Championship: The best teams that failed to win promotion to the Premier League

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May 17, 2020
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    Frank Lampard and Pablo Hernandez

    While Derby manager Frank Lampard celebrated, Pablo Hernandez and Leeds had to contemplate another season in the Championship

    Wednesday, 15 May 2019. One of the most astonishing matches in recent English Football League history saw Derby come from behind to stun Leeds in their Championship play-off semi-final at Elland Road.

    As substitute Jack Marriott dinked the ball over Kiko Casilla to seal Derby’s 4-3 aggregate win, Leeds – despite their hugely impressive season – were consigned to yet another year outside the Premier League.

    Many touted Marcelo Bielsa’s 2018-19 squad as one of the strongest in the second tier to miss out on promotion, having floated around the top two all season before Sheffield United seized second place.

    But who are the best teams to have fallen at the final hurdle and not reached the Premier League since its inception in 1992?

    Eight have missed out after assembling higher points tallies than Bielsa’s men. A year on from their near miss, BBC Sport assesses some of the second-tier outfits who came the closest to glory but fell agonisingly short…

    Table graphic showing teams to win most points without going up: Sunderland 1997-98, 90 points; Brighton 2015-16, 89 points; Portsmouth 1992-93, 88 points; Ipswich Town 1998-99, 86 points; Wolverhampton Wanderers 2001-02, 86 points

    Sunderland 1997-98

    Having been relegated from the Premier League in 1996-97, Sunderland aimed to make an immediate return to the top flight the following season.

    With prolific striker Kevin Phillips in their ranks, the Wearside club ran Middlesbrough close for automatic promotion – but it was Boro, who went down with Sunderland the previous season, who ultimately snatched second place by a point.

    That meant the Black Cats were forced to settle for the play-offs and, to date, remain the only club to achieve 90 points or more in the second tier’s current format without going up.

    Michael Gray

    Michael Gray is consoled by Niall Quinn after his penalty shootout failure against Charlton at Wembley

    After beating Sheffield United in the semi-finals, they were involved in one of the most memorable play-off finals. Facing Charlton at the old Wembley Stadium, the two teams shared a stunning 4-4 draw and penalties were needed.

    An epic shootout went to sudden death and Charlton won it 7-6 to gain promotion, with Michael Gray missing the crucial spot-kick.

    Despite the agonising defeat, Sunderland’s resolve was never called into question as, the following season, they cantered to the second-tier title with a then-record 105 points.

    Wolves 1994-95 & 2001-02

    In 1994, after a decade outside the top flight, Wolves spent big in their quest to go up and tasked former England manager Graham Taylor with achieving what he described as “the holy grail” of promotion from Division One.

    “When you get a manager of his calibre saying things like that, you know they mean to do it,” Wolves all-time leading scorer Steve Bull told BBC Sport.

    “Graham was unbelievable. He was a top bloke. He knew what players he wanted in his side and he was a very good tactician.”

    Molineux had been redeveloped and Wolves owner Sir Jack Hayward provided significant funds for players, but injuries to new signings Tony Daley, Steve Froggatt and John de Wolf hindered their season.

    Ex-England striker Bull added: “We spent £5m, which these days is not even a leg of a player, but in those days it was a lot of money.

    “We brought in the right players and we actually thought we were going to do it that year, but Bolton came from behind us and took it out of our hands.”

    Ah, Bolton in the play-offs. A sentence to send shivers down Wolves fans’ spines.

    League restructuring meant there was just one automatic promotion spot that season. Wolves finished fourth, six points behind champions Middlesbrough, and they entered the play-offs having won just one of their final nine matches.

    Bull scored in the first leg at Molineux, as Wolves took a 2-1 lead into a dramatic second leg at Burnden Park.

    Bolton striker John McGinlay took it to extra time, before appearing to punch Bull’s strike partner David Kelly in the face. He only received a yellow card, then scored again to send Bolton to Wembley, where they beat Reading to win promotion.

    Steve Bull

    Steve Bull scored 306 goals for Wolves before retiring in 1999

    “Bolton and John McGinlay were a thorn in our side,” said Bull. “It was one of the saddest days in my career. I thought: ‘The Premiership is not going to elude Steve Bull, we’re going to get there.’ Unfortunately, it didn’t happen.

    “Graham must have been as gutted as everyone else around the club when we didn’t do it. If he’d have stayed at the club another year, I think he would have got us up.”

    Six seasons later and still in the second tier, Wolves spent another £11m in pursuit of promotion and sat in the automatic promotion spots for much of the 2001-02 campaign.

