There is nothing quite like the Championship play-off final, no other occasion in English football after which desperation and hope ends in two more contrasting emotions. On the morning of the game, Wembley and its environs became a West Yorkshire refuge for Huddersfield Town supporters, desperate to get within sight of their destiny five or six hours before kick-off. That only increases the nerves from overwhelming to unmanageable.
Even if the Premier League is not always a Promised Land for those who are promoted, nobody dares think of anything but the spoils – financial and sporting – of victory in this moment. Multiply those feelings of dread by a thousand to account for a penalty shootout, and you feel sick just reading or writing about such events. The overriding feeling as a neutral supporter of a Championship club is that I simply couldn’t cope with the occasion. You’d find me in a cubicle somewhere within Wembley’s recesses, rocking back and forth and sobbing for someone to tell me when it was all over.
Nerves aren’t just shared by supporters, but players too. Not every member of squads promoted to the top flight get their chance in the Premier League, but even the possibility is enough to make muscles cramp and heartbeats quicken. It is slightly hyperbolic to suggest that entire careers are on the line, but this is certainly the pitch on which they can be defined.
Unfortunately, nerves do not lend themselves to high quality football. Most play safe, scared of making the mistake that will cost their side and cast them as villain. Extra touches are taken, passes back to defensive midfielders, central defenders and goalkeeper used as a comfort blanket. Managers urge nine outfield players back towards their own goal to defend set pieces, reducing the opportunity to concede.
Critics of the play-offs point out the flaws in a high-profile, high octane competition at the end of a 46-game season when players have little left to give, and on Monday Huddersfield Town and Reading did their best to give the prosecution plenty of material to form a persuasive case. The 90 minutes of normal time produced three shots on target between them, with neither Danny Ward nor Ali Al-Habsi forced into difficult work.
In fact, the game barely even became stretched, both teams content to sit back after Huddersfield’s bright start, and size up the magnitude of their potential reward. Each time one side did counter, a player was prepared to atone for his lack of positioning by breaking up the attack illegally, collecting a yellow card for his troubles.
Perhaps Izzy Brown’s shambolic early miss, from two yards out at the back post, hampered the game too. It persuaded Reading that they must guard against future mishap, Jaap Stam ordering his team to further enforce a safety-first mentality that the Royals used effectively and efficiently against Fulham in the semi-final. After several attempts to blow the house down, Wagner’s Huddersfield also seemed content to sit on the veranda and watch the world go by. Do not discount the hard work by players half-broken by a league season, but hard work has never been less sexy.
It sounds grouchy and grumbly to pass comment on the standard of fare in a final, and this is not an attack on either team. Instead, we have reached an impasse where a game’s importance directly impinges upon its likely quality. One goal in 2013 was followed by one goal in 2014, two goals in 2015, one goal in 2016 and now no goals in 2017.
For all the talk of the £150m, £170m or £200m spoils to the winner, the lack of goals or true quality is what those watching at home will remember most. There are different ways to measure richness. The Championship play-off final has become an occasion of high stakes, but few gambles.