When Cambridge United won the first Wembley play-offs final 30 years ago | Football

Thirty years ago, Andy Williamson had an idea that would reshape the Football League play-offs. Instead of clubs contesting play-off finals over two legs at their own grounds – as they had done for the three seasons since the new format had been introduced in 1987 – they would meet for one-off finals at Wembley. Williamson, who worked for the Football League for 45 years in all, saw the potential of holding the three showpiece finals at the national stadium over a bank holiday weekend. Time has proven him right.

The first Wembley play-off final took place on Saturday 26 May 1990, with Cambridge United taking on Chesterfield for promotion to the third tier. Cambridge had been doing alright under Chris Turner in the 1989-90 season but, once John Beck took over as manager in January, the club were very much on the up. Beck’s unconventional coaching methods – which earned him the nickname “Dracula” as he was supposedly sucking the life out of football – included turning up the heating in the away dressing rooms at the Abbey Stadium to unsettle the opposition, allowing the grass to grow long to hamper opponents’ passing, and even chucking sand in the corners to hold up the ball.

It was a pragmatic approach, with the ball continuously knocked long to his frontmen. “It was so basic and ugly,” says Dion Dublin, one of the two strikers in that side. “We were a horrible team to play against, but the biggest change was the heavy training with the added emphasis on fitness.”

Beck’s approach was not aesthetically pleasing, but it worked. Having been 15th in the table in early April, Cambridge stormed up the table and sneaked into the play-offs on the last day of the regular season. They beat Maidstone United over two legs to set up a final against Chesterfield, who had held a play-off place for most of the season before hammering Stockport County 6-0 on aggregate in the other semi-final.

Neither club had played at Wembley before, so the final afforded fans a rare opportunity to revel in the big occasion. Among the 15,000 or so Cambridge supporters was an 11-year-old Max Rushden. “I remember seeing Wembley Way,” says Rushden. “I had seen it on the telly but, even now, despite having been there many times since, the very first time you see the colours of your team on Wembley Way – especially for teams that don’t get there that often – it is a totally bewilderingly extraordinary moment.

Cambridge players celebrate after their 1-0 win. Photograph: Colorsport/Rex/Shutterstock

“You know Wembley is where good teams play. It’s where England play. When you’re 11 years old and used to the Abbey Stadium – and the biggest ground I had seen was Ashton Gate – to see this massive stadium it was just mind-blowing, with those famous goals that curve down and you had seen Geoff Hurst score on video and all those cup finals. To then see your own team warming up and playing was simply extraordinary.”

The crowd of 26,404 spectators would have been the largest many of the players had experienced. Only one player on the pitch had appeared at Wembley beforehand, the Cambridge centre-back Colin Bailie, who had won the Full Members’ Cup final while at Reading in 1988. While on the topic of centre-backs, among the Chesterfield team that day was a young prospect who would eventually become their captain: Sean Dyche. The one man with plenty of big-match experience was the referee, George Courtney, who was off to Italy the following week to officiate at his second World Cup.

Dion Dublin celebrating at Wembley.

Dion Dublin celebrating at Wembley. Photograph: Action Images

The combination of high stakes and such little experience on the pitch led to a tense, tight game. Beck and his assistant Gary Johnson were known for their meticulous planning, yet the only goal came in the 77th minute from a late change of plan. “I remember it as clear as day,” Dublin says. “An inswinging corner from Chris Leadbitter. I am actually stood on the far post, Stevie Claridge is stood on the near. Claridge comes to me and says: ‘Dubes, you’re supposed to be on the near post.’ I said: ‘Steve, I can’t I’m already on the far.’ He was older than me so in the end I did what I was told and the ball came to the near and I headed it in. It was very, very bizarre.”

Dublin went on to play for Aston Villa, Manchester United, Celtic and England. He even won a share of the Premier League golden boot in the 1997-98 season while at Coventry, yet he is clear about which of his career goals was the most important. “It’s the most memorable,” Dublin says. “It’s my favourite – because it was the hard work to get to that situation. All those players from that team really had to earn it.”

“I scored on my debut for United. I scored on my debut for Coventry, for Villa and Celtic. Those goals mean a lot, but in order to get to the privilege of playing for such clubs I had to do what I did for Cambridge first. I had to get the foundations laid to come through the ranks to get to the next level. So that goal will always mean more than any of the others.”

It was a special time for Dublin and a special year for English football. The national team reached the World Cup semi-finals; Liverpool won their 18th and, to date, last top-flight title; Manchester United won the FA Cup, their first trophy under Alex Ferguson. And, over the late bank holiday weekend in May, the play-off finals established themselves in their new home. They would produce some of the most dramatic games to be held at Wembley over the next three decades.

Richard Foster is on Twitter and his book on the history of the play-offs, The Agony and the Ecstasy, is available now

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