The Championship Play-Off final, a 90 minute game full of twists & turns. It’s exhilarating, joyous and the best way to get promoted if you win, but a real painful way to miss out on promotion if you lose.
Today, Aston Villa and Fulham will go head-to-head for the grand prize of a place in the top flight. Dubbed as the ‘£100 million game’, it’s estimated that this years final will be worth at least £160 million to the worthy winners. No pressure then.
In 30 years of Play-Off finals prior to today, Bolton Wanderers have featured in three of them. Here’s a look.
1995 - Bolton Wanderers 4-3 Reading
Although i’m completely biased, Bolton’s dramatic win against Reading in 1995 has to be one of the greatest (if not the greatest) play-off finals.
It looked all over for Wanderers just fifteen minutes into the game, as early goals from Lee Nogan and Adrian Williams had put Reading two up.
The Royals then had the chance to kill the game off all together. Ten minutes before half time, Michael Gilkes was brought down by Jason McAteer inside the box. Penalty Reading. Stuart Lovell stepped up, but was denied superbly by Keith Branagan.
That proved to be the turning point in the game. Fabian de Freitas’ introduction at the start of the second half sparked a Bolton comeback. Goals from Owen Coyle and de Freitas took the game into extra time. Wanderers were in the ascendancy, and secured their place in the Premier League thanks to a Mixu Paatelainen header and a scrappy, instinctive finish by de Freitas.
It would ultimately finish 4-3, but Bolton Wanderers had just pulled off one of the greatest comebacks seen at Wembley.
1999 - Bolton Wanderers 0-2 Watford
Colin Todd’s side were looking to get promoted again at the first time of asking. In 1997 they went up as Champions, but now had to try and beat Watford FC in the Play-Off final to earn a place in the Premier League.
After scraping past Ipswich on away goals in the semis, Wanderers hearts were broken at Wembley.
Watford, then managed by Graham Taylor, finished a place above Bolton in the league, and were the winners on that day at Wembley.
A side which featured future Wanderer Paul Robinson beat Bolton 2-0, thanks to an overhead kick from Nick Wright and a late goal by Allan Smart.
2001 - Bolton Wanderers 3-0 Preston North End
Having missed out on the 2000 final thanks to some highly suspect refereeing by a certain someone, Big Sam guided Wanderers to the 2001 Play-Off final.
Coming up against David Moyes’ Preston North End, Bolton were comfortable winners at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff.
They beat their local rivals 3-0.
Wanderers were ahead just over fifteen minutes into the game, as Gareth Farrelly’s perfectly placed effort from distance evaded the goalkeeper to give Bolton the lead.
Bolton remained 1-0 up until the final minute of the game. Late goals from Michael Ricketts and Ricardo Gardner put a shine on the scoreline. Wanderers were finally back in the top flight after three years away.
Wanderers went on to remain in the Premier League for eleven wonderful years. Top eight finishes, world class players and European football. What a time to be a Bolton fan.
So there you have it.
Best of luck to Aston Villa and Fulham today, who will both be playing in their first Play-Off final today.