There probably isn’t a game in world football with as much on the line as the EFL Championship play-off final. With a berth in next season’s Premier League the prize, there are untold riches on offer for the team who is triumphant at Wembley – and this season it will be Reading taking on Huddersfield town on May 29 at the home of English football.
If there was a dictionary definition for the term ‘yo-yo club’, then Reading would probably take it. They’ve had two spells in the Premier League over the past ten years, with a miserable last campaign coming in 2012/13. Under Brian McDermott, they famously went on an incredible run from Christmas onwards before going up as champions but were relegated the following season with just six wins and a miserly 28 points.
Reading is a pretty run of the mill London commuter town, and they will fancy themselves as being able to attract players of a decent caliber should they go up – and should they get the funds from controversial new Chinese owners Dai Yongge and Dai Xiu Lu. The brother and sister duo announced their takeover of the club hours after the second-leg had finished.
Reading finished in third place this season – so their reward was the plum draw of taking on sixth place, with the second leg being played at home. This column has long waxed lyrical about the rampant Fulham side that has been on a seemingly unstoppable march up the table over the past couple of months, and I’ve long had them down as the outside bet for promotion.
Reading barely had a positive goal difference going into the fixture; their build up play is laborious and despite their lofty league position, they’ve had serious problems scoring goals. Going up against an attacking and free-scoring Fulham side, it was to be the old chestnut of the irresistible force meeting the immovable object. The two legs were fascinating in their own right.
Reading are third for a reason, however. Defensively they are stubborn and do not leave much to chance, and they nullified Fulham in an aggressive and bad-tempered display – perhaps taking their cue from manager, Jaap Stam, who was a renowned tough tackler for Manchester United in his day.
After a goalless second half, Jonathan Obita took the lead for Reading – before the hugely impressive Tom Cairney equalised 12 minutes later. Paul McShane was sent off for Reading in the final ten minutes after a horror challenge – but with the game finishing 1-1, you feel that Stam would have been telling his men that it was a job well done. Tactically, he won the battle and half of the war.
The other semi-final was an all-Yorkshire affair, as Huddersfield town faced off against Sheffield Wednesday.
Football has been in the doldrums in Yorkshire for a long, long time. Compared to London, Lancashire or the West-Midlands, fans have been utterly starved of top-level clubs that are able to compete at the highest level. Hull City was there this season, but didn’t exactly set the world alight – and they were duly relegated after only securing promotion last summer to the Premier League.
But it looks like this could all change soon, and both Town and Wednesday have been backed handsomely by new owners over the past couple of years. In January alone, Sheffield Wednesday splashed £10 million on Jordan Rhodes to try and give them the firepower needed to gain promotion.
Anyone born later than the 1980s will be forgiven for not knowing that Wednesday are one of the giants of English football. They would have no problem filling the near 40,000 capacity Hillsborough should they get to the Premier League. Wednesday has been absent from the top division since 2000 but Carlos Carvajal has assembled an entertaining and dangerous side over the past two seasons, and I feel out of the four play-off sides, they would be the ones best equipped to stay in the Premier League should they reach it. The first leg against Huddersfield ended goalless in a bore-draw, so it was all to play for in the second leg.
Fulham headed to the Madejski stadium on Tuesday night for the second-leg and outplayed but failed to score against a dogged Reading side – who yet again won the tactical battle. They defended for their lives at times, keeping the game tight with their goalkeeper, Ali Al-Habsi making a string of excellent saves.
Just after half-time, Jan Kermorgant scored a penalty after defender Jan Kalas was penalized for a handball. On another day, it wouldn’t have been given. But luck was with Stam’s men and the goal was enough to put a full stop to Fulham’s season and send Reading to Wembley.
Huddersfield and Sheffield Wednesday played out a dramatic second-leg on Wednesday night, with penalties ultimately deciding things. It’s a heartbreaking way to lose – akin to being booted out of a car at high speed and left by the roadside. Terriers goalkeeper Danny Ward was the hero of the hour, saving two penalties in the shoot-out to give them a 4-3 win. Town manager David Wagner quipped after the match: “Everyone knows Germans are able to win penalties.”
Huddersfield and Reading now have a week-and-a-half to prepare for the final, which will be played on Monday, May 29 at 3pm (local). Both teams reached the final with a fair amount of luck – so both managers will be thinking that this one is theirs for the taking. On the biggest stage, fortune favours the bold.