Everyone loves a good comeback, except the team on the receiving end of one. They tend to be few and far between in football and that’s why they’re so special. When the chips are well and truly down and all seems lost, sometimes being several goals down can galvanise teams to achieve the impossible. Comebacks are a joy for the neutral and the team doing them, whilst they leave their opponents in a state of disbelief.
You’ll be hard-pressed to find something more enthralling and dramatic than a great turnaround on the football field and this week Toppo’s Top Ten looks at some of the most memorable from the Football League.
10: Watford 4 Bolton Wanderers 3 1993
Vicarage Road played host to one of the most unforgettable games in its history in October 1993, as Watford staged a remarkable comeback against Bolton in the old Endsleigh Division One.
The Hornets were lanugishing in the bottom half of the table while Bolton, under the management of Bruce Rioch and Colin Todd, were a side looking to secure promotion into the Premier League. For the first 71 minutes of the game the Trotters looked every inch promotion contenders, as they opened up a 3-0 lead with Watford not offering much and home fans beginning to stream out of the stadium.
However Glenn Roeder’s side got themselves a goal when striker Gary Porter netted with their first shot on target in the game – some pride salvaged at least. However two minutes later they were back in it, Porter scoring his second after bursting into the box, chesting down the ball and smashing it into the net. With around eight minutes to go, a flick-on saw Ken Charlerey pick up the ball and the midfielder let fly from 25 yards, his shot finding the bottom corner of the net and the turnaround was complete – or so Watford fans thought.
With a minute to go, Watford had a corner which was swung in towards the back post. With Bolton defenders attempting to head it clear it struck an arm and the referee awarded the hosts a penalty. Gary Porter stepped up, sent the goalkeeper the wrong way and thus sealed an amazing comeback for the Hornets as their fans went mad in celebration.
9: Sheffield United 4 Nottingham Forest 3 2003
The game which started Nottingham Forest’s love-affair with the play-offs. Having finished 6th in Division One during the 2002/03 season, Forest hosted 3rd placed Sheffield United in the semi-finals, the first leg at The City Ground ending 1-1. The Blades were favourites going into the Bramall Lane return a few days later and it would prove to be an incredible match.
The hosts fell behind when David Johnson gave Forest the lead on the night midway through the first half and on 58 minutes, the Reds doubled their lead when Andy Reid struck Mathieu Louis-Jean’s deep cross into the net at the back post – Forest, it seemed, were on their way to the Cardiff play-off final.
However United stirred themselves and got a goal back two minutes later when Michael Brown’s deflected free-kick crept over the line and Steve Kabba equalised not long after, volleying the ball high into the net after a flick-on fell to him. With the scores level at 2-2 the match entered extra-time where United went in front through Paul Peschisolido, before a Des Walker own-goal extended their lead further. Jon Olav-Hjelde pulled a last-minute consolation back for Forest but it was Neil Warnock’s side who would go on to face Wolves in the final, after a rollercoaster 120 minutes of football.
8: Southampton 3 Leeds United 4 2005
Four goals in a frantic final 20 minutes saw Leeds United complete an amazing comeback against Southampton in the Championship six years ago. Saints were in control on home turf as Marian Pahars and a double from midfielder Nigel Quashie put them 3-0 ahead at the break – and the score was still the same with 70 minutes on the clock.
Leeds manager Kevin Blackwell threw on striker David Healy and his introduction sparked a remarkable turnaround. Paul Butler’s looping header gave the Whites hope then six minutes later Robbie Blake tapped in to make the score 3-2 with thirteen minutes of normal time remaining.
On 84 minutes Healy’s attempted chip was handled by a Southampton defender in the box and a penalty awarded. Healy stepped up to rifle his spot-kick into the top corner and it seemed Leeds had salvaged a point. However Liam Miller converted a low cross from the right on the half-volley with four minutes left to set the seal on an incredible afternoon’s football. He and his teammates ran to celebrate in front of the travelling Leeds support behind the goal, who would struggle to forget what they’d just seen.
