League 1 Play Off Final: Huddersfield's Odyssey Completed

After an 11 year exile from English football's second tier, Huddersfield finally returned after a the dullest of play-off finals but the most dramatic of shoot-outs.
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After an 11 year exile from English football's second tier, Huddersfield finally returned after a the dullest of play-off finals but the most dramatic of shoot-outs.

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It was the defeat to Sheffield United a home that prompted Dean Hoyle to call an end to Lee Clark’s tenure as the manager of Huddersfield Town. A few games later and it seemed highly unlikely that the two teams would be meeting again for some time.

Sheffield United went on a great run of results and looked absolute certainties for automatic promotion, whereas Huddersfield failed to gel under Simon Grayson, the man brought in to replace Clark, and looked like the season would be yet another disappointment.

And yet, with football being the funny old game that Jimmy Greaves often noted, things weren’t so straightforward for either club. Ultimately Huddersfield picked up enough points to secure a play-off position fairly comfortably, and Sheffield United missed out in the most painful way imaginable by losing the automatic place that seemed theirs for the taking to their bitter city rivals: Sheffield Wednesday.

Ultimately the two teams who looked to be heading in different directions when Sheffield United beat Huddersfield at the Galpharm met in the play-off final.

Now this is a game that neither team will have wanted, with both clubs having a pretty chequered past in play-off games and in the case of Sheffield United particularly in finals.

As for me, well it was just about as bad a final prospect as I could’ve envisaged. I live near Sheffield, I work with Sheffield United fans, and I used to play football on occasion when I was about 9 with Sheffield United right back Matt Lowton.

This was not a game I wanted to see Huddersfield Town lose, and to be honest after last season and the play-off defeat to Peterborough, I honestly doubted whether we would actually be able to win when it really mattered.

Huddersfield are forced into a change that would’ve had many Huddersfield fans shaking a little, as Alex Smithies replaces Ian Bennett who’d failed to recover from the hand injury he picked up in the semi final

It was a horrible game last year, and to lose on the biggest stage is very difficult to shoulder. It was partly this, and more significantly the fact that many couldn’t afford to buy the ticket, let alone the travel costs, which stopped me, and probably many other Huddersfield fans travelling down to Wembley.

Whether I would live to regret this decision was yet to be seen, would Huddersfield fail again or would they actually get it right this time? Would the decision to sack Clark and bring in Grayson be rewarded? Would Sheffield United get the promotion their points tally richly deserved?

All these questions would be answered in one game; such is the decisive finality of a play off final. It is all or nothing. If you lose, regardless of the season you’ve had, you just go home empty-handed with nothing but ifs, buts and maybes.

And so to the game,and Huddersfield are forced into a change that would’ve had many Huddersfield fans shaking a little, as Alex Smithies replaces Ian Bennett who’d failed to recover from the hand injury he picked up in the semi final. Now Smithies is a very good young goalkepper, but he’s been blighted by injuries, and has failed to recover his best form yet.

In recent months hes’s been the Ancient Mariner, in the sense that he “Stoppeth one in three” but this was his chance to be a hero, and in the first half he looked incredibly shaky, and rushed for crosses, catching some and flapping at others. However what do you expect from a young goalkeeper who wasn’t even certain he’d start the game until the morning.

And this was more or less the extent of the first half action, Sheffield United pumped some balls that Smithies dealt with, with mixed success and very little of note occurred.

Within minutes, of the second half I was starting to think that it just wasn’t going to be our year again, as Danny Ward, much like he did last year in the final, struck the crossbar with what the newspapers would describe as a fizzing effort.

I hoped that this would spark Huddersfield into life, but they still never really created any opportunities, with the Sheffield United defence keeping the Huddersfield danger men in check.

Odysseus took ten years to get home from Troy, it took Huddersfield eleven. This has been our Odyssey; it has been wrought with emotion, with highs, lows and innumerable frustration.

A few chances then did fall to Huddersfield with United clearing off the line, and Simonsen making himself a hero with a few late saves as the game reached extra time.

The game though just carried on with both teams failing to get a grip on the game, the heat sapping their energy, and the occasion dictating that neither team would take a chance and penalties began to loom. In a game that lacked any real drama, it would be hoped that the excitement would be found in the penalty shootout. There was still time however for someone to be a hero.

With about 9 minutes remaining in extra time Peter Clarke guided a header on target only to see Nick Montgomery hook the ball away from the net. It was at this point that I had given up all hope. If we couldn’t take the few chances presented to us then it seemed clear that it just wasn’t going to be our day.

The game started to head towards the final minutes, the players were facing up to the prospect of the shoot out, and barring a Steve Claridge style shin roller in the final seconds, this was always going to be the case in a game that lacked real drama and conviction in front of goal.

After the game that had nothing, who’d have predicted a penalty shoot out that had everything? With Tommy Miller missing his first effort only for Lee Williamson to see his effort superbly saved by Smithies, Huddersfield missed their next two. I’d given up, I was trawling my diary to see if I had killed an albatross and forgotten about it. Would we actually manage to score a penalty?

And then up stepped Peter Clarke, a man who cared more about this result than just about anybody else, and he took his penalty with true conviction, and this appeared to be the turning point. The Huddersfield players suddenly started taking their penalties with conviction and accuracy.

Unfortunately, Sheffield United players also did the same, and it had come to the point when both the keepers had to take a penalty. Smithies stepped up first and blasted it and although Simonsen got hands to it, the power carried it in.

And so up stepped Simonsen, who’d been a hero with a few great saves in the game, and decided to follow the technique he uses for goal kicks. The ball flew high into the crowd and that was it...Huddersfield were promoted.

I couldn’t believe it, I was amazed, delirious, and emotional, I just couldn’t get a grip on my thoughts. I was 15 when we were relegated, and I was at the game when Birmingham sent us down from the Championship.

I’m 26 now; I would never have thought that it would take so long to make our return. Odysseus took ten years to get home from Troy, it took Huddersfield eleven. This has been our Odyssey; it has been wrought with emotion, with highs, lows and innumerable frustration.

All that matters now though is that Huddersfield Town, for the first time in over a decade, will be a Championship team.

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