The story of Huddersfield Town’s remarkable season has just one chapter left following a nerve jangling, thrilling and epoch making night at a febrile Hillsborough.
Like all good books, the tale has been stuffed with plot twists, massive characters and the occasional villain (Stuart Webber, for example) and the denouement will remain unknown until the very end.
Exactly 22 years to the day since Town beat Brentford on penalties to reach Wembley, the parallels with that evening were resonant; entering the game as underdogs after a home draw, upper tier seating, watching a shoot out taking place at the other end of the pitch and a raucous following, but the challenge for today’s squad was of even greater magnitude.
Wednesday, who frustrated Town with effective but stultifying tactics in the first leg could be forgiven for feeling the job was almost complete. A sold out home crowd – which rarely lived up to its pre match billing as a cauldron – had the potential to freeze the visiting team in terror and the Owls undoubtedly contain individual talents of greater renown than their opponents; if only Carvalhal could, finally, provide them with the freedom of expression so evidently lacking in the first act.
Though more expansive – they could hardly be anything else – the early stages of a tense and tight drama suggested a long night in store as the visitors responded to Wednesday’s elevated intent with good possession and control, though a couple of high balls to Fletcher at the back post created moments of danger for the Owls, thwarted by Ward.
As in the first leg, promising possession largely evaporated once Town approached danger areas, but the confidence and calmness of the players was comforting to the hugely outnumbered but constantly noisy visiting fans.
Just short of the half hour, however, Mooy’s sublime ball to Van La Parra allowed the Dutchman to play in Wells behind the Wednesday defence to feed Brown. The Chelsea youngster could only steer his instinctive finish on to the post (it is possible that Westwood’s finger tips helped) but the move was greatly encouraging.
Wednesday came straight back and only Fletcher’s lack of pace when put through by the impressive Bannon diluted a moment of genuine danger to the Terriers – his dismal attempted ball to Forestieri was less forgivable and Town survived, only to be tested minutes later when an unmarked Hutchinson fired a volley way over following a free kick.
Somewhat wobbly at this stage, Town responded with a good move down the right. Smith’s slightly overhit cross was brilliantly taken down by Van La Parra who flicked the ball towards Wells. As the Bermudian touched the ball beyond Westwood, the Owls’ custodian appeared to make contact but the strong penalty appeals were turned down.
A nervy but compelling first half ended with the magnificent Hogg being booked for a crude foul on Forestieri, and the combative midfielder would spend the remainder of the game on something of a knife edge.
With neither side being able to assert dominance, despite the imperious efforts of Mooy for Town and Bannon for Wednesday, a stalemate looked increasingly likely to continue. Van La Parra’s pace and trickery had the home side constantly on their toes and he was involved in both of Town’s best moments, while Wednesday’s best option was probing a back post vulnerability which also created two chances.
Unfortunately for Town, the second half began badly as, after just 5 minutes, that back post vulnerability was finally exposed. An excellent cross from deep by Bannon fell perfectly for Fletcher who outjumped Schindler to head Wednesday in to the lead.
Hillsborough erupted as the hitherto tense Owls fans sensed the enormity of the goal; surely, now, their torture of 12 months ago was about to be erased.
Town had different ideas and, with some considerable character, began to boss the game with prolonged passages of possession creating presentable chances for Wells and Kachunga. The season long conversion problem could have weighed heavily in an intensely pressurised situation but driven by Hogg’s energy and the class of Mooy and Brown, hope was not lost.
Kachunga, who had looked a little tired following his Herculean efforts in the home leg, was replaced by Quaner and in less than a minute of his arrival, Town were level.
Picking the ball up in space, Brown played a sublime ball past Pudil and in to the path of the big substitute whose considered square ball was turned in (agonisingly slowly) by a combination of Wells and desperately defending legs.
It had been a long time coming but, at last, Town were rewarded for their superior possession based football which doesn’t create enough chances or, indeed, telling pressure, but has its own beauty.
Until the end of the 90 minutes, Town were clearly in the ascendant – even when Hogg was off the field being treated for a head injury – and the impressive Quaner fed Wells again only for Westwood to foil him this time. Right at the death, Wells may have done better when put through by Mooy but hesitated rather than shooting, allowing the busy Westwood the time to smother the attempt.
With that chance gone – and it was a genuinely good one – extra time proved much tighter as tired legs strived not to make the fatal error which could decide these seemingly inseparable teams.
The first 15 minutes were edged by Wednesday – Ward had to make a sharp if straightforward save from the hugely disappointing Rhodes (it remains a genuine mystery why Carvalhal believed replacing Fletcher’s aerial ability was a good idea) and Hefele made a tremendous block to prevent Forestieri scoring, yet again, against the Terriers. In response, a long range effort by Wells was easily gathered by Westwood.
Fewer of the Town players were wilting, however, and they came back strongly in the second period with Wells forcing another save from Westwood (inexplicably no corner ensued) and Holmes- Dennis, who had replaced an exhausted Van La Parra, and the excellent Lowe caused problems for the home side down the left as the visitors finished the stronger, but to no avail.
On to the agonies of penalties then, though Town had a Teutonic record in shoot outs before any of the current Germans had arrived and while most of the visiting support were dismayed at the competition being decided at the opposite end of the ground, those of us with Brentford memories from the top tier of the Griffin Park stand had the fleeting pleasure of deja vu.
Stepping up first, Lowe slammed a perfect penalty past Westwood’s dive and the advantage of going first, if you score, was sealed.
Hutchinson, who, like Hogg was slightly fortunate not to have received a second yellow card, stepped up next only to see his penalty slapped away by the overly maligned Ward (who had also made several good saves during the game and was much more commanding than normal).
At 2-0, Town were in the box seat. Hefele, Wells and Mooy kept up the pressure before the diminutive figure of Jack Payne strolled up with the chance to put Town through to the play off final. Unfortunately for the man from Essex, his well struck penalty was excellently saved by Westwood and sudden death loomed as our Argentinian nemesis strode forward.
Forestieri has become something of an obsession with Town fans from the day he dived for a dubious penalty to win a game late for Watford through his remarkable record of scoring against the Terriers in and amongst more theatrical diving.
Karma dictated that the pantomime villain would add a plot twist to the Huddersfield Town story and, sure enough, and to uncontrollable delight in the visiting stand, his poor penalty – comfortably saved by Ward who guessed the right way – ended the tightest of tight play off semi finals.
Unsure for a second or two that his save had prolonged the story, Ward’s realisation was followed by a sprint towards the away fans which will, surely, become iconic. He was chased all the way by team mates and staff as the final full stop was put on the penultimate chapter.
Town had taken 210 minutes and the drama of a penalty shoot out to get past a hugely difficult opponent. Their ambition always exceeded Wednesday’s on the pitch and they deserved their huge reward in the face of considerable odds, but that is the way they have rolled all season.
With Dean Hoyle’s inspirational leadership – not just this season but ever since he took over – and Wagner’s genius (many doubted his philosophy of preparing for this separate competition), the wait for the final chapter could be unbearable but you know that the script is going to be remarkable, whatever the outcome.
Reading, the final hurdle, will be tough, well organised and dangerous opponents and two close encounters during the season points to yet more attritional and exhausting watching. Both teams have achieved against the odds with innovative managers and remarkable numbers of single goal victories and the game is incredibly difficult to call.
Whatever the result, an already fantastic season has been elevated to legendary status as we await the final instalment with frenzied anticipation.
See you all at Wembley.