6: Oxford United 5 Portsmouth 5 1992
In a match against Portsmouth they looked well and truly out of, Oxford United pulled off an amazing recovery in the final five minutes to salvage a point. This Division One encounter got off to the best start possible for Pompey as Alan McLoughlin rose highest to power a header into the roof of the net and striker Guy Whittingham doubled the lead with a first-time volley not long after.
The visitors made it three from a corner as Kerry Evans diverted the ball into his own net, David Penney did pull a goal back for Oxford shortly afterwards, but Portsmouth restored their three goal advantage as Whittingham scored his second. Jim Magilton volleyed Oxford back into it before the break after what had been a shocking first 45 minutes from his side.
In the second half it was Portsmouth who extended their lead again as winger Mark Chamberlain rifled a shot into the roof of the net and at 5-2, the match looked over. With five minutes left on the clock, John Durnin ran onto a flick-on to score, but with home fans leaving the Manor Ground Chris Allen was brought down in the box and Oxford had a penalty. Magilton slotted his spot-kick into the bottom corner to make the score 5-4 but they were not finished and after another ball was hit into the Portsmouth area, a shot was parried where it fell to Allen, who headed home to make it 5-5.
5: Peterborough United 4 Cardiff City 4 2009
During the 2009/10 Championship campaign, Peterborough United and Cardiff played out arguably the league’s game of the season as eight goals were shared at London Road in an entertaining 4-4 draw.
Cardiff, gunning for Premier League promotion, displayed their credentials, going into a 4-0 lead with 36 minutes gone. Joe Ledley scored twice, Jay Bothroyd added a third and Peter Whittingham’s 25-yard free-kick made it four. For bottom-of-the-table Peterborough, a heavy defeat was on the cards as the Cambridgeshire side were battling to avoid relegation.
However in the second half they turned the game on its head. Boss Mark Cooper introduced two substitutes to bolster his midfield and one of them, Josh Simpson pulled a goal back for Posh on 51 minutes. Charlie Lee’s header made the game interesting before George Boyd’s 89th minute top corner effort meant Peterborough needed one goal to equalise with just minutes to go. Incredibly they did it, Simpson’s close range effort making it 4-4. An unlikely, but brilliant comeback.
4: Birmingham City 4 Swindon Town 6 1993
On their way to securing promotion to the Premier League in the 1992/93 season, Swindon Town pulled off an outstanding comeback at St. Andrews against Birmingham City. In the first 45 minutes the hosts established a 2-0 lead through Dean Peer and John Frain, before Shaun Taylor’s towering header halved the defecit going into the break.
Two minutes into the second half Paul Moulden rounded Swindon goalkeeper Fraser Digby and finished to make it 3-1 to Birmingham before Andy Saville struck a ferocious left-footed volley which flew into the top corner of the net to extend the Blues’ lead further.
On 60 minutes Craig Maskell fired a low finish beyond Blues ‘keeper Andy Gosney to give Swindon a glimmer of hope and five minutes later David Mitchell’s diving header made it 4-3. Mitchell then silenced the 18,000 crowd as the ball fell to him eight yards from goal and he made no mistake, equalising for the Robins with 14 minutes left. Maskell gave Swindon the lead for the first time in the game as he headed home a corner and on the stroke of injury time Mitchell completed his hat-trick, beating the last defender and goalkeeper to slot home an easy finish. What a turnaround from Glenn Hoddle’s side, who were 4-1 down with half an hour to go.
3: Port Vale 4 Queens Park Rangers 4 1997
In 1997 Queens Park Rangers pulled off an astonishing comeback to snatch a draw at Vale Park in Division One, leaving hosts Port Vale wondering how they’d managed to throw away a four goal lead.
