As Christopher Schindler – surely the bargain of this and every other season – stepped up to write the final sentence of a dramatic, barely believable and eternally memorable 9 months with a penalty of supreme German confidence, Huddersfield Town (our Huddersfield Town) became the talk of the football world.
The cautious, often turgid, preceding 120 minutes, where adventurous football was stifled and ultimately strangled as the enormity of the prize bore down on the young men representing two unfashionable clubs, were forgotten as the (frankly ludicrous) script came to a climax.
Had Town taken one of two glorious chances in the first 15 minutes, the paralysis which eventually set in may never have happened; instead, Reading heeded the threat they faced and largely quelled Town’s vibrancy for the remainder of the increasingly dull spectacle.
The first of these chances – a free header for Hefele from an excellent free kick by Mooy in just the 4th minute – was rather over shadowed by the second when Izzy Brown contrived to miss from a yard with neither Al Habsi or any of his defenders anywhere to be seen.
Brown’s 10th minute miss ended a great start from Town, which rocked Reading and prompted Stam to tighten his team defensively and retreat to a less than progressive possession game.
One long range effort from Grabban shortly after Brown’s howler brought the Royals back in to a game which had threatened to get away from them, but Town’s late season profligacy in front of goal gave them a lifeline they could cling to with their defensive discipline, even if their own threat appeared lightweight.
A nasty challenge on the back of Smith’s legs brought a booking for Kermogant to add to an earlier one for van der Berg who felled Kachunga to stop a dangerous break. With two yellow cards brandished early and rightly, Town had a perceptible advantage after a bright start, but the statistic couldn’t begin to make up for the enormous value of an early goal.
Rigor mortis set in after 20 minutes and more flying challenges brought a booking for Hogg and too much disruption, rather playing in to Reading’s hands who were looking increasingly comfortable without ever threatening Town’s goal – a game which held promise after a lively start descended in to attrition.
Both sides’ weaknesses came to the fore in the first half – Reading’s ponderous progression towards their opponents’ goal betrayed a lack of imagination rather than admirable patience, while Town’s inability to convert chances from their thrusting merely reflected a season long armour chink.
Reading stepped up a little in the early stages of the second half and, for once, found a ball from midfield to attack which hadn’t passed amongst countless feet as Swift latched on to an Evans pass. Ward made a routine, if sharp, save from his shot.
Soft jabbing by both sides brought moments of mild concern, but the understandable tension continued to subdue natural talent as passing went astray, the foul count rose and an unedifying midfield melee ensued.
In an attempt to recreate a Hillsborough moment, Wagner pulled Kachunga (who had been reasonably effective) for Quaner, while Stam replaced the ineffective Grabban with McCleary, who would surely have started had it not been for recent injury.
Following good work down the right by Mooy, Quaner stumbled in to the Australian’s driven low cross when Wells was in a good position to pounce. The ball simply cannoned off the big German and well wide, rather summing up the lack of composure from the Terriers once the penalty area was reached.
At the back, Hefele and Schindler dealt with everything Reading could muster, with the latter cruising through the game with an elegance which will deservedly grace the higher division next season.
Scares for the Terriers were rare, but Reading may have made more of one or two late opportunities to complete their game plan of stifling and striking but, like their opponents, their penalty area composure evaporated.
More worrying for the Yorkshireman was the loss of Smith, a crucial part of the team’s astonishing success, to injury. He was to end his day on crutches following a fairly innocuous challenge to stop McCleary taking a shot, and was replaced by the dependable Cranie.
A tame effort from Wells was the last meaningful action of regulation time and a dour struggle was to be extended for 30 more, agonising, minutes.
A pedestrian first 15 minutes of extra time strongly suggested that the contest would be decided on penalties as neither side could fashion a clear cut chance between them, though McCleary had a decent attempt which he pulled wide. For Town, the highlight was the introduction of Palmer who secured a surprise place on the bench following his recovery from the hamstring injury he suffered against Leeds.
Towards the end of extra time, the Terriers, finishing a little stronger than their opponents, did fashion an opportunity for Wells. Palmer turned defence in to attack, guiding the ball forwards under pressure to Wells who looped a pass towards Quaner. Staying onside, Quaner fed Palmer, who had covered a lot of ground, and his pass to Wells evaded the desperately recovering defenders only for the Bermudian to shoot weakly.
A late free kick found Cranie and Hefele at the back post, unmarked, but the ball evaded both of them before the agony was ended by the referee’s whistle signalling even more agony to come.
Despite an exemplary penalty shoot out record and the knowledge that this one couldn’t be any more gut churning than 5 years ago, having to suffer the drama yet again – Town have played 360 minutes of play off final football without scoring a goal over 3 games and 3 divisions – was just as tortuous.
That it followed an incident light game which rarely rose above the level of insipid only served to increase the extreme anxiety. For all the talk of accepting a defeat following a great season before the match, that sentiment disappeared as the teams lined up on the halfway line in traditional fashion.
While winning the toss to stage the most valuable shoot out in history at the end populated by the Huddersfield hordes was something of a comfort, Reading had the statistically proven advantage of taking the first one, as we had done at Hillsborough.
Kermogant despatched the first kick with an assurance he memorably lacked for Leicester all those years ago before Lowe repeated his semi final penalty with another untouchable strike.
Reading went 2-1 up and it was the turn of Hefele, nurturing a wrist injury, to simply cement his cult hero status. Had things gone differently, the sight of the blonde German thumping the ground fire his weak effort was gathered by Al Habsi would have been an awful end to his fantastic season (and would have magnified Brown’s horrendous miss).
A superb top corner effort by Kelly gave an ominous glow to the Berkshire club’s confidence and Town were up against it at 3-1 down.
Wells, who has had penalty troubles before, swept home to keep Town alive but still needing an error or a save. Moore produced the former with a wild penalty which grazed the bar as it sailed in to the jubilant Town fans. Despair turned to hope.
With Mooy levelling things up with an excellent spot kick sending the Reading keeper the wrong way, pressure was suddenly transferred to young Jordan Obita. Heartbreakingly for the Reading academy product, that pressure told as Ward guessed the right way and easily saved a poor shot to hand responsibility to an unbelievably cool Christopher Schindler.
Lacking a little power, the German’s penalty was, nevertheless, very well placed and Town triumphed yet again in the cruellest of match deciding competitions.
The drama may have been a little more than the game deserved, but it was fitting that the end of Town’s fantastic story this season should be decided by the very last kick of it.
You would have to have a heart of stone not to feel for the distraught Reading players and their likeable supporters – the excellent Williams was probably the most affected – but the ending has been written in the stars since the arrival of an obscure, hugely charismatic German coach.
David Wagner and Dean Hoyle are a match made in heaven – their shared idealism only surpassed by their unrelenting hard work combined to create a modern miracle. Astute utilisation of resources – picking up the right characters on a tight budget, innovative fitness and training methods and intense motivation – have given the fans of Huddersfield Town a rare season of joy and success unimaginable since the early 70s.
Soon, we shall see how they intend to climb the next, even more daunting, mountain but, for now, the town can revel in the remarkable achievements of a united, vibrant club who have overcome massive odds. And we have.
(Thanks for reading throughout this season – bar my own, personal, winter break! – and have a great summer).