The Swindon Town Play-Off Project
The 1986/87 season saw the Football League launch the end of season play-offs. Swindon Town were to have the honour of participating in the very first campaign. In typical STFC style, this was a season where their final league position would ordinarily have been enough for automatic promotion. This time however, the fans would need to endure an extremely dramatic end to the season before any celebrations could take place.
Although the play-offs were introduced without any major fanfare, the importance of them cannot be overstated. Our national sport was in a period of dramatic decline and the country was falling out of love with it’s beautiful game. Plagued by hooliganism and heavily falling attendances. (Swindon Town’s experience mirrored that of the country, with league attendances regularly falling into the 2000s and indeed getting down to a low of Just 1681 against Darlington on the 17th of April 1984). Just as things seemed that they could not get any worse for the game, a series of damning and much publicised events hit hard towards the end of the 1984/85 season.
To try to move on from these dark times, and re-engage the public with their national game, an emergency 10-point improvement plan was drawn up by the football league. Point number 10 was the introduction of the play-off system. In part this was to facilitate a smooth transition from 22 to 20 teams in the top-flight and was also aimed at improving revenue to lower league clubs since television revenue was being re-distributed in favour of the top division (from 25% to 50%) as part of the plan. Keeping the season alive for longer for many clubs, was designed to improve fan engagement and increase attendances. The revenue generated from the play-off games themselves was to be shared between the participating teams and the remaining lower league clubs.
Although at the time, play-offs were predominantly associated with American sport, the format of these football League play-offs had its roots in the early stages of the English game. In 1892, four years after the Football League was formed, it was expanded into two divisions to accommodate a further twelve clubs. There was no automatic promotion at this time, instead the bottom 3 of the top tier would play “test matches” against the top 3 of the second tier, to decide the following seasons League composition.
It was against this historical backdrop that Swindon Town’s first play-off involvement would take place.