So, you've read up on David Wagner's team on the website, and you've seen how formidable they can be. Let's be clear, they had a real shot at catching the top two for a good while during the second half of the season. Their style of placing pressure on the opposition's shoulder is also something that suits a final, where caginess and not making a mistake is often the order of the day. The bookies have them as favourites. They've had plenty more Wembley success than we have, albeit some of it over a century ago. According to the world and its cat, we should never have got past 'big club' Fulham. So, it's going to be all stripes going up from the Championship, right?
Just hang on a second.
No Reason To Fear The Opposition
It seems fitting, having drawn Huddersfield in the FA Cup 67 years in a row before Jaap Stam's return to Old Trafford this year, that here we are at Wembley together. Both are smaller clubs who have upset expectations this season. As such, both appear to have captured a swell of underdog sentiment - in various places in London over the course of the weekend of the first leg, a number of people in shops, in pubs and on the street spotted my shirt and came up to wish Reading well, which is a heartwarming tangent. Even after that intro I gave them, they're still in a similar situation to us - this is no underachieving juggernaut.
We've beaten them this season. We beat them last season. Guess what we did the season before that? Uh huh, that's right, we beat Huddersfield. Regardless of weakened teams, and players come and gone, we can say with stone wall certainty that we have the beating of them. We finished above them after all.
Shifting the ball around high up the pitch and having the majority of possession is something that Fulham also like to do, so while Town do play differently to Fulham, Reading are used to absorbing that sort of pressure when not in possession. If you asked me to define a 'Reading way' of playing, I would probably say it's a tradition of being exceptionally good at backing off advancing midfielders. Usually, of course, it's terrifying in the stands, but allowing them time on the ball in midfield might not be too bad if it starves them of space in the final third.
Sure, they're good, but they are definitely beatable.
Every Reason To Be Optimistic
Over the course of the semi-finals we saw a Reading team who can really hold their own. The main thing I would take away is Stam's adaptability. He looked at the Fulham team who had come charging into the play-offs, sat down, thought about how we could win, and came up with a plan. The players clearly got right on board, and it gives you a great amount of belief that he has the tactical ability to look at the opposition and acknowledge, if necessary, that he might need to change how we set up. Certainly, Fulham didn't seem to have a Plan B, so to speak. Our adaptations won us the tie. Stam's now had two weeks to precisely plan for Huddersfield, and everything he's done so far suggests to me that he's a man who is more than capable of coming up with a proper plan.
The players also showed us a steel and resilience that was quite unusual for certain recent incarnations of a Reading XI. The players stuck to their tasks with a gusto against Fulham that suggested they really had a resolve, as well as a belief that they really wanted to stop anything coming at them. Sure, Al-Habsi had to pull a couple of rabbits out of his Omani hat, but I always felt that we knew what we were doing.
I would even go so far as to say that it showed a real big game mentality. Big nights at the Mad Stad have been rare in recent years, and the last real all or bust game we had was last season against a Bradford side from a lower division. However, we have had some relatively important games this season. We've gone away to Wednesday, responded to a 7-1 hammering and hosted a fancied Leeds side in games, and passed each of those tests with flying colours. I don't necessarily want to call it the Stam effect, but I think it might be the Stam effect.
We also have players in Moore, van den Berg, Evans, Ilori and Obita who are comfortable on the ball, and give you hope that we can cope under the pressure of Wagner's pressing tactics. Conversely, with Yann Kerm-or-gant up top we have a side who will defend from the front and put in a real shift. They're playing as a team, the fans are energised, and they will go into this with absolute confidence in their ability to win in a one-off game.
Let's be honest, following my life flashing before my eyes when Jem hit the post, and then reliving that moment when Feds let that shot squirt through his grasp in extra time, I can't do that again. Big, cuddly Jaap knows this. He gets me. He won't let that happen, will he?
It's going to be a tight one. It really is very finely balanced, as both semi-final ties were. Huddersfield's couldn't even be decided in regular play. We've both come in under the radar. So, we know it's probably going to be fine margins, and in Yann and Ali, I think we might just have the two players with experience to give us an edge.
In any case, it's great that we're there. Those evenings at Craven Cottage and the Mad Stad will be talked about for a long time, and we're gonna have a great day out at a place of rich history for football fans. So, swallow the bitter ticket prices pill, grab anything blue and white, and go and enjoy it.