Book Review: The Agony and the Ecstasy

Posted by on Jun 18, 2017 in Book Review | No Comments
Book Review: The Agony and the Ecstasy
Image available under Creative Commons (c) J. J. Hall

The Agony and the Ecstasy
by Richard Foster
Published by Ockley Books
2017

It was entirely remiss of us not to have reviewed Richard Foster’s The Agony and the Ecstasy on its initial release in 2015, so the appearance of a recent new edition from the brilliant Ockley Books has thankfully given us the opportunity to rectify that.

Not to be confused with a good collection of essays released in the run up to the 1998 World Cup and edited by Nicholas Royle, Foster’s volume is a loving tribute to the Football League play-offs which have just celebrated their thirtieth birthday.

In possession of a nostalgia-inducing colour plate section, team line-ups, attendances, scorers and results for every one of the ties over three decades and a statistical analysis of the winners and losers, this is a volume that strikes a great balance between colourful readability and nuts and bolts facts.

It would be unfair to put Foster’s enthusiasm for the concept down to his club Crystal Palace’s record in the play-offs alone even if Palace have triumphed in each of the competition’s four decades running back to 1989 and arguably performed better than any other club. This is by no means a book about the south Londoners alone and there is equal weight provided to the main players over the course of the post season’s dramatic history.

The author wisely decided not to opt for a straightforward chronological history and has instead provided a largely thematic analysis of the topic – the winners, the losers, the personalities, the money and the events all combining into a whirlwind of an emotional whole.

The book is strong on history with quirks highlighted including the tendency of a promotion clinching goal scorer to no longer be at a club a few weeks’ later, the birth of the format as a minor point in the Heathrow agreement that in many ways prefaced the path to the establishment of the Premier League and the little known fact that a form of play-off had been deployed as long ago as the 1890s. The remarkable lack of interest shown by the media when the matches were introduced in 1987 is also noteworthy – I remember listening to Leeds’ dramatic defeat to Charlton on Radio 2 with no television coverage available in the part of the country where I lived.

Of course the classic matches are all there – Aldershot overcoming stage fright to knock out Wolves in 1987, Gillingham beating Sunderland the same year but in turn losing to Manchester City twelve years later (an infinitely more dramatic match than that boringly predictable Agueroooo! moment from more recent times); Ipswich putting paid to years of anguish by defeating Barnsley at the dawn of the millennium; Glenn Hoddle’s Swindon surviving a fightback against Leicester a mere three years before he took the England job; Stuart Lovell missing a penalty to put Reading 3-0 up on Bolton in 1995; Sam Allardyce’s Blackpool blowing a 2-0 away lead against Bradford in 1996; Yeovil’s astonishing 5-2 semi-final victory over Nottingham Forest at the City Ground in 2007; Doncaster’s romantic slaying of Leeds United a year later and the daddy of them all, Charlton’s win on penalties after a zany 4-4 draw against Sunderland in 1998.

Nor is the book short on anecdotes, many of which were new to me. Hence, we learn that one of the founding fathers of the play-offs, Football League Secretary Alan Hardaker was known as Lytham’s answer to Ugandan dictator Idi Amin, Ian Evatt has chalked up as many appearances for Blackpool at Wembley as Stan Mortensen and Stanley Matthews, Steve Claridge illegally went without shinpads before scoring a last minute winner in the 1996 final, Dean Windass experienced severe mental health pressures in the wake of netting the winner in the 2008 climax, Owen Oyston sacked Sam Allardyce from a prison cell after that aforementioned Bradford defeat and Neil Warnock took his Notts County players to watch final opponents Tranmere in the Freight Rover Trophy final a few weeks before the 1990 final. Warnock also decided to take the players to see Jasper Carrott or Roy ‘Chubby’ Brown in the run up to their final win which in the latter case may provide an explanation as to why certain attitudes remain rooted in the game.

But The Agony and the Ecstasy isn’t just a series of anecdotes. Foster bravely bases the book on a central argument that it was the play-offs that took football out of its mid-1980s slough of despond and heralded the beginning of a bright new era.

That the post season has been hugely beneficial is something that most observers would acknowledge and the fact that almost all clubs in a given league are still involved in meaningful competition more than half way through March is a good thing – I remember how the months used to drag if your team was in – say – fourteenth place at the mid-season point.

