“It’s absolutely unbearable tension. We started at three o’clock, now it’s ten to six and we still don’t know who.”
BBC Radio Berkshire’s Tim Dellor is into his third hour of commentary on Monday 29th May 2017. It is the final game of the English Football League season. After 10 months, 46 rounds of league matches, a pair of two-legged play-off semi-finals and a goalless 120 minutes at Wembley, it is a penalty shoot-out that will decide which one of Reading or Huddersfield Town gets promoted to the Premier League.
It all sounds so simple.
Things had looked very different a year earlier. Reading had finished 17th in the Championship in the previous campaign, seen two players square up to one another on the pitch, and Brian McDermott was the club’s third permanent manager in 18 months. But he too would soon be off, sacked and replaced by legendary defender Jaap Stam as the Thai ownership and new technical director Brian Tevreden looked to make their mark in Berkshire.
No one knew quite what to expect from Stam, who would be Reading’s first ever manager from outside the UK, as he himself took up his first managerial position.
“The expectations for the short term were a little bit unknown,” Stam’s assistant Andries Ulderink told The Tilehurst End. “But there was a longer-term plan that we hoped in couple of years to be in the top six.”
Incredibly, that goal was reached in the Dutchman’s debut campaign, as the Royals finished third in the regular Championship season, having not dropped out of the top six since the end of October. Yet it was all quite difficult to comprehend. Reading weren’t blowing teams away, and in fact got heavily beaten themselves on a couple of occasions, most notably to Fulham (5-0) and Norwich City (7-1).
Stam’s strong focus on building from the back in a possession-based system meant the entertainment factor wasn’t particularly high, and some sections of the fanbase struggled to get on board. Almost every statistic suggested the team shouldn’t have finished anywhere near as high as they did – in fact, the expected goals model placed them 21st. Nonetheless, Reading were extremely clinical and a third-place finish is certainly not to be sniffed at. It stands as the seventh-highest ever league placing in the club’s history.
The play-off semi-finals pitted the Royals against Fulham, the bookies’ favourites and media darlings, but Stam’s team relished being written off. They drew 1-1 at Craven Cottage in the first leg, before winning the tie at the Madejski Stadium – Yann Kermorgant’s second half penalty proving the difference on one of the most euphoric nights in the club’s recent history.
“The underdog tag is something you invented, and you’re not always right,” Stam would tell Sky’s reporter in his post-match interview.
“For me, Fulham were the best footballing side in the league,” Ulderink says. “So when you beat Fulham over two legs you deserve to be in the final.”
In the other semi-final, the underdog would once again prevail. Huddersfield, 19th the previous season and a side who had not played top-flight football since 1972, had also been transformed by a foreign coach. Former Borussia Dortmund II boss David Wagner was making dreams come true in West Yorkshire, and the Terriers defeated Sheffield Wednesday on penalties to take their place under the Wembley arch.
There would be a 13-day gap between Reading’s semi-final second leg and the final, which is a long time to prepare for a season-defining game. It is essentially like an international break. While the Royals stayed in England, Huddersfield whisked all their players and their families to a warm-weather training camp in Portugal the morning after their semi-final victory over Sheffield Wednesday. David Wagner would later claim that the four days in the Algarve were key to getting his squad in the right frame of mind for the final.
“I don’t know how we prepared in detail, but it was probably as we prepared for every game,” Ulderink says. “It was quite relaxed. We just prepared for the game technically, watched a few videos of the opponent but not too many, and developed our style of play.”
This is echoed by Liam Moore, who said on an Elm Park Royals podcast: “We went into it as we would any game.”
However, the Championship play-off final is not like any other game. Rarely does one match put so much on the line; league status, finances, jobs, transfers all hang in the balance. Worth at least £170 million to the victor, it is often dubbed as ‘the richest game in football’. A true sliding doors moment.
“It was two teams who weren’t predicted to be there, so it would have been a massive turning point for both clubs,” Reading captain Paul McShane told Elm Park Royals earlier this year.
At 35 years old, Yann Kermorgant had enjoyed his best-ever season in front of goal, scoring 19 times in total, and at crucial moments too. He was now just one match away from fulfilling a career ambition.
