Before Huddersfield’s penalty shootout victory in a grim play-off final their manager, David Wagner, was fond of comparing his side’s promotion charge with Leicester winning the Premier League last season.
That might be a touch strong but Wagner’s achievement in bringing Huddersfield into the top flight for the first time in 45 years remains utterly extraordinary.
Wagner was appointed in November 2015 with the immediate brief of making sure Huddersfield avoided relegation to League One. They were 18th at the time, glancing over their shoulders with profound concern. A little over 18 months later those worried supporters turned into the undulating mass of ecstasy that lost their collective minds when Christopher Schindler placed, with ludicrous certainty and assurance, the crucial penalty into the bottom corner. The sight of Tommy Smith, the Terriers’ captain who left the game on a stretcher, dispensing with his crutches in order to join in fully with the celebrations, seemed to sum the mood up neatly. The “little dogs”, as Wagner calls them, barked long and loud.
Once the glow of glory and the hangovers have worn off, attention will turn to the Premier League and staying in it. The figures increase every year, and become more and more boggling: this time the estimates suggest a single season in the top flight will allow Huddersfield to trouser £170m and, if they stay up for longer, then they could earn north of £290m. Perhaps more than that, the magnitude of the achievement will be doubled: getting into the Premier League is one thing but staying there is another entirely.
Recent examples do not provide much scope for optimism. The last three play-off final winners have made immediate returns to the Championship, the gap in class too much for QPR, Norwich and Hull. It should perhaps be equally worrying that the first two remain in the second tier, and for the latter an instant bounce-back, given the state of things on Humberside, does not look particularly likely.
All situations are very different, of course. There is no doubt that this Huddersfield side will require significant enhancement. Their squad is littered with players who scream “Championship stalwarts”, though there are some who will aspire to more than that. Keeping Aaron Mooy, the Australian midfielder on loan from Manchester City, might be key, as he provides the sort of control in midfield that such an all-action side as Huddersfield need. Wagner may well also be on the phone to his great friend Jürgen Klopp to see if he fancies donating the goalkeeper Danny Ward, on loan from Liverpool this season and the hero of not one but two play-off penalty shootouts, to the cause.
Michael Hefele and Schindler have provided a sound central defensive partnership, too. Still, there are few areas of the squad that will be left untouched. The usual purchases will have to be made: a quality centre-back, a box-to-box midfielder, a decent centre-forward and so on.
But the encouraging aspect of this unexpected season is Wagner’s ability to wring the most from a collection of players who, on paper, had no business winning promotion. This team are much more than the sum of their parts and, while obviously the Premier League is a much more intense test, the basic principle remains – as Sean Dyche, Marco Silva, Paul Clement and others displayed this season.
Team spirit is a nebulous thing but Wagner seems as good as anyone at fostering it. Two contrasting team excursions sum this up: the infamous trip to a remote Swedish island last summer, when the players were denied modern comforts and had to fend for themselves, bound them together; then, in the tricky gap between the play-off semi and final, Wagner took the whole squad, families included, to a slightly more luxurious destination in Portugal to reward and relax them. Both seemed to do the trick.
Their playing style is perhaps more likely to prosper in the Premier League than Reading’s, too. Watching Jaap Stam’s side one is reminded of Louis van Gaal’s Manchester United, their deliberate passing and measured attacking approach not making for the most dynamic football team to watch. While Stam is more likely to be influenced by the former Ajax manager than Aitor Karanka, a more apposite comparison might actually be with Middlesbrough, who won promotion last season but could not turn that success in the second tier into survival at the top.
Plenty has been made of the similarity of Wagner’s approach to Klopp’s and that relentless pressing and high-energy style will give them a puncher’s chance of making some sort of impression on the Premier League. “It’s full-on,” said the right-back Smith earlier this season, with considerable understatement.
Thanks to a perhaps slightly rash promise made by the chairman, Dean Hoyle, in 2009, Huddersfield fans who have been season ticket holders for the past eight years will be able to purchase a season ticket for £100 next season. That works out at about £5.26 per Premier League game – decent value, particularly if Wagner extends his remarkable feats even further. He called it a “fairytale” last week and hoped for a happy ending: on the contrary the fairytale might be only just beginning.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010
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