“Now it’s time to bring it to Huddersfield,” was a ballsy way for David Wagner to close his unveiling at Huddersfield Town. It’s the type of line used by a silver-haired man from Suffolk to explain why he’s opening a shop in Bury St Edmunds that sells exclusively cowboy chaps and studded belts; the shop stays open for four months before a sign appears in the window informing customers that Brian has ‘gone back to the ranch for good’.
Wagner wasn’t excited about his range of imported American frontier clothing, but a new brand of football. There have been several unusual appointments in the Football League this season (Carlos Carvahal at Sheffield Wednesday, Jamie Fullarton at Notts County and the Charlton Athletic circus), but Wagner at Huddersfield caused the most surprise.
Until recently, Huddersfield were a club at least halfway down a road to nowhere. Starting their fourth season back in the Championship after eight years in the third tier, the West Yorkshire club have finished 19th, 17th and 16th in the last three seasons. They were 18th when Chris Powell departed.
In a division bloated by ex-Premier League clubs and those enjoying the benefits of parachute payments, treading water was Huddersfield’s glass ceiling. Their last reported turnover was £10.8million, and when they spent £1.25m on Nakhi Wells from Bradford City in 2014 he broke the club’s transfer record. Huddersfield have paid more than £1m on a player twice in their history; Marcus Stewart in 1997 was the other.
There was also a mood of ill-feeling growing against the club’s owner Dean Hoyle. Hoyle, a local businessman worth in excess of £350m, has invested £37m of his own money in the club, but supporters were uneasy after repeatedly seeing Huddersfield’s most valuable assets leave the club: Jordan Rhodes in 2012/13, Jack Hunt in 2013/14, Adam Clayton and Oliver Norwood in 2014/15, Jacob Butterfield, Conor Coady and Alex Smithies last summer. Very few were adequately replaced.
It is no exaggeration to say that one appointment has transformed Huddersfield from one of the least interesting Football League stories to the most. For those unaware, Wagner is the former colleague and current friend of Jurgen Klopp. So much so that he was Klopp’s best man at his wedding. We’re imagining a sitcom – ‘Allo ‘Allo crossed with the Two Ronnies.
Wagner looks less like Klopp’s companion, and more like a poor tribute act. The beard, baseball cap and glasses are present, like one of those joke shop disguises. In fact, Wagner looks like the Guess Who character with the complete set. “I am dark, he is light. He is tall, I am shorter. But our characters are very similar. We like the same jokes and doing the same things,” Wagner says. That sitcom sketch isn’t going away.
Wagner first met Klopp when they were players together at Mainz, before the former left for Schalke and won the UEFA Cup. Having retired with eight senior caps for the USA – his father is American – Wagner worked for Hoffenheim’s U17 and U19 teams before landing a job as coach of Borussia Dortmund’s reserve team in 2011. It was there that he and Klopp developed their joint fondness of the pressing style for which the Liverpool manager has become so notorious.
“Jurgen and I share the same philosophy,” Wagner says. “We have known each other for 25 years and we spoke about football for maybe 20,000 hours in this time. The style of game we love is exactly the same. We love the speed and passion; the full throttle way. There are some parts like game pressing and transition game that is similar.”
It’s one thing bringing heavy metal football to the Westfalenstadion and Anfield, but another entirely replicating that style at the John Smiths stadium, Huddersfield. Wagner watched from the stands as they lost 3-0 to Leeds, before taking the squad to Spain for five days of double training sessions and fitness work. That’s quite the gamble in November, and Huddersfield proceeded to lose two of their next three games.
Since then, something strange has happened. Huddersfield’s players have not only survived Wagner’s new methods, they are thriving under them. The Terriers have won four of their last five league matches, scoring 14 goals in the process. On Tuesday, they beat Charlton 5-0 with five different scorers. Having been as low as 22nd this season, Huddersfield are now ten points outside the Championship relegation places. “David Wagner…he’s better than Klopp,” is the predictable chant around the stadium.
Huddersfield are still a work in progress. Their players regular tire towards the end of matches, and it remains to be seen if a high-tempo, pressing game can be successful over a long, 46-match league season. Yet they have the fourth youngest squad in the division, and fitness will improve. Nobody sensible is yet talking about anything other than consolidation (you can still get 50/1 on a top-six finish), but Huddersfield fans are finally looking up, not down.
“I’ve been surprised by how open-minded and innovative everybody is at this club, not only the players but the whole staff, the whole management,” Wagner told the Guardian last month. “Everybody is protective of this project and I’m sure will give us enough time to develop. The games and the work on the pitch shows we are going the right way.”
Talk of innovation and ‘the project’ might jar against traditional Football League ideas and ideals, but in truth Wagner is Huddersfield’s shot to nothing. They will never be able to bankroll a Premier League promotion, but must look for sustainable improvement through coaching and managerial expertise.
In fact, Wagner and Huddersfield share a gloriously symbiotic relationship. Manager saw club as the perfect blank page to replicate his managerial vision. Club saw manager as their spring clean, a breath of fresh air.
Two months ago, Huddersfield supporters expressed concern that their club was being used as a guinea pig, their survival staked on a manager with no experience in England. Now they are convinced that Wagner is far more than a gimmick. “We were looking for a new style of organisation, fitness and play,” owner Hoyle says. On current evidence, they’ve found all three.