Saturday 22 July 2017

Terriers chasing the big bucks in battle of bottle

Huddersfield Town manager David Wagner is aiming for promotion glory today. Photo: Simon Cooper/PA Wire
Huddersfield Town manager David Wagner is aiming for promotion glory today. Photo: Simon Cooper/PA Wire

Nick Miller

The Championship play-off final is sometimes barely a football game. It's less a test of skill, technique and tactics and more an examination of nerve - and it's almost impossible to predict who will cope.

The last two finals have seen one team freeze, with their poise understandably faltering at the prospect of the massive pile of money waiting at the end of the match.

In 2015, Middlesbrough arrived late at Wembley, something that Aitor Karanka denied was a factor in their subsequent limp performance, but two goals in the first 15 minutes were more than enough for Norwich to win easily and enjoy a pleasant day in the north London sun.

Last season Sheffield Wednesday showed up at Wembley like a team who'd been expecting to play four hours earlier, with all the adrenalin drained from them, and Hull had to be little more than competent to take the spoils.

A non-performance is perhaps thus the biggest fear for any side approaching the game. David Wagner doesn't seem too concerned, though.

Speaking ahead of today's final against Reading - the winner of which will take a place in the Premier League and at least £170million, possibly north of £290million if they survive for a season - the Huddersfield manager barely blinks at the prospect of his men freezing.

Difference

"I was a little bit unsure before the semi-finals, against Sheffield Wednesday, how they would react because we hadn't played one of these 'live or die' games before," Wagner says.

"They handled it amazingly. There isn't such a big difference between Hillsborough away and Wembley. We've spoken about how we must make ourselves independent of everything around us, and circumstances we can't influence. We have to confirm this again in Wembley."

Wagner's confidence that his players won't be overawed could be down to one of the most concerted attempts at expectation dampening you're likely to see.

It's true not many expected Huddersfield to be challenging at the top end of the table, but Wagner's consistent assertions that this would be as big a shock as Leicester winning the Premier League are a little fanciful.

"I think we're 18th or 19th in the budget table," Wagner said.

"I think the gap between us and, let's say, Newcastle, is bigger than the gap between Leicester and Chelsea, if you like to compare these two fairy tales."

Still, the more he paints them as the underdogs, the more the pressure moves away from the Terriers. Or the "small dogs", as Wagner calls them, snapping at the heels of the richer and more muscular hounds.

"We are a small dog, we are still a small dog, and this hasn't changed," Wagner says.

"But we are ambitious. Just because you're a small dog, it doesn't mean you're not able to be quick, to have endurance, to be mobile, to create other weapons. I think we've found our weapons over the season."

Their opponents, Reading, are hardly Great Danes either, if we must continue the canine analogy. Most anticipated the likes of Norwich, Aston Villa or Derby to be making plans for the Premier League, not a Reading side who took something of a gamble by appointing Jaap Stam as manager in the summer.

Stam's reputation as a coach was not exactly stellar in Holland, particularly after quitting a coaching badge because he wasn't happy with its theory element, but much like Wagner at Huddersfield, he has fashioned a collection of broadly unflashy and low-profile players into one of the division's better teams.

Unlike Wagner, Stam didn't show much interest in being cast as the happy-go-lucky, just-pleased-to-be-there types.

"I don't pay any attention to being written off," he said. "I don't want to talk about being underdogs."

Reading's previous play-off record is, shall we say, less than stellar. They've been in three finals since 1995, and lost them all, most recently in 2011 when Brian McDermott's team were swept aside by Swansea.

"I'm not interested in what happened in the past. I'm interested in what happens now and what we need to do to get a result. We haven't thought about the past and the bad results. We focus on working hard. Finals are there to be won and we need to give it our best shot," said Stam.

This is a particularly interesting final, if only because it may represent both teams' best chance of promotion for a little while.

The trio of clubs coming down from the Premier League are all in various forms of flux, but there are a number of teams already in the Championship for whom anything but challenging at the top next term will be unacceptable.

Record

Villa will continue to spend and Steve Bruce's record in the Championship is almost spotless; Norwich have just appointed Wagner's fellow Dortmund alumni Daniel Farke; Derby will get it together one of these days and then there's the two sides defeated in the play-off semi-finals, Fulham and Wednesday.

"Usually Huddersfield players have no chance to be involved in the Premier League," said Wagner. "Now they have a real chance.

"It's come from a dream or a vision to a real chance, and now a reality. We are desperate to play this match and get over the line. We're one step away."

Huddersfield Town v Reading,

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