Nottingham Forest and Huddersfield take part in the most brutal stage in English football

There may not be a single game with such an intolerance to romance as the championship playoff finals. It’s the kind of occasion that should be steeped in history, from Nottingham Forest’s arduous pursuit of past glory to Huddersfield Town’s hopes of marking the centenary of its first major trophy. There should be emotional storylines, narrated by old players via grainy montages that add texture and tradition to a game like this, weaving memories and context into the chaos.

However, all of this is at odds with the kind of spectacle that is an inherently modern phenomenon. There is unprecedented riches on offer for the owners and managers, worth in excess of £1million a minute to the winning club. For players, the struggles and turmoil of the last 48 games have either been confirmed or heartbreakingly obsolete. Take those stakes and transport them in front of 85,000 doting fans at Wembley Stadium and what you get is a gauntlet run like no other in English football, with the consequences of winning and losing couldn’t be more exaggerated. Even for the most experienced players, the magnitude of these margins can be difficult to deal with.

“It was horrific. I hated every minute of the second half. I hated every minute of extra time,” said defender Steve Cook of Forest’s penalty shoot-out win over Sheffield United in the semi-finals, and it comes from a 31-year-old who has already played 168 Premier League games.

For the vast majority of players at Wembley on Sunday, this is their Champions League final, the here and now that will define their future. There are of course exceptions like Brennan Johnson, Djed Spence and Levi Colwell, whose careers should thrive regardless of Sunday’s result, but they are the lucky few. For others, so much hinges on that one fixed point: not just making a dream come true, but also the financial implications for them and their families.

It can make the finale chaotic and unpredictable, but more often than not a little reserved and capable of being decided by one slip or mistake. Brice Samba’s exploits propelled Forest through a nerve-wracking second leg at the City Ground but tension has often hit goalkeepers worst in recent years, from Kelle Roos failing to find a cross against Aston Villa in 2019 to David Raya catching position was taken by a 40-yard Fulham free-kick in 2020. And in a somewhat unfortunate omen, Huddersfield’s last visit to Wembley saw the only stalemate in Championship play-off final history five years ago, when they defeated Reading defeated football on penalties after 120 minutes, which could generously be described as a fight.

There’s a certain symmetry between Forest’s campaign today and Huddersfield’s then. David Wagner inherited a club in turmoil and revitalized it over the next 18 months – and then kept it in the Premier League against all odds. It has taken Steve Cooper far less time to reverse Forest’s fortunes and they are rightly considered favorites, having won two of the teams’ three meetings this season.

There was inevitably a heavy load of history in the build-up, but players like Johnson and Spence weren’t even born when Forest last set foot in the Premier League. The trips to Wembley that were commonplace under Brian Clough are the kind of stories that have been passed down through generations rather than witnessed firsthand. It’s a chance to start a new era rather than cast out old demons and if anything, Huddersfield have the upper hand in terms of experience, although Jonathan Hogg is the sole survivor from the squad that defeated Reading in 2017.

It’s fair to say that while there’s a tendency for a game of this magnitude to conform to script or pay homage to nostalgia, the truth is that the play-off finale is an outlier. The stakes are so exaggerated that there is no room for sentimentality. By Sunday night at Wembley, the fortunes of both sides will have changed forever. This is exactly what makes the playoff unique and probably the most brutal game in English football.

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