With so much at stake, perhaps it was no surprise that the game finished 0-0 and was settled by penalties. Huddersfield Town won the day, and can proudly claim the final place in next season’s English Premier League. Hyperbole is often king for the ‘richest game in football’, and with figures ranging from £50 million to £200 million bandied about as the prize. It’s a game that has grown in stature as English football has gotten richer – but for the manager and the players of both teams, the Championship play-off final is worth much more than that. The team that wins will test themselves against football’s elite. Old Trafford, the Emirates and Stamford Bridge awaits.
Wembley was a sea of blue and white, as the 76,682 fans were coloured in the home kits of both Huddersfield Town and Reading. The play-off final has also, over the years, had the reputation of giving great, exciting games with lots of goals. This one didn’t have the goals but there was knife-edge tension and more than a couple of guilt-edge chances.
Huddersfield had two brilliant chances in the first ten minutes. The ever-impressive loanee from Manchester City Aaron Mooy whipped in a free-kick which found Michael Hefele on his own in front of goal. He nodded the ball agonizingly wide. A big let-off for Reading.
Winger Elias Kachunga blasted the ball across the face of goal just minutes later, and the ball found Izzy Brown who for all the world looked like he was going to bury it in the back of the net. It was one of those that was perhaps harder not to score. The ball fumbled off his shin and trickled wide. Another let-off for Reading.
Jaap Stam’s Reading are at the dance because of their ability to dominate the midfield, and they grew buoyant after Huddersfield’s two misses. This often laborious style of play can also be their undoing, and for all their possession they looked tepid. Huddersfield sat back whilst Reading self-indulgently stroked the ball around. You might have been forgiven for thinking that Reading overlooked the fact that a place in the Premier League was at stake. Stam’s tactics certainly weren’t my cup of tea.
The game became scrappy towards the end as the suspense built and built. Reading substitute Gareth McCleary fired wide in probably the best chance of extra-time. Penalties had by now engulfed the minds of both teams, and a shoot-out was inevitable.
Yann Kermorgant scored from Reading’s first spot-kick, as did Chris Lowe for Huddersfield. Williams made it 2-1 to Reading before veteran Ali Al-Habsi saved from Hefele. Liam Kelly scored for Reading to make it 3-1. If Nahki Wells missed his penalty for Huddersfield it would be very difficult to come back. He coolly scored to make it 3-2.
The pendulum turned to Huddersfield as Moore blasted his spot-kick into the stands for Reading. Mooy hammered home for Huddersfield to make it 3-3 and make the advantage even once more. Reading’s Jonathan Obita saw his penalty saved before Schindler finished sending the Yorkshire fans into ecstasy. They will be in the top flight of English football next season for the first time in 45 years.
Much of the credit can go to German manager, David Wagner, who took over in November 2015. He praised his side following the full-time whistle, saying: “I said to the players before the semi-finals: ‘You are heroes, you finished fifth in the league, but from hero to zero in football is sometimes only a week and now you have the opportunity to become legends.’ Now they are legends for sure. Everybody will remember what this group of players have done with a small budget. And they deserve it. This football club has written an unbelievable story.”