Championship play-off final: How Huddersfield & Reading reached the £170m game

David Wagner and Jaap Stam
Sky Bet Championship play-off final: Huddersfield Town v Reading
Date: Monday, 29 May Kick-off: 15:00 BST Venue: Wembley Stadium
Coverage: Live commentary on BBC Radio 5 live, BBC Radio Leeds & BBC Radio Berkshire; live text and radio commentary on the BBC Sport website and app from 11:00 BST

Saturday, 7 May 2016 is not a date that will hold particularly great memories for either Huddersfield or Reading.

The Terriers ended the 2015-16 Championship season in 19th place after a crushing 5-1 home defeat by Brentford, while the Royals lost 3-1 at Blackburn - their sixth defeat in seven matches - to finish 17th.

Just over a year on, it could scarcely be more different. The teams will meet in the play-off final at Wembley on Monday, in a match worth at least £170m to the winner.

How did they turn their fortunes around?

The bosses

Huddersfield Town - David Wagner

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Huddersfield will be bouncing - Wagner

Terriers chairman Dean Hoyle was clearly delighted with his newest appointment when Wagner took charge in November 2015.

He told the club website: "David's football philosophy is directly in line with ours; he fits for what we need. He will be head coach. He is the club's first from outside the UK and Ireland and he brings a new approach and new ideas."

Hoyle had grown weary of British managers delivering short-term results without a long-term plan and what he believed to be short change on his considerable investment into the club.

The former Borussia Dortmund II boss lost three of his first four matches, but Championship survival was attained while Wagner set about evolving every aspect of the way the team operated both on and off the field.

To the dismay of some players, he moved training sessions in line with when games started and asked the squad to meet for pre-match meals even for home games.

Wagner added 13 new players as he sought to build a side able to play the style of football he had had success with in Germany.

The results were miraculous. Town won eight of their first 11 league matches, finished in the Championship play-off places for the first time and are one win away from ending a 45-year absence from the top flight.

Reading - Jaap Stam

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Stam excited by Premier League opportunity

Following Brian McDermott's rather low-key departure after a second spell in charge of the club that lasted just six months, Reading decided to go Dutch for his successor.

Former defender Stam was the man picked for his first full-time foray into management, having most famously been part of Manchester United's treble-winning side of 1999.

"Reading are very ambitious, like I am, and want to get back to the Premier League," he said in June 2016. "Hopefully we can have a good partnership and get there."

His appointment was not initially warmly welcomed by everyone, as co-chairman Sir John Madejski revealed at Stam's first news conference he had not been behind the decision to sack McDermott.

Stam gave a conservative estimate of how his side might fare in his first season. "There are teams in there who will make it hard to be in the top 10," he said in pre-season. "You can't expect us to end up in the top six."

After winning only one of their first four league games, a few boos could be heard from the home fans as Reading, who have not been in the Premier League since 2013, bedded into Stam's possession-based approach.

Fast forward nine months through a season of just two home defeats and the reality is beyond Stam's and probably many supporters' expectations.

"We never dreamed of getting to this game," Stam told BBC Radio Berkshire. "But I've always had the belief in what I can do. It's not just about me, it's about my staff as a manager can't do it on his own.

"I'm happy we've achieved this in the first season, but it's going to build the expectation for next season as well. So we need to be realistic.

"Let's enjoy it for now and work towards getting that result on Monday."

The tactics

Jurgen Klopp and David Wagner
Huddersfield Town boss David Wagner shares a joke with Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp before a pre-season friendly between the two teams


Much like great friend and former Borussia Dortmund colleague Jurgen Klopp, Wagner favours a high pressing 4-2-3-1 formation but it would be overly simplistic to say his team are just about gegenpressing.

Wagner puts a great deal of emphasis on quick transitions all around the pitch and there is a lot of onus on all players to put in performances high in both energy and tactical discipline.

The tireless work of the front four in both attacking and defensive situations is often at the expense of personal glory. Town's top scorer this season is Elias Kachunga with 13 goals in 47 appearances.

However, it is this work-rate that often creates the platform for full-backs Chris Lowe and Tommy Smith to advance beyond the forwards and get behind opposition defences.

Wagner is not completely tied to his pressing philosophy and notably changed tactics for August's trip to Newcastle. Huddersfield beat the Magpies 2-1, having spent the majority of the game sitting back and allowing the hosts to dominate possession.


Possession, possession, possession has defined Stam's Reading this season. His side have averaged 57.4% in the Championship.

As already mentioned, the Dutchman's philosophy has not appealed to everyone. It attracted critics after a 2-0 defeat by Leeds in December when, despite having 77% of the ball, the Royals registered just two shots on target.

Although Stam has not necessarily departed from the approach, there has been a sense of it being sacrificed in pursuit of getting results.

Yann Kermorgant has spent much of the season as a sole striker, but Lewis Grabban - on loan from Bournemouth - has partnered him in attack in recent matches to offer an additional outlet.

Even before the play-off semi-final against Fulham, pundits refused to back Reading's chances of progressing. In both legs, Reading saw considerably less of the ball, but took their opportunities.

The key players


Almost all of the 13 new players signed last summer have played a major part in Town's success, as well as their two January additions.

Aaron Mooy, on loan from Manchester City, was included in the Championship's team of the year after an outstanding season in midfield.

Key to the way Town break teams down are the overlapping runs made by full-backs Lowe and Smith, a player who has been reinvented by Wagner, and the duo have chipped in with 13 assists and six goals between them.

Perhaps most impressively given their achievements this season, Town's record signing is the £1.8m they paid 1860 Munich for centre-half Christopher Schindler in June 2016.

For context, that fee made Schindler the 43rd most expensive signing in the Championship last summer.


The biggest success of Stam's squad has undoubtedly been a player who was already at the club before his arrival. French striker Yann Kermorgant, at the age of 35, has weighed in with 19 goals.

Another consistent performer has been goalkeeper Ali Al-Habsi. The former Wigan player was man of the match in the play-off semi-final second leg, pulling off a string of saves to deny Fulham an equaliser.

The Oman international was named player of the season for a second successive year in recognition of his 16 clean sheets.

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No final pressure on Reading - Swift

John Swift, who joined last summer from Chelsea, has contributed eight league goals from midfield and was named EFL Young Player of the Month for January.

"The gameplan's been the main thing this season, everyone working together to get a result," said the 21-year-old.

"After the season, I think we'll all look back on how well we've done. But it's a huge game ahead of us and we can't think too much about that."

The game

Paul Ogden, Huddersfield Town commentator for BBC Radio Leeds:

I would use the two regular season meetings between the teams as a fairly solid indicator for how Monday's game will go.

With both teams having won one apiece - and both by a margin of 1-0 - it would not surprise me remotely if this game were to go beyond the 90 minutes.

Neither team gives much away and neither defence is particularly vulnerable, so I could envisage a game that may not be the most exciting to the neutral.

Should we need extra time, there is no concern that Town's high-energy approach could leave them at a disadvantage on what could be a hot May day at Wembley.

Wagner is a meticulous planner and, straight after beating Sheffield Wednesday, the players went to Portugal for a warm weather training camp.

Tim Dellor, Reading commentator for BBC Radio Berkshire:

Anyone who says they know who will win this game is guessing - it's far too tight to call. With only four points separating the two teams over the 46 games, the stats back that up.

The two teams have reached the most valuable game in football in a similar manner. Statistically, tactically, and managerially there is little difference, leaving us with the mental toughness of the players.

The team that best copes with the stress of the big occasion, the huge crowd and the enormous consequences of success or failure will inevitably be the ones playing in the Premier League next season.

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