    However, Dave Jones’ team collapsed in the final weeks of the season and were pipped to second place by local rivals West Bromwich Albion.

    Bull, who retired in 1999, added: “It’s one of those things. You do worry about rivalry but you don’t worry about who goes up – as long as it’s you. It doesn’t matter about anyone else.

    “We’ve learned over the years to say: ‘When you do go up, you have to spend a lot of money.’ I think now we’re in a position, with the chairman we have now, that we want to stop in the Premier League.”

    Brighton 2015-16

    Having not played in the top flight since 1982-83, Brighton had finally assembled a side that looked capable of challenging for a place in England’s elite in 2015-16.

    It all came down to the final day of the campaign at second-placed Middlesbrough. Boro were level on 88 points with third-placed Brighton, but had the superior goal difference of the two going into the game. Chris Hughton’s side had to win in order to seal automatic promotion.

    Cristhian Stuani put Middlesbrough ahead before Dale Stephens levelled, but Stephens was sent off four minutes after his equaliser and a 1-1 draw forced Brighton into the play-offs.

    An injury-hit side lost 2-0 to Sheffield Wednesday in the first leg of their semi-final, before drawing 1-1 in the return leg.

    It was not all doom and gloom, however. The following season, Brighton finished second in the Championship and have been in the Premier League ever since.

    Portsmouth 1992-93

    With the newly conceived Premier League entering its first season, a queue of second-tier sides battled it out for their bite of the top-flight cherry in 1992-93.

    Portsmouth were one of the favourites to go up, especially with prolific striker Guy Whittingham in tow. That season Whittingham scored 42 of Pompey’s 80 goals over the regular 46-match campaign.

    Jim Smith’s side finished on 88 points alongside West Ham United, but league places for teams finishing level that season were decided on goals scored and not goal difference.

    Pompey scored one goal fewer than the Hammers and were forced to try their luck in that season’s play-offs, losing to Leicester in the semi-finals. Swindon, who finished fifth with 12 fewer points than Portsmouth, went up instead.

    In the years that followed, and after several battles against relegation to the third tier, Portsmouth eventually reached the Premier League under Harry Redknapp in 2002-03.

    Trevor Francis’ Birmingham City

    Under the management of legendary former player Trevor Francis, Birmingham reached the play-off semi-finals in three consecutive seasons between 1998-99 and 2000-01, but suffered the agony of losing two of them on penalties.

    Francis, who became the world’s first £1m transfer when he left Blues for Nottingham Forest in 1979, took charge at St Andrew’s in 1996 and oversaw a 48% overall win percentage but could not guide his side to promotion.

    The first of those play-off failures came after finishing fourth with 81 points, losing 7-6 to Watford in a penalty shootout, while in 1999-2000 they finished fifth before being dismantled by Barnsley in the first leg of their semi-final, losing 4-0 at St Andrew’s.

    Birmingham would endure penalties heartbreak again in 2001 as they conceded a last-minute equaliser in their second leg away at David Moyes’ Preston, before a 4-2 defeat in the shootout.

    Blues also reached the 2001 League Cup final, losing to Liverpool – again on penalties.

    They would finally be promoted through the play-offs in the following campaign at the fourth time of asking, but it was new manager Steve Bruce who took them there, after Francis had left the club in October 2001 by mutual consent.

    Ipswich Town 1997-98 & 1998-99

    Matt Holland

    Matt Holland, a mainstay of Ipswich’s midfield for several years, played for Republic of Ireland at the 2002 World Cup

    Similar to Birmingham, Ipswich were finally promoted via the play-offs at the fourth attempt in 2000.

    Attempting to rejoin the top tier after their 1995 relegation, George Burley’s side finished seventh, fourth and fifth in consecutive campaigns, before back-to-back third-placed finishes in 1999 and their eventual triumph in 2000.

    Propelled into repeated promotion pushes by the goals of strike duo David Johnson and James Scowcroft, and with Matt Holland pulling the strings in midfield, the Suffolk club looked destined to finally clinch promotion in 1999 in particular, but missed out on an automatic spot by a point.

    Then, in the play-off semi-final, they went out on the away goals rule after a 4-4 aggregate draw with Bolton, despite winning a dramatic second leg 4-3 after extra time at Portman Road.

    Away goals had also knocked out Burley’s men after extra time two years earlier against Sheffield United, but it was his squads of 1997-98 and 1998-99 who will feel most unfortunate not to have gone up, achieving 83 and 86 points respectively.

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