The Championship playoff final is routinely described as the biggest single game in English football. The money, glory and pressure: there’s little like it in the domestic game. But this season’s edition might be even bigger for one player.
On March 17, Huddersfield midfielder Jonathan Hogg was tussling for the ball with Bristol City’s Lee Tomlin. Hogg tackled his opponent, half-turned his head to track the ball but ran directly into his teammate Mark Hudson. Hogg’s head thumped into Hudson’s chest and, because he was looking the other way, he couldn’t brace himself or try to avoid the collision.
Hogg’s neck snapped back, he crumpled to the floor, and it was quickly apparent that something was wrong.
Hogg was on the turf for 15 minutes as various medical staff attended to him, placing a brace on his neck and carefully carrying him off the pitch. Hogg could feel shooting pains down both of his arms, his left side was numb and he experienced a strange burning sensation.
His wife and children, watching on TV, were distraught. He was loaded into an ambulance, and a CT scan later said he had fractured a bone in his neck. Obviously his season was over, but that might have been the least of his worries.
And yet, just under three weeks later, Hogg started Huddersfield’s 3-0 home win over Norwich. “Relief,” he says, when asked about his prevailing emotion after being told that, on closer inspection, there was no fracture. “I couldn’t believe my luck. I thought my season was definitely done, and I knew we’d be there or thereabouts pushing for automatic or getting in the playoffs. It was a big reality check and it just scares you more than anything else.”
“When I did the injury I felt pain that I’ve never felt before,” Hogg continues, on a baking hot day at Huddersfield’s training ground as they prepare for Monday’s playoff final against Reading. “It was scary. It felt like something serious, but we’ve checked and checked again, and I’ve got the all-clear.”
Hogg has gone from thinking his career might be in jeopardy to being 90 minutes away from the Premier League. It has been quite the emotional rollercoaster.
Perhaps as much as the physical pain, which ultimately subsided, the psychological somersault someone would be forced into must be incredibly tricky to deal with. Hogg, though, seems to have broadly taken it in his stride.
“I didn’t have to get my head round it much, because I felt so lucky,” he says. “I felt like I’d been given the chance to help the team achieve what we want to achieve. It was more relief than anything else. I don’t think about it that much. I was just so glad to be back playing, and away with the lads, at this stage we’re at now. One minute it was gone, the next it’s back.”
That’s a familiar sensation for Hogg, albeit in different circumstances. He was in the Watford side when they played in the 2013 playoffs, and was the man who set up Troy Deeney’s breathtaking 97th-minute winner in the semi-final against Leicester, probably the most dramatic moment in playoff history.
“I’ve never had a feeling like that before,” he says. “You think the season is gone, finished, when they get a penalty last minute, but then (Manuel) Almunia made a double save (from Anthony Knockaert’s spot kick) and we went to the other end and scored. One minute your dreams are gone, shattered, the next you’ve got 25,000 people running onto the pitch.”
Hogg was also in the side that lost the final to Crystal Palace, but with that disappointment comes experience – experience he can pass on to the rest of this Huddersfield team.
“The lads here can deal with pressure,” says Hogg. “But it’s one of those games that can make people do crazy things. When you’ve got that many people watching, the noise and the atmosphere – you’ve got to block that out. It’s only another game of football – there’s a lot riding on it, but you can’t let it get the better of you.”
Hogg might be forgiven for simply being relieved, grateful just to be playing football of any description. But despite the scare of a lifetime, he isn’t settling for mere existence. “We’ve got to play like we have all season and not let the occasion take us over. We’re going in with no fear.”