Huddersfield Town: A worldly club nestled into the Pennines, finding an edge on a budget
There are seconds left in injury time and it looks like a third league game without a win for Huddersfield Town.
The West Yorkshire side, operating on the 15th biggest wage budget in England’s 24-team second tier Championship, have been the surprise of the division, topping the table with a series of impressive results. Away wins at league favourites Newcastle United, plus victories at neighbours Leeds United, Ipswich Town and a draw at Aston Villa took Huddersfield to the top of the league and attracted attention well beyond the former mill town of 162,000 located in the Pennine Hills between Leeds and Manchester.
With the score goalless, the fatalists in the 20,000 crowd (15,000 are season ticket holders who pay only £170 (Dh764.68) for the entire season) revert to type.
“I knew it couldn’t last,” said one as he went for his half-time cup of tea. “I’ve seen better football in Sunday League.”
But this is Huddersfield Town in 2016 and attendances are up from 12,000 thanks to cheaper tickets and managed by their first foreign manager, the German David Wagner.
Huddersfield have a will to win that is evident when another new German arrival, Elias Kachunga, scores a winner in the third minute of stoppage time.
Wagner, a close friend of Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp since they worked together at Borussia Dortmund, celebrates so enthusiastically that he is sent off, later saying: “It is an emotional game and I lost control of my emotions.”
In the packed directors’ box, there are punches in the air from those in their suits and dresses.
It is a chilly 10 degrees in the Pennine foothill where leaves on the trees overlooking the stadium are turning from green to brown in the autumn bloom, but warm coats are clearly reserved for those soft metropolitan types which Huddersfield would never profess – or want – to be.
The win against Derby County on Saturday, October 22, lifted Huddersfield to joint second in the Championship after 14 games.
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Newcastle United, the leaders whose 51,000 average home attendance is more than any team in Italy or France, plus Atletico Madrid in Spain, are the clear favourites for an immediate return to the Premier League as one of the three promoted teams.
Could the team who won three consecutive titles in the 1920s, the club where managers Herbert Chapman and Bill Shankly cut their teeth, where Denis Law spent the first four years of his career before leaving for Manchester City in a British transfer record fee at the time of £55,000, be one of the three?
“We have to be realistic,” said Stuart Webber, 32, Huddersfield’s head of football operations when we meet before the game.
“We finished 19th last season and signed 14 new players for this year, a lot of whom had never played in the Championship. We also have a lot of players aged between 22 and 25 so there’s a great deal of development to come in the team.”
Webber is a Welshman who did his first coaching badge at 18 and completed his A licence by 22. Stints at Wrexham, Liverpool – where he headed the club’s academy and recruited players globally, watching 300 games annually – Queens Park Rangers and Wolverhampton Wanderers helped him to be well qualified at a young age.
He works directly with the manager and the chairman, Dean Hoyle. Given that they have not got the budget of his former manager Rafa Benitez at Newcastle, Huddersfield have to be creative.
“We can’t compete financially with the Derbys or the Wolves and let’s not even talk about Villa and Newcastle – we can’t get near them,” Webber said.
“A typical English Championship player is paid too much for us, so we either dip into the lower leagues or we buy from abroad.
“We see Europe as a big opportunity for us and it helps that not many clubs at our level are looking there.”
Webber thinks that having a foreign coach helps. “David understands how players need to settle, he also has knowledge of players outside the UK.”
The Championship has become an easier sell, too. The presence of Villa and Newcastle means the average attendance across the division is pushing 20,000 – similar to the top leagues in France and Holland.
“A player would rather play in the Championship than the Dutch Eredivisie,” said Webber, as team sheets are handed out which show the strength of Huddersfield’s foreign contingent in an area where 55 per cent voted for the UK to leave the European Union in the June referendum.
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Wise recruitment from the continent has helped.
“We made the decision to change (former manager) Chris Powell and bring David in,” said Webber of the appointment a year ago.
“We looked at all the types of people we could bring in as manager. We said: ‘If we keep doing the same things then we’ll keep getting the same results’ so we decided against bringing in another English Championship manager. We wanted to change the culture and David helped us do that.
“He was open to the foreign transfer market; he had a very good history of developing players who’d gone on to win World Cups. He will make our players better. Thirdly, we have a clear identity with our style of play which we live every day.
“We play a fluid 4-2-3-1. We’re fit; we’re aggressive. A key to it is that every decision is made towards our system. There is no plan B – we want our Plan A to get better and better.”
Huddersfield’s change in recruitment policy has seen them attract superior players.
“We’ve got better players than a year ago including our goalkeeper Danny Ward, who is on loan from Liverpool,” Webber said. “We’ve got Aaron Mooy, an Australian midfielder on loan from Manchester City and Kasey Palmer from Chelsea.
