Huddersfield earn Premier League promotion with gutsy win on penalties
LONDON -- There could surely be nobody who enjoyed this season's Championship playoff final. Not the neutrals, who were subjected to 120 minutes of increasing tedium and grim, tension-filled incompetence. Not Reading, who after a brilliant season in which expectations were exceeded, had their campaign defined by one game. And maybe not even Huddersfield Town, who ultimately won promotion to the Premier League after an excruciating penalty shootout. Not that they will care too much about how they won, of course.
David Wagner has been fond of comparing his side's run to Leicester City's Premier League title victory, which might be a bit much, but this is still an extraordinary feat. The boss was brought in last November to ensure Huddersfield survived in the Championship and, having done that, he has now taken them out of the division via the other end. The man who learned his trade under Jurgen Klopp at Borussia Dortmund will now be managing against his old friend in the top flight.
The final ended 0-0 after extra-time and there was very little to recommend the opening 120 minutes. But even after they missed the first penalty in the shootout, Huddersfield held their nerve to win the final in exactly the same manner as they beat Sheffield Wednesday in the semifinal. Goalkeeper Danny Ward, on loan from Liverpool, made a crucial save and centre-defender Christopher Schindler converted the final penalty.
Still, despite the dramatic ending this was a desperate spectacle. You could make a strong case for the abolition of the playoffs, and not just because of the inherent unfairness of a team who finished the "regular" season in sixth place winning promotion ahead of one who came third.
A more compelling case might be one similar to the idea that exams are no indicator of a student's academic progress. There is so much emphasis placed on and tension around one particular day, or a single event, that it cannot possibly be fair to measure one side's entire season on it. The pressure is so intense that almost nobody can be expected to perform at anything like their capabilities.
One might say that a winning team deserves their success based on how well they deal with that pressure, but it's as close to random chance as professional football gets.
The playoffs are obviously going nowhere, as the excitement they provide over the season compensates for the tedium of a final, but they aren't even compelling spectacles for the neutral: rather than a football game, you're watching 76,000 people gathered in a stadium to very publicly lose their minds over the course of 120 minutes.
This game was as prominent an example of that as anyone could provide. It started in much the frantic, uncoordinated way that one might expect from these occasions. Reading created a couple of half-chances, but Huddersfield passed up two absolute sitters in the first 10 minutes -- Michael Hefele headed wide when left free on the edge of the six-yard box from a corner, then Izzy Brown somehow put wide when faced with an open goal, Elias Kachunga having crossed low from the right.
Last week, their Yorkshire neighbours Bradford had similarly spurned a number of early opportunities in the League One playoff final, which ultimately cost them promotion. Any Huddersfield fans of a nervous disposition might have feared very recent history was repeating itself.
The game cooled down a little after that, some pretty spicy fouls from either side notwithstanding. Reading's ever-patient build-up play wasn't managing to force many holes in the Huddersfield defence, and they were limited to a couple of long-range efforts from John Swift and Joey van den Berg that bobbled wide and floated over respectively.
There was a brief flurry of action at the start of the second half, but the match soon settled into a nervy pattern, where too many players did not seem to have the same clear thinking of a "normal game." Passes were rushed, decisions poorly made and spaces opened up, but neither team appeared to have the invention or gumption to take advantage.
Both managers made substitutions to try changing something -- anything -- as Jordan Obita and Garath McCleary were introduced for Reading and the vast Collin Quaner came on for Huddersfield, but as the game progressed the mistakes became more careless and the thinking even more murky. The Terriers' captain Tommy Smith was forced off in the latter stages, but the grim and unbearably tense atmosphere continued into extra time. When the whistle blew for the end of 90 minutes, that burst of excitement in the opening quarter seemed a long, long time ago.
Little of note, other than a few bouts of cramp, happened in the additional 30 minutes, so penalties it was. Huddersfield won their semifinal in a shootout but didn't practise them before this game. Reading did, and it was the Terriers who faltered first, as Michael Hefele's effort was saved by Ali Al-Habsi.
But then, after two converted kicks, Reading defender Liam Moore launched his effort high into the stands: Aaron Mooy, on loan at Huddersfield from Manchester City, slotted into the bottom corner, and we were level again.
Then, just as he had in the semi, Huddersfield keeper Ward saved from Obita, and it was left to Schindler, the German defender signed last summer, to win it. He placed an absurdly calm effort into the bottom corner, and one end of Wembley went wild.
Nick Miller is a writer for ESPN FC, covering Premier League and European football. Follow him on Twitter @NickMiller79.