“I had been promoted with Charlton and Bournemouth, but I felt I was missing something,” he told The Tilehurst End. “I wanted to be promoted by the play-offs. It can be the best way to get promoted. The final at Wembley is the biggest game you can have as a Championship player.
“When I first spoke to Jaap Stam at the beginning of the season, I said to him that I wanted to get promoted by the play-offs. It was a dream.”
It would appear that, with so much riding on it, the game was never destined to be a spectacle. But Reading were twice very lucky not to go behind early on. After just four minutes, Aaron Mooy delivered a free-kick into the box which Michael Hefele headed just wide. On the ten-minute mark, Elias Kachunga fizzed the ball across goal to Izzy Brown who somehow tapped the ball wide from three yards out. It looked easier to score.
“I remember we conceded two big chances at the beginning of the game where Huddersfield could have scored,” says Kermorgant. “But after that, I thought we controlled the game quite well without creating many chances.”
Reading and Huddersfield had ranked second and third respectively for average possession in the regular season, and it was the Royals who dominated the ball in the first half. They were struggling to do anything with it though, and the match began to be characterised by flying tackles rather than moments of quality. Joey van den Berg picked up his obligatory booking in the 17th minute.
Jordan Obita told The Tilehurst End: “I didn’t start the game because I’d had an injury to my ankle, so I was watching from the side. I can imagine for fans or someone watching at home, it probably wasn’t the best of finals to watch.”
Paul McShane’s red card in the first leg of the semi-final against Fulham ruled him out the match, and he watched on the nervously from the sidelines:
“It was the toughest match I’ve ever watched. I was kicking every ball in the stands, but it was on edge. It was very, very tense and not the best to watch.”
Reading’s only shot on target in the entire game came three minutes after half-time when Danny Ward parried John Swift’s effort from the edge of box. At one point, Tiago Ilori found himself in acres of space in the penalty area but the ball just bounced off him. Meanwhile, a deep Garath McCleary cross was headed over by Chris Gunter arriving at the far post. The wrong men in the right spots. It was painfully bad to sit through.
The Telegraph’s Jason Burt would write in his match report that the game became “turgid”. JJ Bull, providing live updates for the same publication, described it as a “troubled variation on football... trapped in a never-ending scoreless draw”. There is a common theme among those involved that day as to why the game went this way. The magnitude of the occasion simply got the better of Reading. The longer the match remained goalless, the more it remained on edge and the more the tension grew. As a result, both teams were content not to go all out. A vicious cycle formed.
Yann Kermorgant says: “I was a bit frustrated because I think in that game we should have pushed a bit more to try and score. I think we were a little bit scared to concede.”
“Obviously the nerves were there,” says Moore. “There wasn’t any great football played.”
Obita was brought on in the 64th minute and says it was clear straight away: “I remember when I came on the pitch, it seemed like two teams who didn’t really want to attack too much because they were worried about the quality of each other.”
It was clear to those on the sidelines as well. “The two teams were just terrified to make a mistake,” says McShane.
Jaap Stam had called it before the game on Sky Sports: “A final is always different. Most of the time, finals are not always nice to look at because teams don’t want to risk everything and don’t want to make mistakes.”
Extra-time arrived, but it soon became inevitable that the only thing that would separate the two teams was penalties. Both sides were dead on their feet, and the game was played at a pedestrian pace for the majority of the half hour as the pressure not to make a mistake intensified. It was the first time since the Football League introduced the play-offs in 1987 that a final ended goalless. Not since 2002 had a spot in the Premier League been decided by a shoot-out.
Reading’s penalty record that season had been infamously patchy. They had been awarded the most spot-kicks in the Championship (13), but they had scored just seven. Lewis Grabban, the only man with an 100% record (albeit from one penalty), had been substituted for Garath McCleary in normal time. McCleary had been the man to take the most penalties throughout the season, but his stats were worrying – two scored from five attempts. Yann Kermorgant (three out of four) and Danny Williams (one out of two) were natural choices, and both confidently scored from 12 yards.
No other player on the pitch had ever taken a penalty in normal time in their career, although George Evans and Jordan Obita had both scored in the shoot-out win over MK Dons in the second round of the League Cup earlier in the season. It’s fair to say the stakes at Wembley were much higher.
