The Agony and the Ecstasy: A Comprehensive History of the Football League Play-Offs

The Agony and the Ecstasy: A Comprehensive History of the Football League Play-Offs

By Richard Foster

Ockley Books, 2015

AgonyI have a vivid memory of sitting glued to the 1998 First Division play-off final. As an entitled Premier League fan, I knew nothing about either team but I soon declared my allegiance. I chose Charlton – Richard Rufus, Saša Ilić, Clive Mendonca – and cheered with glee as they beat Sunderland on penalties after an incredible 4-4 draw. The play-offs were an alien concept to me but I was sold straight away on the downright drama. It never crossed my mind that they might only be as old as me.

The Agony and the Ecstasy by Richard Foster is ‘A Comprehensive History of the Football League Play-Offs’. As the Martin Tyler endorsement on the front cover suggests, it is amazing that this is the first book on the subject. ‘Nerve-shredding, gut-wrenching tension’ tends to be a popular choice for literature, as do heroes, villains and financial gain. The Championship play-off final is now the single most lucrative sports match in the world, with £134 million resting on it. Mistakes are costly and goals are glorious.

The Agony and the Ecstasy begins its journey in the mid-1980s with the Heathrow Agreement, where the play-offs were included as a temporary, American-inspired measure to offset changes in the Football League structure. From this inauspicious start, few could have foreseen the role that they would have as a ‘significant catalyst in the rebirth of the game’. The play-offs offered something positive and engaging for an English public disillusioned by a spate of football-related disasters. Where before seasons had petered out for most teams with months to go, suddenly there was cause to hope and strive until the death. As Foster puts it, the play-offs offer ‘a much more varied tale of success and a distinctly fresher feel’.

The book goes on to chart the relatively few changes over the years – the rejection of the inter-division model, the shift to a one-leg final, the move to Wembley – and also to discuss the seismic impact of the Premier League boom and broadcasting revenues on the fight for promotion from the Championship. While the financial figures showing the widening gap between the top flight and the lower leagues aren’t particularly new, the particulars of the £134 million payment plan make very interesting reading, as do the increasing parachute payments for relegated teams.

In most respects, The Agony and the Ecstasy is incredibly comprehensive. There are 200 pages of dense text, plus an array of graphs, tables, photos and statistics. The book is a trivia buff’s dream. The level of research is excellent and the infographics are a fun, creative way of presenting the facts. While the Championship play-offs receive the most attention, Leagues One and Two are far from ignored. Foster makes good use of original cameos from the likes of Tony Cascarino, Steve Claridge and Ian Holloway, as well as extracts from autobiographies and memories from club bloggers.

The only aspect that seems underdeveloped is the actual match coverage. The structure of the book – ‘part chronology and part thematic’ – leads to repetition, with several sections labouring over the same points: the special nature of the play-offs, the contrasting fortunes for players and fans, and the rise of the play-offs coinciding with the decline of the FA Cup. More economy here could have allowed more room for ‘The Clubs: The Cursed, The Blessed, The Unfortunate and The Blighted’, the brilliant final section of the book that explores a selection of the best and worst team records. It would be nice to read more about the best games, the best goals, the best and worst individual performances – perhaps these could feature in a second edition.

Foster’s conclusion that the play-offs now represent ‘the true climax to the season’ and the ‘most successful innovation in post-war football’ is well argued throughout. Their impact and legacy are difficult to dismiss. However, as a history of the play-offs, The Agony and The Ecstasy too often tells of the drama and spectacle, rather than really showing it.

Buy it here

Football Books 2015

The football season is drawing to a close and the holiday season is just beginning. For those that can’t bear to leave the beautiful game behind, there’s only one solution: beach reading. With the help of the best sports publishers around, we’ve collated the best football books around so you don’t have to…

BackPage Press

Neil White: We’re working with Arena Sport on ‘DIEGO COSTA: The Art of War’, translated and updated from Fran Guillen’s Spanish edition of last year to include the World Cup, Costa’s transfer to Chelsea and this season’s dramas. Due out 16th July, more info here


We’re really excited about ‘The Five-a-Side Bible’ which we’re developing with Freight Books and for an October release. That’s going to have lots of funny stories from the world of 3G, as well as tips from the best fives players in Britain, a five-a-side bucket list and much more. If you play short-sided football, this is the book you’ve been waiting for.

Around the same time, we should have ‘PUSKAS: Madrid, Magyars and the Amazing Adventures of Football’s Greatest Goalscorer’ done. We’re working with Freight Books on that, and it’s written by Gyorgy Szlossi, who heads up the Puskas Academy in Budapest, founded the Puskas Award with Fifa and remains a close friend of the Puskas family.

Pitch Publishing

Paul Camillin: The first half of 2015 sees a variety of titles being added to Pitch Publishing’s ever-growing football list​, including biographies, autobiographies and club-specific titles.

For those who lament the modern game, and feel somewhere along the way football took a wrong turn, losing touch with fans. The Ugly Game by Martin Calladine is a passionate, funny book of essays, and sets out to put football right by comparing it, often unfavourably, with American football, a sport, perhaps surprisingly, that’s showing how money need not destroy fairness and competition.

