There is perhaps no single game with such intolerance of romance as the Championship play-off final. It is the sort of occasion that ought to be steeped in history, from Nottingham Forest’s arduous pursuit of glories past to Huddersfield Town’s hopes of marking the 100th anniversary of its first major trophy. There should be emotional storylines, narrated by old players over grainy montages, that give a game like this texture and tradition, weaving memory and context into the mayhem.
Yet, all that goes against the sort of spectacle that is an inherently modern phenomenon. For the owners and executives, there are the unprecedented riches on offer, worth more than £1million a minute to the winning club. For the players, the travails and tumult of the previous 48 games are either vindicated or rendered heartbreakingly obsolete. Take those stakes and transport them in front of 85,000 yearning supporters at Wembley and what you get is a gauntlet unlike any other in English football, where the consequences of winning and losing could hardly be more exaggerated. Even for the most senior players, the scale of those margins can be hard to grapple with.
“It was horrible. I hated every minute of the second half. I hated every minute of extra time,” defender Steve Cook said of Forest’s penalty shootout win over Sheffield United in the semi-finals, and that’s coming from a 31-year-old who has already made 168 appearances in the Premier League.
For the vast majority of the players at Wembley on Sunday, this is their Champions League final, the here and now that will come to define their futures. There are exceptions of course, such as Brennan Johnson, Djed Spence and Levi Colwell, whose careers should thrive regardless of the outcome on Sunday, but they are very much the lucky few. For others, so much remains on this one fixture: not only the realization of a dream but the financial implications for them and their families.
It can make the endings chaotic and unpredictable but more often than not, a little cagey and capable of being decided by one slip or mistake. Brice Samba’s heroics are what propelled Forest through a nerve-riddled second leg at The City Ground, but the tension has often afflicted goalkeepers worst in recent years, from Kelle Roos failing to collect a cross against Aston Villa in 2019 to David Raya being caught out of position by a 40-yard Fulham free kick in 2020. And in a somewhat unfortunate omen, the only stalemate in Championship play-off final history came five years ago on Huddersfield’s last visit to Wembley when they beat Reading on penalties after 120 minutes of football that could be described generously as a struggle.
There is a certain symmetry to Forest’s campaign now to Huddersfield’s then. David Wagner inherited a club in turmoil and resurrected them over the course of the next 18 months – and then kept them in the Premier League against all odds. It has taken Steve Cooper far less time to reverse Forest’s fortunes and they are rightfully considered favourites, having won two of the sides’ three meetings this season.
There has inevitably been much focus on the build-up on the burden of history, but players like Johnson and Spence were not even born when Forest last set foot in the Premier League. The trips to Wembley that were commonplace under Brian Clough are the sort of stories that have been passed through generations rather than witnessed first-hand. It is a chance to begin a new era rather than exorcise old demons and, if anything, it is Huddersfield who have the upper hand in experience, although Jonathan Hogg is the only survivor from the squad who edged Reading in 2017.
It’s to say that while there is a tendency to want a match of such magnitude to conform to a script or pay homage to nostalgia, the truth is that the play-off final is an outlier. The stakes are so inordinate that it leaves no room for the sentimental. On Sunday evening at Wembley, the fortunes of both teams will have been changed forever. It is precisely what makes the play-off unique, and quite possibly the most cutthroat game in English football.
George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.