In the first half Vale opened the scoring when Dean Glover steered Jan Jansson’s 24th minute corner into the net and they made it two eleven minutes later, the impressive Steve Guppy crossing to the far post where Lee Mills nodded home. Guppy set up Vale’s third when he laid off Tony Naylor’s pass into the path of Jansson, who smashed the ball under the stunned Tony Roberts in Rangers’ goal. Vale’s fourth came before half-time as Matthew Brazier headed Jansson’s corner into his own net.
After a nightmare first 45 minutes, QPR’s travelling support were probably wondering why they’d bothered to make the 200 mile trip north to Stoke-on-Trent, but they had something to cheer on the 66th minute, as Vale debutant Jermaine Holwyn comically nodded the ball into his own net trying to intercept a lofted pass from the right of the area. On 85 minutes, Andy Impey reduced Vale’s lead to two with an outstanding volley which flew in off the bar – then Port Vale went to pieces. Paul Murray chipped Rangers’ third following some great build-up play, then in injury time striker John Spencer rifled in the equaliser after Paul Musselwhite could only parry away Daniele Dichio’s effort. Unbelievable!
2: Leeds United 4 Preston North End 6 2010
When Leeds United hosted Preston North End at Elland Road in the Championship last season, few could’ve predicted the 90 minutes which lay ahead. It was North End – struggling near the foot of the table under manager Darren Ferguson – who took the lead through Jon Parkin’s tap-in. Luciano Becchio’s header equalised for Leeds and it was another header which put the home side in front, Alex Bruce beating North End goalkeeper Andy Lonergan. Lloyd Sam set up Davide Somma to make the score 3-1 to the Whites on 27 minutes before Somma added a fourth. Parkin almost immediately pulled a goal back for Preston before the break, but Preston looked all over the place as the sides headed into the dressing rooms for half-time.
Keith Treacy made it 4-3 nine minutes after the break from a corner as the home defence began to come under pressure. United defender George McCartney brought down Paul Coutts in the box to give Preston a penalty, which captain Callum Davidson dispatched high into the net for the equaliser. Preston completed a great comeback with 25 minutes remaining as Parkin scored his third of the night, a low left-foot shot beating Shane Higgs in the Leeds goal, and with eleven to go Iain Hume made it 6-4 to the away side, heading in Billy Jones’ diagonal cross from the right to cap off an incredible victory for North End.
1: Cheltenham Town 5 Burton Albion 6 2010
A goal-fest from League Two when Burton Albion met Cheltenham Town at the Pirelli Stadium during the 2009/10 season. The game saw eleven goals, ended up 6-5 and included a stunning fightback from a Cheltenham side who didn’t know when they were beaten.
Burton were 2-0 ahead at half-time thanks to a brace from Shaun Harrad but Justin Richards and Medy Elito restored parity early on in the second period. Burton were soon 4-2 ahead after an own goal from Cheltenham’s Michael Townsend, who deflected Cleveland Taylor’s cross into his own net, before a close-range strike from Brewers’ marksman Steve Kabba. With six minutes remaining Cheltenham were back in the game, Michael Pook making it 4-3 from a free kick in the 84th minute, but a minute later Kabba netted his second to put Burton 5-3 ahead and seemingly on course for victory.
Pook got his second of the match in the 87th minute as his strike hit a Burton defender before going in, then Richards grabbed his second goal to make it 5-5. Mark Yates’ side had pulled off an incredible turnaround but they were not done yet, as with virtually the last kick of the game, Pook completed his hat-trick and the most unlikely of victories, his rising drive beating Brewers’ goalkeeper Artur Krysiak from 25 yards out deep into stoppage time.
Within the space of ten minutes Cheltenham had somehow turned a 5-3 defecit into a 6-5 win, leaving the Burton players, staff and supporters shell shocked.
Written by Steven Toplis, We Are Going up podcast member and Nottingham Forest blogger
Tweet Steven at @steven_toplis with your suggestions for Toppo’s Top Tens