After Liam Kelly emphatically smashed home his spot-kick, no mean feat at 21 years old, Reading led 3-2 after three penalties each – Ali Al-Habsi having saved Huddersfield’s second effort from Michael Hefele. The Royals were, in theory, just two kicks away from the Premier League.
“We were on top of the rollercoaster at that point,” says Kermorgant. “And then we crashed.”
Liam Moore was Reading’s fourth penalty taker, who had enjoyed an excellent debut season at the club after joining from Leicester City the previous summer. But it was not to end on a high – his effort flew over the bar, skimming the woodwork as it did so.
“I have regrets that I missed,” says Moore. “But I don’t have regrets in terms of preparation, courage or anything like that. I practised that penalty every day leading up to it and I did the same thing. There was no change of mind, which sits easier with me. But in training there isn’t 90,000 people there, there isn’t the adrenaline, so I was hitting the target and scoring every single time in the week.
“It comes to that moment, and your mind goes. It plays a big trick on you. I remember putting the ball down and the ref told me it wasn’t put down right. I had to change it, which knocked me off my stride. He blew the whistle and I rushed it. If was going to do anything different, I would I have taken my time and kept my head down.”
Aaron Mooy sent Al-Habsi the wrong way with his spot-kick, and it effectively became sudden death. The television cameras showed John Swift on the sidelines unable to even look. As the fifth penalty taker, you may have visions of becoming your team’s hero, but this was not the reality for Jordan Obita. The academy graduate, who had set Reading’s play-off campaign in motion with a sweet strike at Craven Cottage, struck the ball low to Danny Ward’s left, but the goalkeeper guessed correctly and kept it out.
It left Christopher Schindler, in the words of Sky commentator Daniel Mann, with “a chance to write his name in Huddersfield Town legend”. He took that chance. The shoot-out had been turned on its head and Huddersfield were into the Premier League. Reading’s dream was over in the blink of an eye.
“Jaap was quite experienced in that situation,” says Ulderink. “He was calm and he was there for the team. It felt like a missed opportunity.” It’s hard to disagree. In such a damp squib of a final, it would only have taken one moment of quality from Reading to win it. Losing it was as frustrating as it was gut-wrenching.
“I had to deal with a real tough night,” Moore recalled. “I wanted to win more than anyone. In my head, I wanted to win so bad. Maybe I wanted it too much.”
The anguish in Kermorgant’s voice is clear: “I have never watched back the game. It is too painful.”
I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to erase the memory of that day. It was the lowest I have ever felt watching football. I don’t think I said I word to anyone for the rest of the day. Reading had come so close. Almost as close as you can come to promotion without achieving it. Two penalty kicks.
Chris Gunter, Reading’s captain that day and one of the club’s most loyal servants, sat disconsolate against one of the goalposts contemplating what had just happened. Danny Williams, arguably the best Reading player on the pitch at Wembley, sobbed uncontrollably into the ground. It was the last image we saw of him in the blue and white hoops.
“In the FA Cup final, you lose and it happens,” says Moore. “But a play-off final is different. It doesn’t just affect there and then, it affects the next season and sometimes the season after that.”
You only need to look at the three seasons since the final to see how true this is. Reading have recorded consecutive 20th-place finishes and at no point have been above 11th in the Championship table.
Dave Harris, one of many supporters capturing the day for The Tilehurst End’s Wembley video diary, put it so simply, yet so perfectly: “I’ve been watching all the Huddersfield fans going by… kind of thinking what the hell does it feel like?”
On BBC Radio Berkshire, Ady Williams, himself on the losing side of two play-off finals for Reading, could barely keep his emotions in check: “I could burst into tears. I feel for the lads, and I feel for the Reading fans, I really do. It’s incredible. What is this, the fourth time it’s happened? It’s unbearable. It’s heart-breaking. They can’t keep going through this.”
Bolton 1995. Walsall 2001. Swansea 2011. Huddersfield 2017. Four play-off final finals, lost in very different ways, but all equally agonising. One day, maybe, there will be a victory to exorcise those ghosts.