The Huddersfield Town megastore by the main entrance to the John Smith’s Stadium is not mega in the normal sense: it’s more like a boutique, even though the sales space has to be shared with the football club’s groundmates, the Huddersfield Giants rugby league team. But right now business is mega all right.
On Saturday Huddersfield make their debut in that gravity-defying financial phenomenon, the Premier League, and all day, every day the population of this normally sane and down-to-earth town have been pouring in to get their replica shirts and ancillary souvenirs and tat. Four staff members were working non-stop on Monday serving football customers; on the Giants’ side, in the town that gave birth to rugby league, a lone young man could only stare wistfully at his till. “It’s been like Christmas in here all summer,” he said. “Bit quiet for you, though?” He nodded.
Is promotion that big a deal? The rise of Huddersfield and Brighton means that by the weekend 49 teams will have played in 26 seasons of the Premier League – and there are only 92 teams in the four divisions. It is about time a club with Huddersfield’s history – three successive league titles in the 1920s – joined the throng.
The modern convention, of course, makes 1992, the date of football’s marriage to Rupert Murdoch, the main benchmark of the modern era, supplanting the second world war and the birth of Christ. If we ignore that, all kinds of improbable teams have also had their turn.
In 1974 Carlisle United actually led the entire league with three wins out of three. They did not win many more, and went straight back down. But the journalist Charlie Burgess (formerly of these pages) still remembers how it lifted his home town. “We all felt we were part of something bigger. And we felt better about ourselves.” He also remembers a drunk lying in some roadworks, just after promotion, mouthing repeatedly “Car-lisle, Car-lisle”.
Nine years earlier my own home town, Northampton, had their single season in the sun and if you’re very unlucky I’ll talk you through every game. Now another team with the humble appellation Town (the first since Ipswich 15 years ago) has got in and is part of something very big indeed.
And these days, the theory goes, the stakes for a put-upon, medium-sized place like Huddersfield are altogether higher. The template for this is said to be Swansea City, whose promotion in 2011 was, according to research by Cardiff Business School, worth £58m to the local economy in the first season alone.
Swansea University also reported a surge in applications, especially from overseas students: a delighted official reported that at a recruitment fair in Thailand one applicant’s first question was how far the university was from the stadium, and that another, from Colorado, chose to come because he saw the name Swansea while constantly playing Fifa on his computer.
Anecdotal evidence suggests everyone in Swansea has perked up these past six years: sales figures and property prices have risen; people have smiled their way through the streets; old married couples have resumed honeymoon sex; teenage children have volunteered for household jobs; the sun has shone all day and rain has fallen only at night. And so on. Some of this may even be true.
But one might legitimately wonder whether universities ought to want students who choose their destinations for ridiculous reasons. And Wyn Grant, emeritus professor of politics at the University of Warwick and founder of the Football Economy website, is sceptical, anyway: “There are special factors in the case of Swansea. The Welsh government has given new emphasis to various kinds of activities and the profile of Wales as a whole has risen. Stoke-on-Trent hasn’t been revitalised by the Premier League.”
But there is some evidence from elsewhere. Burnley have been up-down-up-down-up, and last season managed to stay up. “It makes the whole town more positive which is always good for business,” said Brian Hobbs, president of the Burnley Chamber of Trade. “Last time it didn’t have a significant impact in terms of over-the-counter trade but hopefully with a bit of longevity that impact will grow.”
And longevity seems to be the key. The Kirklees council’s ridiculously named grand scheme for Huddersfield is HD One, a £100m regeneration of the area round the stadium. Already there’s a multiscreen cinema and the odd naff chain restaurant. A hotel, “apartments” (not flats), a casino, bowling alley, ski slope and surf simulator, and 21 more bars and restaurants are in the plans.
This scheme was first submitted nine years ago and officials are now salivating at the thought that promotion will provide the fertiliser of investment to help it towards fruition. Again, Grant adds a note of caution. “The Premier League can help awareness of a place as a possible location. But there are many factors and it depends what investors are looking for. Leeds’ status as a regional capital has not been affected by the relative failure of the football team.”
Ah, Leeds. Seventeen miles away, Huddersfield’s overweening rival and customary nemesis: Harvey Nichols are not thought to have given much thought to opening here instead. But suddenly Huddersfield has something Leeds covets. Signs round the stadium have the slogan “The Yorkshire Club” which is sort of true, at least for now. No Yorkshire derbies are in the fixture list.
Wayne Ankers, the editor of the Huddersfield Daily Examiner, thinks the town has to stop obsessing. “We shouldn’t be thinking about Leeds. We’ve got to put our own stamp on things. It’s a problem for Leeds not us.”
And there are signs the town might be able to milk the success. The Examiner’s sales went up 55% the day after the Terriers won their play-off, and web traffic has been up all summer. At the “fantastic”, “inspiring”, “gold-rated” University of Huddersfield (welcome to self-deprecating Yorkshire), promotion came too late to make a difference to the main tranche of university applications, but there has been an increase in prospectus requests since June. The hospitality trade is also on the up. “As soon as the fixture list came out, all the weekends with home games started filling up,” said Amir Ahmed of the Cambridge Hotel.
In the shops, however, the picture is much patchier. Mark Fallows runs a fancy dress shop called Revival, but he does not see football helping it live up to its name: if anyone does fancy going to a match dressed as a pirate or a French maid, they are more likely to pick a costume on the internet. “Retail’s dreadful at the moment,” said Fallows phlegmatically. “I’m a Huddersfield supporter and I love what’s happening, but it doesn’t make a difference to my business.”
It would be wonderful if football, with its penchant for making the exceedingly rich even richer, might just produce a little trickle-down for Huddersfield. It is a very likeable town. The station is Betjeman-esquely splendid (although it no longer rates direct trains to London). The Victorian architecture of the whole centre is handsome and relatively unruined, there is a small-town affability and its civil institutions have not withered – the choral society is very famous and the astronomical society looks exceptionally lively.
Rowland Ellis, a retired production manager, began watching Town play in 1954, well before anyone began calling them the Terriers. He told me: “A couple of years ago you could go to the station on a Saturday morning and you’d see people in other clubs’ shirts going to Manchester and Liverpool and even [slight shudder] Leeds. I think they’ve come home now.”
It is in the nature of both modern football and modern Britain that Huddersfield’s concern at this point is survival rather than success. On sale in the megastore are mugs saying simply “BELIEVE”. Some of the customers were able to do just that. “There are worse teams than Huddersfield,” said Ryan Hatfield from Dewsbury. “I think our style is suited to the Premier League.”
Others found belief harder. As Ellis put it: “My heart says yes. My head says no.” And even seven-year-old Chase Thomas, chuffed to bits in his new personalised shirt, exuded a certain worldly realism. “Ummm,” he went, and thought very carefully. “Might do all right.”
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