To say, however, that the play-offs were the dominant factor in football’s turnaround would be stretching it a bit. Much has been written on this of course but it’s probably more accurate to state that they were one of a series of factors over a five to ten-year period. Hillsborough is probably more of a watershed than the dreadful Spring of 1985 (Birmingham, Bradford, Heysel) while aspects such as Italia 90 and Gazza’s tears, Michael Thomas’s goal to win the 1989 title at Anfield, the rise of a more fun oriented youth and terrace culture via acid house, Nick Hornby, the Taylor report and the formation of the Premier League all have their proponents.

Foster does acknowledge that the hooliganism that was such an important root cause of low attendances continued beyond the establishment of the play-offs with Chelsea’s encounter with Middlesbrough in 1988 a particular nasty example while the 1987 Leeds v Charlton matches were played in a febrile atmosphere and Newcastle fans invaded the pitch in an attempt to call a halt to their 1990 play-off second leg against Sunderland. Foster’s chapter on football’s low point is excellent but in reality, the turnaround in fortunes didn’t get underway until the next decade was up and running.

Where the book additional excels is in its surmising of possible alternatives to the play-offs including their possible introduction for European qualification in the Premier League, the non-adoption of the away goals rule (about which Tony Cascarino still seethes – as do I, regarding the failure to use the UEFA standard as an early example of brexiteering Little Englanderim), ways of rewarding the teams who finish higher in the table during the regular season and the extension of the competition to encompass the clubs finishing seventh and eighth in the Championship. Nor would it be right to not mention the first two years of the play-offs which involved the team finishing just above the relegation zone in the division above – a return to that format really would liven things up even further.

That the play-offs have offered us some of the most striking football moments of our time is undeniable and Foster’s book is a worthy account of the genre. Whether they will remain this way is a point of interest, however. The much vaunted sum of money which is supposedly attached to the victor of the Championship match in particular rises every year and Foster estimates this at £134 million. He’s right, therefore, to call this into question by highlighting how little coverage is provided to attendant rise in costs and outgoings that come with elevation to the top league. Like Liverpool fans banging on about ‘net spend’ with no attention paid to wages, the financial evaluation of the play-offs has so often seemed like the back of a fag packet calculation of an 8 year-old.

Foster avoids this but other factors point towards the play-offs’ heyday being behind us. In many ways, the mid-90s was the peak of the exercise with dramatic matches shown on terrestrial television, packed full of big personalities. The Blackpool v Cardiff thriller in 2012 apart, standards have dropped off a bit as tension has become too much and while the world of Sky might seem to be the whole world to some, it very much isn’t for most of the population.

On that point, Huddersfield’s recent penalties victory over Reading was one of the poorer play-off games although as a supporter if the losing side, I was oblivious to this, mentally kicking every ball. That said, defeat did not hit me so hard as I thought it would. True, Reading didn’t put forward a persuasive enough case for winning the game, but after four previous play-off final defeats and a decidedly unenjoyable recent sojourn in the Premier League, the advantages of promotion just aren’t as obvious these days. That may be the dictionary definition of sour grapes but the untold riches won’t find their way into my pocket so to be as excited as one once was is impossible. Foster contests that winning a play-off is bigger than the FA Cup – never in my book.

But a couple of well put forward arguments are what makes for an entertaining volume and the consequent driving of pub debate is very much to be welcomed. It’s brilliant to see The Two Unfortunates writers Gavin Barber, Laura Jones and Ian Rands quoted at length while the likes of Daniel Storey, Michel Gray and Alistair Campbell are also called upon – on Campbell, I wonder if Foster will try and find out if Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill have any play-off anecdotes in time for the next edition?

Rob Langham
Rob Langham is co-founder of the defiantly non-partisan football league blog, The Two Unfortunates, a website that occasionally strays into covering issues of wider importance. He's 48 and lives in Oxford while retaining his boyhood support of Reading FC. He tweets as @twounfortunates and has written for a number of websites and publications including The Inside Left, When Saturday Comes, In Bed with Maradona, Futbolgrad and The Blizzard as well as being nominated for the Football Supporters' Federation Blogger of the Year Award in 2013.

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