The biggest prize in sport?
Reading take on Huddersfield Town at Wembley on Monday (3.00pm) for a place in next season’s Premier League.
Every year the value attached to winning this game gets bigger, with Deloitte estimating it’s worth at £290m if the newly-promoted side can stay in the top division for more than one season.
7-1 thrashing a distant memory
Even the most optimistic Reading fans had expected a slide after the sterling start to the season, and it would have been understandable to see the players’ heads drop after they were thrashed 7-1 by Norwich in early April.
However, four wins from their final five games saw Jaap Stam’s Royals finish in third place, eight points behind runners-up Brighton and four points clear of Sheffield Wednesday in fourth.
The Dutchman, twice voted the best defender in the Champions League, had been expected to build his managerial career on the same defensive principles, but he’s opted for a brand of attractive football and the team leaked more goals in the league this year than any of their top-six rivals.
Defensive frailties on the road have often proved costly, with just one clean sheet in their last ten away games.
In-form Fulham were made favourites to see off Reading in the semi-final, despite only finishing sixth, but lost 1-0 at the Madejski after sharing the spoils in the home leg.
The deciding goal came from a controversial Yann Kermorgant penalty early in the second half and Reading were indebted to goalkeeper Ali Al-Habsi for making a string of fine saves.
What poor Play-off record?
Reading’s previous Play-off final appearances have often ended in heartbreak, with the 1995 defeat by Bolton the one that sticks in the memory.
The top division was being trimmed down from 22 to 20 teams, so only Champions Middlesbrough were granted automatic promotion and runners-up Reading headed to the play-offs.
A missed penalty on the stroke of half-time when already 2-0 up ultimately proved costly, as Bolton staged a comeback and went through 4-3 after extra-time.
The effect on morale was significant
The Royals finished 19th and 18th in the next two seasons before they were relegated to League Two after finishing bottom in 1997-98.
Reading’s poor play-off record was news to Stam though, who, when the subject was raised at Friday morning’s press conference, replied “I didn’t know the record until you mentioned it, and I’m not really interested in what happened in the past.”
Play-off penalty kings
Huddersfield got the better of Yorkshire rivals, Sheffield Wednesday, in their semi-final, going through on penalties after drawing both legs.
The Terriers also won via spot-kicks the last time they got to a play-off final – edging Sheffield United 8-7 to secure promotion to the Championship in 2012.
Wagner in demand
Win or lose on Monday, it’s been a hugely successful season for Huddersfield, who finished in 19th place last term. Boss David Wagner, a former US international who worked under Jurgen Klopp in Germany, has performed a minor miracle on limited resources but recent speculation about his future – he has been linked to the vacant managerial vacancies at Crystal Place and Middlesbrough – is an unwelcome distraction.
Tight game expected but there could be goals
Huddersfield have generally struggled against the better sides in the Championship this term, losing seven of their ten fixtures against the top six. It is worth remember, however, that they did beat Reading 1-0 at home in February after losing by the same score line at the Madejski in September.
Those results suggest that there won’t be lot in it come Monday, but Reading look to have been underestimated again and look a tempting price to secure the spoils in 90 minutes, with 2-1 the prediction.
Championship Play-off final odds
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