“It isn’t a dream, it’s a vision,” said Huddersfield Town manager David Wagner ahead of his side’s Championship play off semi-final against Sheffield Wednesday. If this sounded like the semantic splitting of hairs, Wagner was keen to reinforce his point.
“I’m not a dreamer but I have visions, and the difference between a dream and a vision is, in a dream, you dream and you wake up and you didn’t really know what happened. In a vision you know the steps which you have to do to come to this vision and this is exactly the difference we have in our heads. We have steps in our heads which we have to do to maybe come to our vision.”
A fortnight later, and Wagner’s vision has been realised. The Championship play-off final was a laboured and at times unwatchable match between two tired and nervous teams, and during those hours spent envisaging Huddersfield’s passage to the Premier League Wagner presumably saw his side scoring a goal, but that is not important. Huddersfield have reached an unthinkable destination.
In November 2015, when Chris Powell was sacked, Huddersfield were a club at least halfway down a road to nowhere. Three months into their fourth season back in the Championship after eight years spent in the third tier , they had finished 19th, 17th and 16th in the last three years. They were only likely to leave the Championship in one direction: down.
Eighteen months on – and with apologies offered to Wagner for using the banned word – Huddersfield are in dreamland. Their workaholic manager may have foreseen this path to the Premier League as he deliberated over new signings and tactical plans, but no Huddersfield supporters even thought to believe, never mind dared.
Quite simply, this is not supposed to happen to a club like Huddersfield. The few remaining great grandparents who remember Herbert Chapman and Cecil Potter are the final messengers of long-lost glory. Huddersfield were a club founded on the past without lofty ambitions of playing matches worth £170m. Old Trafford and the Emirates were grounds to visit during the fleeting moments of cup glory, not on a regular basis. Until Wagner came.
When Huddersfield spent £1.25m on Nakhi Wells from Bradford City in 2014 he broke the club’s transfer record, and they have paid more than £1m on a player twice in their history; Marcus Stewart in 1997 was the other. It is inconceivable that a club who has never spent more than £2m on a player by 2017 will be playing Premier League football next season.
Yet there is truth in Wagner’s words, for this is no miracle. The comparisons with Jurgen Klopp are inevitable, for Huddersfield’s manager has regularly discussed the shared principles of their coaching style. 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.
“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.”
Wagner has been permitted to recruit players to fit his style, and for that (and Wagner’s appointment) owner Dean Hoyle deserves immense credit, but the German has also improved those who were treading water. Izzy Brown, Aaron Mooy, Michael Hefele and Christopher Schindler have been exceptional since joining, and so too have captain Tommy Smith and Jonathan Hogg in central midfield.
Having kept Huddersfield in the division last season, Wagner used the summer to increase the fitness of his squad and instil a team spirit that is referred to by every player in every interview. No Championship team used fewer players this season, and yet Huddersfield ran deep into their 120-minute Wembley battle. Hogg speaks of a pre-season exercise when the team were dropped onto an island and told to survive. Wagner was not afraid to surprise in order to succeed. There are no comfort zones at the John Smith’s Stadium.
Huddersfield’s success was always going to take good fortune. They have been promoted despite registering a negative goal difference and their only play-off goal was scored by Sheffield Wednesday. Yet luck is outweighed by effort and desire. The result is their most glorious season for 50 years, and their first top-flight campaign since 1972.
“It is important that I don’t have to be an actor,” said Wagner on his unveiling. “I can be myself and do what I stand for.” There are multiple characters in every successful production, but there is no doubting Huddersfield’s protagonist nor the face that will feature in a hundred different newspapers. David Wagner has shattered Huddersfield Town’s glass ceiling. His vision has been achieved in express time.