Ugly Game

Soccer in Stilettos by Liam Newman is a definitive look at the rise of women’s football, telling the inspirational story of how the female sport has slowly but surely stepped out of the shadow of its male counterpart to become the truly beautiful game that it is today. With the future of the sport looking brighter than ever, how did football finally show sexism the red card?

Of the club titles, one is already proving popular with Leeds United fans, and flying off the shelves. Jon Howe’s The Only Place For Us is the A to Z history of Leeds United’s Elland Road home, revealing the stories behind its past uses, famous features and characters – plus fires, gypsy curses and escaped pantomime horses. Using archive research, insiders’ insights and fascinating photos, Jon Howe retraces the intriguing historical journey of one of Britain’s most iconic football grounds.

Then on the autobiography front we have Moody Blue, the self-told-tale of former Rangers legend Marco Negri and Luggy, the story of journeyman manager Paul Sturrock.

Ockley Books

This Yorkshire-based publisher’s small but finely-crafted football list is one of the best around. Current highlights include Adam Digby’s Juventus: A History in Black and White and Roger Domeneghetti’s From the Back Page to the Front Room: Football’s Journey Through the English Media.

I think the best, however, may be yet to come. It’s pretty rare these days that you hear of a football book and think ‘Wow, why has no-one written about that before?’ The Agony & The Ecstasy: A Comprehensive History of the Play-Offs by Richard Foster is definitely one of the most exciting ideas I’ve heard in a long time. You can read an extract here.


Trinity Mirror Sports Media


Danny Higginbotham Rise of the Underdog, RRP £16.99

Danny Higginbotham has always been honest. What he lacked in natural ability as a footballer, he made up for in raw passion and commitment.

He started his football education under the greatest – Sir Alex Ferguson – at his beloved Manchester United. After a headline-making loan spell in Belgium, he embarked on an eventful career journey, taking in stops at high-flying Derby County, Southampton, Sunderland and Stoke City.

Sharing Premier League dressing rooms and pitches with some big names, he experienced both sides of the modern game – from the gut-wrenching agony of relegation to the champagne moments of reaching Wembley. Along the way, he worked under charismatic bosses like Jim Smith, Harry Redknapp and Roy Keane – who delivered the most bizarre team talk he’s ever heard. At Stoke, he learned about the team-bonding tricks of Tony Pulis.

As honest and whole-hearted as his career on the pitch ‘Rise of the Underdog’ is the entertaining inside story of how an ordinary lad worked his way up the professional ladder, learning the lessons it takes to survive at the highest level of the English game.



Sergio Aguero Born To Rise, RRP £8.99

‘A must-read for any football fan’ Daily Mirror

Sergio Aguero is one of the top strikers in world football, but his rise to superstardom hasn’t always been smooth. Born into poverty, his life story Sergio Kun Agüero: Born to Rise is fascinating and a real story of talent, desire and the guidance of good people helping him to overcome adversity.

The book features a foreword from his best friend, Lionel Messi, and includes colourful dressing room revelations about his fellow countryman and other stars he’s encountered on his journey. This is a book every Manchester City fan will want to read, but also any football fan who is fascinated by that elite group of world greats who were touched by destiny and born to rise.

Leon Osman My Autobiography, RRP £8.99

“Fascinating” Liverpool Echo

LEON OSMAN has been at Everton FC since he was ten years old and in that time has witnessed major changes at the club and within football. A fixture in the Blues’ team for the past decade, Osman’s humour and thoughtful nature shines through in his revealing and entertaining autobiography.

Osman provides a unique insight into Moyes – the man and his methods – as well as many of the big personalities he has played alongside, such as Duncan Ferguson, Wayne Rooney, Tim Cahill, Thomas Gravesen, Mikel Arteta and Phil Neville.

Filled with entertaining tales and anecdotes from his life at Everton, Osman’s story is fascinating and inspiring.

Best of the Rest – top 5 new releases

  1. Living on the Volcano: The Secrets of Surviving as a Football Manager by Michael Calvin
  2. Matchdays: The Hidden Story of the Bundesliga by Ronald Reng
  3. Money and Football: A Soccernomics Guide by Stefan Szymanski
  4. Eibar the Brave: The Extraordinary Rise of La Liga’s Smallest Team by Euan McTear
  5. Balotelli: The Remarkable Story Behind the Sensational Headlines by Luca Caioli


Best of the Rest – top 5 paperback releases

  1. Thirty-One Nil: On the Road with Football’s Outsiders by James Montague
  2. Twelve Yards: The Art and Psychology of the Perfect Penalty Kick by Ben Lyttleton
  3. ¡Golazo! : A History of Latin American Football by Andreas Campomar
  4. Louis van Gaal: The Biography by Maarten Meijer
  5. In Search of Duncan Ferguson: The Life and Crimes of a Footballing Enigma by Alan Pattullo

Twelve Yards