A Championship Play Off Final Preview
By Paula Marcus
It’s hard to believe just a week ago Reading and Huddersfield Town booked their places at the play-off final. This is the pinnacle for any Football League fan, the one thing you dream for. It’s the chance to play for the biggest prize in football, the chance to play in the top flight and cash in on an estimated $300 million.
As a football fan, it is an interesting experience. As a Reading fan, just hearing the words ‘play-off final’ can strike fear into you due to a less than perfect record. The whole season has built up to this point, and now you are just one game away. I debated on how biased this article should be, well sorry Huddersfield, it’s going to be a tad one sided. So here is the build up to what has been dubbed the final no one wanted.
Whilst it could be argued it is the final no one wanted, it is definitely the final no one predicted. Last season both teams looked like taking the trap door out of the division as Reading finished in 17th place, with Town just two places below. But that isn’t the only reason neither team are particularly popular. It still seems strange to me that you have to be of a certain size to apparently get promoted to the top flight, but that seems to be the attitude of many fans. In each of Reading’s three season in the Premier League we were over 95% capacity for home games, and took a sizeable following away. Likewise, I don’t think the addition of Bournemouth has decreased the value of the division, in fact it has probably enhanced it. They are a team that have done everything the right way, regardless of the size of their ground.
Arguably, based on League position over the season, both Reading and Huddersfield are the worthy finalists. In the case of Town, they spent large parts of the season in the top three and, for a while, looked like they had the potential to challenge the top two. Only a dip in form the last couple of months prevented that, and allowed Reading to overtake.
Reading on the other hand have been in the playoff places since October. Sure, we had a slow start, but changing manager over the summer can do that. Once the team adapted to Japp Stam’s new tactics, we have been one of the more consistent teams in the division, which leads me to my number one whinge; at no point in the play-offs have we been the favourites. Three weeks ago, we were the least fancied of the four play-off teams, despite being in the top position. Whilst the gap in odds is closing, we are still somehow the underdogs.
We might not have the greatest goal difference in the division, but Huddersfield are actually worse off and whichever team wins will have the honor of the lowest goal difference of a promoted team. We have also been the form team over the last ten games, whilst Huddersfield are 19th with just three wins and nine goals scored.
The one big thing we do have against us is precedent. Reading may actually have the worst play-off record of any team, ever. In the last 22 years, we have been in the play-offs five times with a grand total of zero promotions. That includes three lost finals, two of which we were leading (one by two goals). In the same period Huddersfield featured in seven play-offs, gaining promotion three times, most recently on their return to the Championship in 2012. So this may explain why Royals fans aren’t the most optimistic bunch when it comes to play-off finals. But that still doesn’t stop some of us flying over 3,000 miles for the final (yes I am that stupid).
Over the course of the season there has been little to separate the two teams, with the hosts winning both games 1-0. The head-to-head stats, however, favor Reading, who lead with 25 wins compared to Huddersfield’s 14, with 11 draws between the sides. But this is the play-offs, and past history means very little, it’s all about how you perform on the day. Both teams have recent history playing at Wembley, and Town’s win in 2012 puts them well head of Reading, who lost their last final and FA cup semi-final and the national stadium.
With less than a week till the final, the buildup has actually been very composed from both sides. There has, so far at least, been no insults thrown between the teams or mind games attempted. Reading have continued in a business as usual fashion, training at home and soaking up the atmosphere, whilst town have been soaking up some sun in a training camp in Portugal.
Whilst training has been going well, both teams do have injury concerns ahead of the big day. Reading’s Jordan Obita collapsed on the pitch after the first lag against Fulham, and is still a doubt with a hamstring injury. That’s combined with captain McShane missing the final due to a red card in the same game. We should cope with his absence though, after he missed the later part of the season with injuries. Huddserfield are waiting on the fitness of Elias Kachunga, who missed the end parts of their penalty win over Sheffield Wednesday. He is still a doubt for Monday’s game, although stand in Collin Quaner’s excellent performance after coming on in place of the injured striker.
So that’s it, flights booked, tickets sorted and hooped shirt packed (the lucky one obviously). Next stop my first experience of seeing my team at Wembley. Here’s hoping it’s a happy one (sorry Huddersfield Town).
Listen to Paula’s latest Championship podcast at Premier Punditry.