The Original Playoff Heartbreak

For those who think Leeds United and Play Off related disasters are a recent phenomenon let me take you back 25 years.

In 1987 I was a 13 year old Leeds United obsessive. The 1986/87 season had seen Billy Bremner turn what was on paper an average looking LUFC squad into promotion contenders and near FA Cup finalists. And the board of Leeds United had pulled off a master stroke as far as I was concerned; free tickets for local school children. I needed no further invitation, and was soon dragging my Dad along to as many games as possible in what was then the Family Stand, in the North West Corner. To a 13 year old this was heaven; seeing your idols week in, week out and soaking up the atmosphere of the adjacent Kop. Even at 13 though I was preferring the cult heroes to the “stars” – for some reason my favourite players that season were John Stiles and John Pearson!

The team Bremner had built centred very much on mercurial midfielder John Sheridan. “Shez” was a dead ball wizard, and would be in charge of pretty much every free kick and corner. Like many Leeds United midfielders since, he had a habit of going missing for large chunks of games, but we invariably forgave him when he popped up with a stunning late free kick to once again earn us 3 points. Looking back at our defence that season, I wonder how on earth we did as well as we did. Neil Aspin was committed, but struggled against any kind of decent wingers. Bobby MacDonald was a veteran left back, and as for Jack Ashurst…if you can find his challenge in the Mercantile Credit game at Wembley on You Tube, it will tell you everything you need to know about his defensive qualities!

Yet succeed we did. And a victory over Oldham in the Play Off semi finals took us to the big one – the Play Off Final. Now I’m gonna sound like my Dad here, but things were different back then. For a start, the Final was contested between the 4th bottom team of the First Division, and the winners of the Second Division Play Off semi final. So Charlton Athletic versus Leeds United it was. Secondly, there was no glamour tie at Wembley. The Final was over two legs, home and away. Typically, both legs finished 1-0 to the home side. Extra time and penalties? Nope, let’s all head for a replay at St. Andrews on a Friday night…

Being too young to travel to away games, I had to listen to this one at home. Yes, I said “listen”. Because Play Off Finals in those days were not deemed important enough to show live on TV. So the radio it was then. I remember very little of the game. But two things stick in the mind, even after all these years. Jumping around our living room when Shez curled that free kick into the top corner. I’ve seen it many times since, it’s shown on the big screen in the goals collage before most home games. He points, he points again…and then the balls drifts, as if being sucked into the top corner by every Leeds fan that wanted to see their heroes back where they belonged.

The second thing I remember is the tears. Peter Shirtliff. The man who never scored. And yet who somehow managed to do so twice in less than 10 minutes. I cried when the full time whistle went. The first time Leeds United had reduced me to tears, and the first time we had suffered Play Off heartbreak. It wouldn’t be the last time, on either count.

When I look back on that season now, it’s with a huge amount of pride. Pride for how a cheaply assembled, small squad almost achieved the seemingly impossible. It was also the real start of my love affair with LUFC.I’d been to games before that season, but something about 1986/87 made Elland Road not just a place I could go, but a place I needed to be.

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Reporter Ian Wylie