Championship play-off final preview: Reading and Huddersfield Town chase Premier League dream and riches
They were near neighbours in last season’s final standings, separated only by one side. Reading were 17th, Huddersfield Town 19th, neither in danger of demotion to League One because of the way the bottom three were distanced but both very much ranking among the Championship’s also-rans.
They were near neighbours in this season’s final standings, separated only by one side. Reading were third, Huddersfield fifth, far ahead of favoured teams with bigger budgets and supposedly better players such as Norwich City, Derby County and Aston Villa. One extraordinary, unexpected display of progress will be garnished with promotion to the Premier League on Monday.
■ Huddersfield Town: A worldly club nestled into the Pennines, finding an edge on a budget
These are tales of exponential improvement fashioned by imports, of clubs who ignored managers on the Championship’s usual merry-go-round and made leftfield appointments. Jaap Stam has brought a Dutch passing game and tactical nous to Reading, David Wagner the infectious optimism and high-energy gegenpressing of his friend Jurgen Klopp from Borussia Dortmund to Huddersfield.
They have enabled underdogs to overachieve. A promotion-clinching victory, said the Uefa Champions League winner Stam, “would be one of my biggest achievements”.
Wagner was ebullient when each previewed what is billed as a £200 million (Dh940m) match. “A Huddersfield Town player usually never has a chance to be involved in the Premier League,” the German said. “Ten months ago, it [promotion] was maybe a vision.”
Even a few weeks ago, it seemed unlikely. Neither was the favourite in play-off semi-finals against Fulham and Sheffield Wednesday respectively. They have continued to confound expectations. Teams that are, by the standards of the division’s leading lights, shorn of stardust contrive to be more than the sums of their respective parts. They have performed when it mattered.
Huddersfield made history by reaching the play-offs while finishing with a negative goal difference. Yet they also showed they can hold their nerve: 22 of their 25 wins came by a solitary goal. Reading lost 7-1 to Norwich and then recovered to win four of their last five league games.
They owe their places at Wembley to penalties. Yann Kermorgant converted a winner against Fulham from 12 yards. Danny Ward saved two of Wednesday’s spot kicks. The goalkeeper, borrowed from Liverpool, is a sign Wagner has used the loan system wisely. Chelsea’s Izzy Brown and Manchester City’s Aaron Mooy should be pivotal in his midfield. Stam has raided the elite too. John Swift, the midfielder signed from Chelsea, has been vital, though the 35-year-old, 19-goal striker Kermorgant has been the real catalyst.
He is the only prolific forward on show, which may make Reading favourites, though the pre-match talk was of parity.
“Both teams like to play in a similar way,” Stam said. Indeed, Reading ranked second in the division for both possession and pass completion. Huddersfield were third in each category. Yet there are defensive differences. There were fewer shots on Huddersfield’s goal than anyone else’s, while Reading allowed the third most. Wagner’s pressing game is reflected in statistics showing Town made the fifth most tackles; Stam’s more patient approach shown as Reading made the fourth fewest.
They differ in their past and their future. Stam has vowed to stay at Reading, regardless of the result. Wagner, who rejected a mid-season move to Wolfsburg, is gaining admirers in the Bundesliga. Reading have had two stints in the Premier League. Huddersfield were last in the top flight in 1972. “It took 45 years to be where we are now so if we take another 45 years then not a lot of us will be involved,” said Wagner, illustrating the scale of their achievement.
But a reminder of the reward for defeat came from the matter-of-fact Stam. The financial gains could be huge but he said: “We know what the prize is. It could be nothing.”
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Updated: May 28, 2017 04:00 AM