval failed to deliver another goal but from Blackpool’s perspective, that wasn’t going to dampen one of the best days in their history.

Swindon Town 4-3 Leicester City (1992/93)

Some of our younger readers can be forgiven for forgetting that Swindon Town were once a Premier League outfit, and they reached England’s elite in stunning fashion. The Wiltshire club inflicted a second-successive play-off final defeat on Leicester City, and the game is arguably one of the best in British football, let alone the playoffs.

The Robins raced into a 3-0 lead with goals from player-manager Glenn Hoddle, Craig Maskell and Shaun Taylor but this seemed to fuel Leicester’s manager Brian Little’s half-time team talk. The Foxes came out fighting and three goals in 12 minutes levelled the game at 3-3, before a late Paul Bodin penalty swung the game back in Swindon’s favour and broke the hearts of the Leicester players and fans.

Bolton Wanderers 4-3 Reading (1994/95)

Two years after Swindon’s success, Bolton Wanderers replicated the 4-3 scoreline with another play-off final classic. Reading were all that stood between the Trotters and the Premier League but it looked like the Berkshire outfit were going to clinch promotion, after they raced into a two-goal lead after 12 minutes. Striker Stuart Lovell missed a penalty for the Royals on 34 minutes which would have surely put the game to bed, and this inspired Wanderers’ comeback.

With 15 minutes remaining, Owen Coyle halved the deficit, then substitute Fabian de Freitas scored the equaliser with just six minutes left to play, forcing extra-time. Bolton had the momentum firmly with them and went ahead for the first time through Mixu Paatelainen, before de Freitas made the comeback complete with two minutes remaining. Reading player-manager Jimmy Quinn did notch a late, late reply but Royals’ fans will be ruing Lovell’s missed penalty at 2-0.

Sunderland 4-4 Charlton Athletic 1997/98

The chances are, you won’t find a more pulsating and exuberating play-off final than Sunderland and Charlton Athletic’s epic from 1998. In fact, you’ll be hard pushed to find a more exciting game throughout the whole of English football. Clive Mendonca got the ball rolling after he gave the Addicks a 1-0 lead at half-time. Niall Quinn and Kevin Phillips quick-fire goals put Sunderland in the driving seat before Mendonca scored his second to level at 2-2.

Quinn then scored his second of the afternoon to put the Black Cats 3-2 ahead, before centre-back Richard Rufus sent the game into extra-time. With 99 minutes on the clock, Nicky Summerbee put Sunderland ahead for the second time but Mendonca completed his hat-trick just four minutes later.

A dreaded penalty shootout was the only way to separate the two sides who had put in a herculean effort to reach the Premier League, but Michael Gray’s sudden-death miss meant the South Londoners reached England’s elite for the first time since its reform.

This season, both Sunderland and Charlton are gunning for promotion back to the second tier but all of this week’s English Championship betting on Betfair markets are available right now.