Wembley Matt Lewis – The FA/The FA via Getty Images
Published 29/05/17, ESPN
Two years ago, as I lay crestfallen on the sun-kissed Wembley turf, an entire season’s efforts cruelly decided by a single penalty shootout kick, the winners streamed past us in wild celebrations. It was the most gut-wrenching moment of my career.
The following year, on the same stage, the same weekend in May, when the final whistle blew my teammates and I celebrated like a bunch of delirious school children, leaping and punching the air with loose-limbed delight. It was my most joyous moment on a pitch.
In a promotion playoff final — whichever league it is — there is nothing in between.
On Monday, the players of Huddersfield Town and Reading will walk out at Wembley in the Championship playoff final for a place among the Premier League elite. The prize for the Grimsby Town team I played for was promotion to the Football League — a few steps down the pyramid, of course, and worth a fraction of the estimated £170 million that will fill the coffers of the winner. However, when the whistle blows, money is forgotten; glory and ambition fuels the fires.
The finalists have already exceeded expectations in reaching Monday’s final. Both David Wagner, the spirited German-American manager of Huddersfield, and Reading’s Jaap Stam, the iconic former Manchester United defender, have breathed new life into previously listless clubs in their first years in the job.
Both, too, with limited resources, have imprinted clear styles on their teams: Huddersfield with their buccaneering, high-energy football; Reading, who seek to dominate their opponents with patient build-up and possession. It may be a Championship playoff final to buck the trend of cautious, edgy affairs, though no matter what, we can expect a thrillingly hectic climax.
Handling the pressure will, of course, be key. Once your place in the final is sealed, the 10 days leading up to the big day pass by at a snail’s pace. Both teams visit Wembley in the week before the game to familiarise themselves with the setting: the changing rooms, where your shirt will hang, and to take a few pictures — as any fan would — while you absorb the epic scale of the arena from the centre of the pitch.
These players, after all, are not England internationals, nor are they regulars in such surroundings. A win could change all of that, but for some, the chance to play at Wembley may never arise again.
I remember standing in the centre circle, slowly turning through 360 degrees, and envisaging the raucous atmosphere I would inhabit 24 hours later. I couldn’t wait for it to arrive. The coach trip back to the hotel was a quiet journey as we dreamt about what the next day might bring.
Travelling to the game is when the vivid colour of the occasion bursts into life: the Wembley arch rising in the distance, the thousands of supporters lining the streets for miles, draped in club colours, spilling out of pubs, singing, waving and giving the team a heroes reception.
As kick-off approached, on our second visit, the atmosphere in our changing room was very calm. We had lived it all before, our focus was sharpened, and the value of our experience was clear. Despite that, the occasion lost none of its lustre. Lining up in the tunnel, the atmosphere fizzes and crackles outside. The roar when you emerge into the light stands every hair on the back of your neck to attention. Some feel an extra stir of nerves; I couldn’t wipe the smile off my face. It was a moment I simply wanted to relish.
The adrenaline surges and flows like never before. The immaculate pitch feels vast. Waves of noise crash around the cavernous arena and you can barely hear words leaving your mouth.
Much about the day is like a cup final, yet there is arguably even more at stake. On Saturday, when Arsenal beat Chelsea in the FA Cup final, it brought glory, a trophy and a title for the records, but a conclusion, too. The playoffs shape the future — the leap forward that comes with winning; the backward step after defeat.
Monday will do just that for Huddersfield and Reading. And at the end, joy and despair will flood Wembley once again.
Despair is standing on the pitch, looking up as the winners climb the steps, file across the Royal Box before scenes of jubilation erupt: a scene equally as surreal and painful to watch. Your wish for another chance quickly fades as you realise the sweat and toil it will take to return. Joy is climbing those famous steps, with your teammates, the handshakes, the medal round your neck, the anticipation, then the roar as the cup is held aloft. Champagne sprays and fireworks explode as the celebrations spark into life.
On Monday, there will be no in between.