On a cold and rain-sodden Yorkshire night the passions burned hot and Huddersfield Town earned a glimpse of the promised land. The wild revelling at Hillsborough by the visiting players, staff and fans after Danny Ward’s second save in the penalty shootout befitted a club now tantalisingly close to a return to the top flight after an absence of 45 years. At the end of this month they will face Reading at Wembley in the Championship play-off final. The Terriers will be royally undaunted.
“Most pundits said we would be in relegation trouble, now we are one step away from the Premier League – this shows what an achievement this is a for low-budget club,” said a jubilant David Wagner. “I’m so proud of the players. Now we will try to add a successful last chapter to the fairytale.”
Wagner is entitled to feel proud about the rise of Huddersfield, who finished 19th in the Championship last season. The German has transformed the club since his surprising appointment in November 2015 and his decisions also altered the outcome of an epic semi-final, not least because he opted to put Ward straight back into the starting lineup even though Joel Coleman had kept a clean sheet during Sunday’s goalless first leg at the John Smith’s Stadium. Ward had been suspended for that match after being sent off in the final match of the regular season but he more than atoned for that offence by making two fine saves when it mattered most.
Sam Hutchinson and Fernando Forestieri were the players he foiled, which meant the duo felt even more anguish than the rest of the Sheffield Wednesday team, most of whom had recovered from similar pain after losing to Hull in last season’s play-off final. “We are very frustrated in the end but also proud,” said the Wednesday manager, Carlos Carvalhal. “It’s is not easy to finish in the top positions two years in a row, especially in the second season when the expectation is higher. We will fight on again.”
Carvalhal did not say whether that meant he would sign a new contract to stay beyond the term of his deal, which expires in the summer: “It’s not the time to talk about that. There are too many rumours around and things that do not make sense. I will sit with the chairman and talk at the right time. We have a fantastic relationship.”
For a while it looked like Carvalhal and his employer would be discussing their preparations for the final on 29 May. The first half of the second leg had been as tight as the first leg, with Izzy Brown’s flick inches past the post being the closest either side came to scoring. But Wednesday took the lead thanks to a high-class combination between a pair of Scots. Barry Bannan angled a cross from the left over Chris Schindler and into the path of Steven Fletcher, who headed it back across goal and beyond the dive of Ward.
Wednesday’s main ambition thereafter was to protect that lead, although they did threaten on a couple of counterattacks. Their plan looked set to bear fruit until Wagner made a decisive change in the 72nd minute, replacing Elias Kachunga with Collin Quaner. Moments later the substitute created the equaliser, racing on to an incisive pass by Brown to deliver the ball from the right across the face of goal.
Nahki Wells and Tom Lees flung themselves at it, the flustered defender unwittingly nudging the ball over his own line from close range. Carvalhal lamented the fact Brown had been allowed to make such a pass. “The game was completely under control,” he said. “We made one mistake in the press and they came inside and scored a goal.”
Both teams created chances to add another. Wells had two opportunities to secure victory in regulation time but was foiled by Kieren Westwood both times. Then, in extra time, Jordan Rhodes was thwarted twice by Ward, and Forestieri was denied by an exceptional block by Michael Hefele.
So the rivals had to resort to a shootout to determine their fates. “Ward immediately said to me: ‘Don’t worry, boss, I will do it,’” Wagner said. Ward was true to his word, which was just as well because Westwood saved one of Huddersfield’s spot-kicks, Jack Payne the man thwarted. Wells and Aaron Mooy scored from the spot and so, true to form, did two of Huddersfield’s German players, Chris Löwe and Hefele.
“I had joked in the pre-match press conference Germans are able to take shootouts and we have shown that again – but we had a Welsh goalkeeper,” said Wagner, more grateful than ever that Ward had arrived on loan from Liverpool, where he is managed by Jürgen Klopp, Wagner’s long-time friend and the man who several years ago persuaded him to take up coaching.
On Thursday Wagner, his players and their families fly to Portugal for a few days of relaxation before they begin preparations for Huddersfield’s biggest match for nearly half a century. Source: theguardian