Exclusive: What it is like to win the richest game in football 💰 | OneFootball

Exclusive: What it is like to win the richest game in football 💰

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Padraig Whelan

When Huddersfield Town take on Nottingham Forest today in the Championship play-off final, there will be one interested observer who knows a thing or two about the magnitude of that game.

Billed as the richest game in football due to the rewards that await the victor with Premier League promotion, it is captivating viewing every year.

Huddersfield last contested it five years ago, coming out on top against Reading after a tense 0-0 draw led to penalties.

Their top scorer in that promotion campaign, Elias Kachunga, will be cheering them on again this weekend, hopeful that the class of 2022 can stir up some of that famous Terrier spirit which helped his side overcome the odds last time.

“Nobody believed in us. It was an incredible journey. When everyone speaks now about the Terrier spirit, I think we created that atmosphere at that time. It was the perfect season,” Kachunga tells OneFootball.

“It’s a little like the team this season. People predicted them to go down or fight relegation. We were the same. It wasn’t a good season before [manager] David Wagner came in so it was the same for us.

“But one of the gaffer’s coaches had a big phrase plastered around the dressing room which basically said: ‘everyone is against you so go out and play with freedom and do your own thing’. And it worked.”

That season – as the club have done prior to this year’s final – the side were taken out of the glare of scrutiny in the build-up with a training camp in Portugal but for Kachunga, a hamstring injury sustained in the semi-final meant his focus was largely on fighting for fitness.

But with assistance in Germany from his long-time personal physio, Kachunga passed a fitness test to take his place in the cauldron in the capital – something he remembers in vivid and joyful detail.

“It was great to take everyone away and calm down after everything and have a few days to relax and train. Being away, you don’t see anything on television that can maybe add a little more pressure.

“The whole atmosphere around the play-off final is nice. When we arrived in London, at the hotel next to Wembley, you could feel the buzz already.

“I still remember almost everything from the day. I brought my physio back with me to treat me the day before. It was really nice that the club let me do that.

“Our preparation went well, we had a walk before the game and there were so many fans in front of our hotel so that lifts the excitement.

“The coach to the stadium is unbelievable and you see everyone trying to take it all in.”

As for the atmosphere inside the famous venue?

“Wow. Not a lot of people can say they played in a nearly sold-out Wembley. Even listening to the English national anthem before the game was very emotional. I had friends and family in the stands but after the anthem finished, it was complete tunnel vision.”

After a gripping 120 minutes without goals, it took a shootout to decide things and despite missing first from 12 yards, Huddersfield recovered and when Christopher Schindler completed the comeback calmly, they could call themselves a Premier League team for the first time.

The emotions – good and bad – of it are something that Kachunga will never forget.

“The main feeling after Schindler scored that penalty was like a huge weight had been lifted. I just stood and cried on the pitch because the tension from the whole season had finally left my body and I was just so happy to make it,” he says. “For me it felt like a trophy that’s for sure!

“Sometimes it isn’t too bad finishing as the third team to go up. When you play at a stadium with so much history, it is so special. Everything after that is like a movie.”

Kachunga was not involved in the penalties after being substituted and although that was tough to take, he played his part in keeping morale high among the watching players as they sealed the achievement that he hails as his career highlight.

“I was angry that I’d come off already – I had so much adrenaline that I could have ran all day,” he laughs.

“You always want to be on the pitch. The shootout was really intense. Unfortunately, Michael Hefele missed his penalty but I still felt we’d do it. I was shouting to everyone that we could do it and to believe. Luckily, I was right. And massive respect to the guys who took those penalties. To take one in that situation is huge pressure but winning that way, it is quite special.

“It’s the highlight of my career. Getting to the biggest league in the world changed my life.”

The 30-year-old was in attendance against Luton last week and will be cheering them on from his hometown on Sunday in the hope that they can follow in he and his team-mates’ footsteps.

“It’s the play-offs. Wembley. Anything can happen. They are two really strong teams with very different styles,” he says.

“I love the club, I have a strong connection with so many people there. I’ll always have them in my heart. I hope they make it back to the Premier League.”