“Clubs are happy to let their players go on loan here because of the way we play. They know we’ll make their players better.”
The fans are enjoying the rise.
“I’ve been going since 1977 and this is as good as it’s ever been for me,” said supporter Alex Workman. “We were close to going up under Steve Bruce in 1999/00 and were top at Christmas, then we sold star striker Marcus Stewart to Ipswich, who went up as we limped home in eighth.”
By 2003, Huddersfield had slipped into the fourth tier. They have been in the Championship since a 2012 promotion, never finishing higher than 16th.
“Wagner really has transformed the team and with the cheap ticket pricing there’s a real feel-good factor throughout the club,” Workman said.
Average crowds in the 24,500 capacity council owned stadium have risen to 20,000, feeding into the local buzz around the club. They are also unusual at the higher echelons of English football in having a chairman who is a local boy.
Hoyle, who made a £360 million (Dh1.62 billion) fortune in the greetings card business which he started on a market stall, has put £70m into the club and his largesse means the club budget to make a £6m loss each season.
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He uses his page in the match day programme to rally against the accident and emergency department of the local hospital being threatened with closure.
Hoyle’s gamble to reduce ticket prices and appoint Wagner is paying off and he has the right people around him to help it work.
Every space among the curved stands of the stadium – the best of the 1990s new builds and Britain’s 1995 Royal Institute of British Architects’ building of the year – has a sponsor.
Even the players’ entrance has a sponsor, while the club shop sells Terriers dog bowls for £6 and visitors are hit with marketing messages about the Wagner Revolution.
Change has been good in this part of Yorkshire and the football team has given the town a much needed lift.
“Huddersfield is a traditional, northern English, working class, former industrial town that’s still finding its feet,” said Doug Thomson, a Huddersfield local and football writer for the Huddersfield Examiner newspaper. “All the large scale employment in engineering and textiles has gone.”
A thriving university has helped the town which gave birth to Rugby League and was the home of the Luddites who objected to changes in technology during the industrial revolution, but the location between Manchester and Leeds does not help, with the larger, successful cities drawing in shoppers and football fans.
“When I started supporting Town, there were a minority of kids in my class who supported Huddersfield,” Thomson said.
“They were mainly Leeds and Man United and Liverpool fans. A limited number of people support Town, but those who do are very loyal to the club.”
Like his fellow supporters, he is enjoying the moment.
“These are brilliant times,” said Thomson, who watched the team at their traditional Leeds Road home, an archetypal old northern English football ground with vast terraces.
“I can go to the supermarket and people will stop and ask about Town. That didn’t used to happen. The place is buzzing.”
The atmosphere carries into the stadium, where fans from the North Stand Loyal group make a big noise in the seats close to the 1,900 travelling Derby fans.
Derby, who were among the favourites for the division, could have sold the whole end out but Huddersfield wanted vocal home fans in the most atmospheric part of their stadium – a move which cost them £50,000. They wave German flags in honour of their new manager.
“There’s been a massive difference since the start of last season,” said Blake Welton, another journalist from the Examiner.
“The football was negative, the fans had no connection with the team. The football and the lower ticket prices mean the connection is now much stronger.
“The fans see the chairman as one of them because he has been a lifelong fan. Aston Villa have owners in China, Huddersfield have an owner from Huddersfield who is very engaged with fans, going on the internet to communicate with them on the Down at the Mac messageboard forum.”
Hoyle is very popular and his change of direction for the club is working. Three of the new signings were German defenders, including Michael Hefele, 26, a former Dynamo Dresden captain who has become a cult hero.
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Scoring a bizarre equaliser with his backside at Aston Villa away in front of 4,000 travelling fans just 26 minutes after coming on as a substitute on his debut helped.
“At the end it was a typical Hef goal, he is a great character and has a fighting attitude,” Wagner said.
“Hef’s a cult hero who rarely plays. If he’s warming up as a sub he chats to fans on the touchline. He’s loving being here from Germany.”
Locals are loving their mix of imports, experienced professionals and loanees. At the end of the game, a clutch of local teenagers holding smart phones request selfies with their obliging heroes at the bottom of the main stand.
One is striker Harry Bunn, 23, who spent the early years of his professional career on the Lancashire side of the Pennines at Manchester City. Even he is surprised by the progress.
“In pre-season I was optimistic that we’d finish in the top half of the table,” he said.
“The new players looked good straight away and started well. So I thought we’d do well, maybe not as well as we’re doing but hopefully that can continue.”
Bunn credits Hoyle and Wagner among others.
“The manager is old school with new ideas,” Bunn said. “He likes us to play from the back and press. That’s new to a lot of the players, but training is tough with a lot of running. That has made us a fit team which plays until the final whistle.”
And in the 93rd minute against Derby County, that desire got Huddersfield three more points.
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Updated: October 27, 2016 04:00 AM