LEEDS United had hoped to end a 13-year exile from the country’s top flight this season until a late collapse denied the club a Championship play-off place at the final hurdle.
Ending a five-year exile was the aim in 1987 and United began the first ever Division Two play-off final with a last-gasp 1-0 loss at Charlton Athletic in the first leg at Selhurst Park 30 years ago this weekend. Brendan Ormsby’s strike then sealed a 1-0 win for the Leeds in the second leg at Elland Road two days later – but the Whites were ultimately chinned 2-1 in extra-time in the replay four days later as United’s wait for a return to top flight football went on.
Having been relegated from Division One when finishing 20th in 1982, Leeds had finished eighth, 10th, seventh and 14th in the four seasons that followed in Division Two. But a fourth-placed finish at their fifth attempt under second-season boss Billy Bremner took the club to a first crack at the inaugural play-offs which were introduced in the same year.
Three teams from Division Two qualified for the first ever play-offs with third-placed Oldham Athletic, fourth-placed Leeds and fifth-placed Ipswich Town all joining Charlton who finished fourth-bottom in Division One.
Charlton beat Ipswich 2-1 on aggregate in their semi-final and with Leeds 1-0 victors over Oldham over two legs, the Whites and Addicks faced a two-legged shootout for a place in Division One.
The first leg was played in drizzle at Charlton’s temporary Selhurst Park ground and proved a gritty game with Ralph Milne ending the contest with a fractured cheek bone and United’s Keith Edwards landing a black eye. The clash attracted an attendance of 16,680.
United had two chances in the first half with a 14-yard volley from Keith Edwards and a header from Jack Ashurst both flying over the bar.
Charlton’s best opportunity arrived to eventual match-winner Jim Melrose who aimed the ball too close to Mervyn Day who saved.
Day then saved the day twice in the second half when producing two brilliant stops to keep out efforts from Melrose and then Colin Walsh. United looked to have done enough to take a draw back to Elland Road but an 87th-minute free-kick conceded by Edwards proved costly. A fine delivery by Walsh found its way into the six-yard box and this time Melrose made no mistake as the striker outjumped the Whites defence at the far post to convert a late winner. The Addicks had drawn first blood but both managers were content with the scoreline.
Whites boss Bremner insisted: “They were a bit down after the game but they soon seemed to get over it.
“If we had conceded a goal in the second minute of the game and then held Charlton to a 1-0 scoreline it would have been hailed as a fine performance.”
Addicks boss Lennie Lawrence said: “I’m quietly confident. I’ll go over and shake Billy Bremner’s hand if they score twice against us.”
Once actually proved enough – as Ormsby set up a Friday night replay at Birmingham City – but it was Lawrence and Charlton who would have the last laugh.
United’s wait for a top flight return continued, an exile finally ended after an eight-year wait in 1990 when United won the Division Two title, two years short of becoming champions of the England.
Charlton Athletic 1 (Melrose 87)
Leeds United 0 Division Two play-off final first leg, May 23, 1987, At Selhurst park
Charlton Athletic: Bolder; Humphrey, Reid; Peake, Thompson, Miller; Gritt, Stuart (Milne), Melrose, Walsh, Crooks.
Leeds United: Day; Aspin, McDonald; Aizlewood, Ashurst, Ormsby; Edwards, Sheridan, Pearson (Ritchie), Baird, Adams.
Referee: R Milford (Bristol).