Keith Edwards stunned Oldham with a late goal that took Leeds United into the first ever second division play-off final. The striker tells Leon Wobschall of his memories that day.
HEAD to a press conference where affable boss Joe Royle held court in his managerial heyday and a sense of bonhomie generally prevailed, with a wisecrack or two never far away.
But rewind the clock almost 24 years and the humour of the then Oldham Athletic boss was more of the gallows variety as Leeds United – and one figure in particular – exposed the inherent cruelty of the play-off system at the end of 1986-87 – the first season it became operational in the Football League.
The villain of the piece as far as Royle was concerned was goal predator Keith Edwards and while most of his whopping 259 league goals were plundered wearing the red and white stripes of Sheffield United or the amber-and-black of Hull City, two knock-out strikes in the white jersey of Leeds provided a fair amount of payback following his £125,000 switch from Bramall Lane in the summer of 1986, much to Scouser Royle’s chagrin.
This season’s end-of-season play-off jamboree kicked off on Thursday night with the innate sense of theatre involved having long since made it pure box office for TV companies and the watching neutrals alike and an inherent part of the footballing landscape.
Given that, it’s easy to forget that back in the mid-1980s the introduction of a play-off system to determine promotion – and also the final relegation place –- was a revolutionary and controversial move.
Royle, making waves with a talented young side at Boundary Park which contained a trio of ex-Whites players in Denis Irwin, Andy Linighan and Tommy Wright, certainly had cause to rue its creation with the Latics thrown into the second division play-off maelstrom despite finishing seven points above fourth-placed United in third.
Ahead of their two-legged semi-final with their Yorkshire rivals, Royle labelled the system as grossly unfair, adding bitterly: “You play 46 games just to get into a semi-final.” And his mood darkened just over a week later.
After their tilt with FA Cup glory ended in semi-final heartbreaking fashion against Coventry at Hillsborough, United, managed by Whites legend Billy Bremner, picked themselves up to win five of their last eight fixtures to finish in the play-offs.
Tesssider Edwards, now 53 and living back in his adopted city of Sheffield, said: “I remember our last game of the (regular) season at Brighton when I was battling to get into the first team and was seeing all these great games coming up. It wasn’t a particularly great match, but we won 1-0 and I scored.
“But that particular goal confirmed that we would have to play Oldham. I think there were one or two, including our manager – who I loved – who were slightly disappointed.
“I remember thinking at the time: ‘I can’t do right for doing wrong here!’. But we got over that.
“We knew the rules to start with and the play-offs had the potential of extending your season. I thought the play-offs then – and now – are a positive thing and exciting.
“At the time, people used to think if you finished third you should be going up, but teams knew the rules before a ball was kicked.
“It can work for you and if you go up through the play-offs it’s more exciting than getting automatic promotion.
“You live with that gamble and nobody complains about them now – you can’t afford to sulk and just have to get on with it.”
The first instalment of United’s play-off crusade took place at Elland Road on Thursday, May 14, 1987 with a dramatic header from super-sub Edwards in the final minute settling a tetchy encounter in front of just under 30,000 fans. It handed the hosts a slender lead before the return on Oldham’s notorious plastic pitch the following Sunday lunch-time.
Given their formidable home form,
Oldham were still slight favourites to progress, although, interestingly, United were one of just two sides to have earlier triumphed on the synthetic surface that season.
Andy Ritchie, the man who fired the winner in that 1-0 Christmas win, was the only change to United’s starting line-up with the striker –- who ironically went on to become a cult hero at Boundary Park and eventually manage the club – replaced by John Stiles.
A bumper 6,000 visiting contingent headed west to Boundary Park and packed the Rochdale Road end in expectation of United taking one more step towards ending their five-year top-flight exile.
But they looked like copping tears for souvenirs when goals from Garry Williams and a late second from replacement Mike Cecere seemingly broke United’s hearts as the hosts turned around the first-leg deficit to lead 2-1.
Or so all those amongst the 19,216 crowd thought anyway.
Cue a true What Happened Next moment. And no United fan of a certain age and certainly none present that day will need any reminding of how Edwards – after a disappointing season trying to establish himself in the first team – proved Johnny-on-the-spot again to fire a stunning last-gasp away goal to steal the hosts’ thunder in the most unbelievable fashion.
After his late FA Cup semi-final intervention against Coventry City and his late, late first-leg stunner, Edwards completed a memorable triple whammy with the most important of the lot to save United’s season just when it was destined to end in heartbreak.
The importance of the strike – while Oldham’s ecstatic fans and players were literally still doing a victory dance – was twofold with it also providing United with a potentially-seminal away goal if the visitors could hold out in 30 minutes of extra time.
Which they did with the tie ending all square and United joyously progressing on the away goals rule.
On the tie and his supersub moniker, Edwards said: “I wasn’t very fond of that and didn’t see it as a compliment. But I did understand it at the time.
“They were great games and I remember the first leg when we were going towards the Kop end.John Sheridan had a free-kick on the right-hand side and we had to gamble. I made a bit of a run towards the near post, about 12 yards out, John picked me out and fortunately I headed it in.
“It was a great thrill because at the time I felt I needed to do something for Leeds to make a bit of an impression as at the time I was in the side and then out.
“People still talk about the goal at Oldham. The comical thing about it, after going 2-0 down, was that all I can remember was Joe Royle and (Willie) Donachie (Oldham’s assistant manager) celebrating.
“While they were doing that, we knocked a bit of a hopeful ball in there, Bairdy (Ian Baird) knocked it down and I knocked it into the corner – it was that quick.
“We felt we were most of the way there after that and overall I felt we deserved to go through to the final. “To be fair, Oldham were the one team we wanted to avoid because they were such a good side.”
The two-legged final against Division One strugglers Charlton Athletic, which went to an extra game before being decided, proved similarly packed with incident and drama, although the denouement was one of despair for United.
At neutral Birmingham City’s St Andrews ground, with their travelling army of around 13,000 fans – which formed the bulk of a gate of 18,000 – United were left shattered after a gut-wrenching extra-time double from the Addicks’ Sheffield-born centre-half Peter Shirtliff.
That oh-so-cruel Friday night of May 29 ended a memorable if strength-sapping campaign for United which totalled 54 games in all competitions.
And despite the initial deep-seated disappointment, it did, at least, claw back a modicum of pride after some truly dark seasons at Elland Road.
Edwards said: “We were all fit and we all really enjoyed the season, despite the blow at the end. One or two of us were maybe a little bit frustrated at not being in the first team to start with, but you live with that.
“In the end, it was a case of ‘so near and yet so far’. Leading with 10 minutes to go (against Charlton) with a great goal from Shez (Sheridan) and to lose was immensely disappointing.
“But, overall, when you look at it, it was a season of immense excitement.”