The English Football Championship play-off final, played at Wembley in late May every year, is often referred to as the ‘richest game in football’, with the winner being guaranteed promotion to the glamour and riches of the English Premier League the following season. This year’s final pits Reading FC, a team from sixty miles West of London and last in the top tier in 2013, against Huddersfield Town, representing a small, provincial town in northern England, who have never been in the Premier League in their history. With Australian Aaron Mooy amongst the list of Huddersfield’s star players, local interest is sure to centre on the self-styled “Town like no other”, and their fairy-tale run to this years’ play-off final.
Premier League Dream
With entry to Premier League estimated by Deloitte to have been worth 170m pounds (A$300m) to the winner of last year’s play-off-final, it’s clear that this game can have a massive impact on a club’s fortunes. A share of the burgeoning television rights (last negotiated by the Premier League in 2015 for an astonishing 5.14bn pounds (A$9bn – http://www.bbc.com/news/business-31379128), and the associated marketing benefits of playing against the likes of Manchester United and Chelsea amongst others, have understandably led to English Football’s top division being regarded as the “promised land” for all England’s 92 professional football clubs. For Huddersfield Town, with an average attendance of under fifteen thousand (until this year) and a limited target market outside their local area, it’s a chance to compete with the big boys.
Yet, for Huddersfield Town fans (and I am one for the record) who have grown up under the shadow of big city local rivals Leeds United for many years, it’s about much more than money. With their club not having been in the English Football’s top division for forty-five long years, most of the fans who populate the club’s John Smith Stadium every other weekend have never experienced away trips to football icons such as Old Trafford or Anfield that come with being in the Premier League. The chance to compete with such esteemed football royalty, particularly when their rivals Leeds United languish in the division below, is nothing short of a dream.
However, it wasn’t always so for Huddersfield Town. Formed in the early part of the twentieth century, ‘Town’ (as they are affectionately referred to locally) were a force to be reckoned with in the 1920’s, winning the First Division (the forerunner to the Premier League) title three times in a row – the first team in England to do so – as well as the FA Cup. Even up until the 1960’s Huddersfield were regularly in the top flight, with legends such as Scotland and Manchester United striker Dennis Law starting his career with the club. Famously, iconic Liverpool manager Bill Shankly started his managerial career at Huddersfield, but left when Law was sold and joined Liverpool – the rest as they say is history. Yet for Town it was the start of a decline that saw them drop three divisions in four years in the 1970’s, never to return since. It’s understandable then that a popular chant amongst Town fans to this day starts with the words “Those were the days my friend…”.
So what changed to catapult this small club from the edge of West Yorkshire to the verge of the Premier League? Most locals will point to the appointment of local business Dean Hoyle as chairman in 2009 as the catalyst for Town’s renaissance. With a modest fortune made from building up and then selling greetings card business ‘The Card Factory”, local lad Hoyle – a lifelong Town supporter – set about making changes to the club to position them for growth, both on and off the pitch. New training facilities were invested in as was the youth team program, and within a few years the club rose from League One (confusingly the third tier of English football) to the Championship, just one step from the ‘promised land’ Hoyle had set his sights on when he took over. Yet for the subsequent four years, Huddersfield languished in the lower end of the Championship, regularly flirting with relegation back to League One and employing a succession of managers that seemed incapable of breaking that cycle.
Enter David Wagner, a little known German plucked from Borussia Dortmund’s reserve team manager’s role in 2015, and most famous at the time for his association with current Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp (he was his number two in Klopp’s previous role at Dortmund). In eighteen months since taking the helm at Huddersfield, Wagner has revolutionised training and overhauled the playing staff, bringing in five players from his native Germany as well as Welsh International goalkeeper Danny Ward on loan from Klopp’s Liverpool. However, many feel his key signing was bringing in Australian Aaron Mooy on loan from Manchester City in August 2016, who has been a revelation for the team this season.
With Mooy acting as playmaker in midfield and the defence built on German efficiency, Huddersfield have defied the critics (they were tipped for relegation by most pundits), finishing fifth to qualify for the play-offs, ahead of such household names as Aston Villa, Nottingham Forest, QPR and of course Leeds United. This unexpected success – dubbed the “Wagner Revolution” by the club’s innovative marketing team – has resonated with the town that bears its name, with home attendances up 25% to over twenty thousand a game, and a special bond forming between the team and the fans that is the envy of the league. Never was this more evident than in the penalty shoot-out with local rivals Sheffield Wednesday in the semi-final recently, when goalkeeper Ward – having just saved the penalty to clinch the team’s place in the final – sprinted the length of the pitch to celebrate with the elated Town fans at the other end of the stadium, closely followed by the entire team and management. For a football lover, never mind a lifelong fan, it was a moment to treasure…
And so it now comes down to one game –which takes place at the iconic Wembley Stadium on Monday 29th May (a public holiday in the UK) – for a place in the Premier League. Five days out from the big day, the club’s Marketing Director Sean Jarvis confirms to me that over 35,000 fans (more than 20% of the town’s entire population) have bought tickets for the Huddersfield enclosure at the game (fans are still segregated in English Football), with a likely sell out all but confirmed. So what is the atmosphere like around the club and wider community in the run up to the game I ask him? “The Town is buzzing like it’s never buzzed before” he tells me, while recalling stories of people beeping their horns as he drives to work with a Town flag proudly displayed on his car.
It is Sean and his team that came up with the marketing slogan “a Town like no other” to promote the club’s run to the play off final this year, and he explains to me how this came about. “It’s about the incredible football heritage of this club, that we are a town not a city, and also about the incredible people that make up the community here,” Sean states proudly, before highlighting a story that epitomises the “Terrier Spirit” he is describing (the club’s official nickname is the Terriers). On the night of the play off semi-final – played away at Yorkshire rivals Sheffield Wednesday – the club arranged to show the game on a big screen at their training complex, for fans who couldn’t get to the game itself. One of his staff, on hearing a loyal fan was unable to travel to the event due to lack of transport, personally drove to pick up this fan and escorted them to the viewing, before driving them home afterwards. It’s the type of community spirit often associated with the area, and one which indicates the passion in the town for its beloved football club.
As I end the conversation with Sean, wishing him and the team the best of luck for the following Monday, he sums up what it means to club and fans to achieve what just 9 months ago seemed impossible. “To play in the elite of British football is what we all strive for, and it would be a dream come true for the team and club as a whole” Sean explains. One senses that for this small northern town with a rich footballing history, it’s an opportunity to put their town back on the map and relive the golden years of a century ago. It really would be a fairy-tale ending for the “Town like no other”, and it has been a long time in the making….
Editor’s note: This article was originally written in May 2017, prior to Huddersfield’s victory and subsequent promotion to the Premier League. After two successive season’s playing with the ‘big boys’, they were relegated back to the Championship in May 2019. David Wagner left the club in Jan 2019, and is now manager of Schalke in Germany’s Bundesliga.