Back in late 2013, Town notched up three victories in a row for the first time in what seemed like donkey’s years. It began on a frigid November morning at Hillsborough with a convincing 2-1 win over Sheffield Wednesday. The next week saw us dispatch Sean Dyche’s Burnley in a frankly ridiculous game that, depending on which side of the Pennines you’re from, bore witness to some of the best or worst refereeing in the Football League’s illustrious hundred and twenty-eight-year history. And last but very much least, we beat Bolton 1-0, courtesy of an Oliver Norwood wonder strike.
Owing to the fact that the Bolton game was on a Tuesday night and, well, in Bolton, I ended up listening to it on my mate’s car radio, parked outside the KFC at Junction 27. At the time, Peter Clarke was nursing a knee injury, and so with little else to do, found himself filling in for Kieran O’Regan as Oggy’s less insightful sidekick.
No sooner had the final whistle blown than the texts and emails started flying in. Most of them were understandably a bit giddy. As the post-match coverage wore on, it seemed like listeners were trying to outdo one another, making increasingly, shall we say, bold, predictions. This love-in reached a crescendo when a bloke from Batley or some such place asked Captain Fantastic which players he thought would be able to hack it in the Premier League come August 2014.
Clarke laughed. Oggy laughed. I laughed. My mate laughed.
On the Saturday we lost 2-1 to Ipswich thanks to a Daryl Murphy header in the eighty-ninth minute. After the game, the universe was back to its usual self; Huddersfield Town were rubbish and Huddersfield Town fans were moaning old gits.
There’s a common misconception that Yorkshire folk are natural-born pessimists. We’re not. We’re actually bi-polar, oscillating wildly between glee and despair, enthusiasm and apathy, miffed and chuffed. Like the Grand Old Duke of York, when we’re up, we’re up, and when we’re down, we’re down. Nowhere has this tendency to embrace the margins of life been more evident than in the build-up to this season.
Barely a day goes by without another tranche of feverish tweets extolling the limitless potential of the #wagnerrevolution. We’re going to win the league at a canter, they say! We’ve got the best defence/midfield/attack in the Championship! We’re the Borussia Dortmund of the North! I know perfectly sane people who are convinced in their heart of hearts that all or some of the above is true, that this is our year.
And who can blame them? After all, we’ve got a lot to be optimistic about.
We’ve got a fantastic owner who’s not only a local lad but a supremely competent businessman, too. We’ve got a Board who are open-minded and enthusiastic about engaging with supporters. We’ve got one of the cheapest season ticket deals in English football. We’ve got a magnificent training complex that’s open to the public and continually undergoing state-of-the-art refurbishments. We’ve got a top-class coach who ‘gets it’ and likes to play entertaining “full-throttle football”. We’ve invested record amounts of money in exciting new players, not least four much-needed defenders. We’ve got a singing section behind the goal thanks to the NSL and the atmosphere at the ground has improved ten-fold.
For all those reasons, I expect us to do well this season. It should go without saying, however, that there are some big C caveats attached to them.
First off, we’ve brought in twelve new players in a relatively short space of time, most of whom are used to plying their trade in Central and/or Eastern Europe. Now, there’s nothing wrong with that per-se. As I pointed out in an article for The Boot Room in May:
“The most obvious pitfall awaiting any foreign manager abroad is that they become over-reliant on their native marketplace, importing a bevy of average, unproven players, diluting the unique character of the club and upsetting the established hierarchy. Luckily, I don’t think there’s much danger of that happening under Wagner. He has made it clear that he wants to maintain a British core, promising to replace first-team coach Mike Marsh with an Englishman when he leaves at the end of the season, and rewarding skipper Mark Hudson with a new three-year contract. There’s also concern that adventures in foreign markets will halt the progression of home-grown academy prospects. Again, I don’t think there’s much to worry about on that front. Indeed, compared to his immediate predecessors, Wagner has been far more willing to use youth players, allowing the likes of Joe Lolley and Philip Billing to cement their place in the starting eleven.”
Given the calibre of player we’ve signed since then, I think it’s fair to say that Wagner’s forays into the transfer market—Deutsch oder nicht Deutsch—have been well-timed, cost-effective, and born of necessity. That said, the new players are going to need time to acclimatise to the Championship and the team is going to need time to gel. Pre-season friendlies are one thing, but nothing tells quite like competitive football.
There’s also the small matter of context. We might have been splashing the cash like it’s going out of fashion, but so has everybody else. Newcastle have spent a whopping £33,580,000, Aston Villa have spent £12,580,000, Fulham have spent £6,210,000, Bristol have spent £6,120,000, Leeds have spent £5,020,000, QPR have spent £4,404,000, and so on and so forth. Even clubs that have spent less than our £2,380,000 outlay have picked up decent players on free transfers and played the loan market, and some of them are starting from a pretty impressive baseline. The unpalatable truth is that the Championship is an arms race and some of the more powerful participants aren’t much interested in arms control.
And boy does the smell of money attract some big hitters! I assume we’re all in agreement that we’ve unearthed a rare gem in Our Lord and Saviour David Wagner, but I’d imagine that the Geordies (Rafa Bentiez), the Villans (Roberto di Matteo), the Brummies (Gary Rowett), the Rams (Nigel Pearson/Chris Powell), erm, Fulham (Slavisa Jokanovic), the Royals (Jaap Staam), and our friends from down the road (Garry Monk) are pretty pleased when they glance over at the dugout as well.
Unfortunately, this season the quality is likely to be that little bit higher, the competition that little bit harder.
Such is life.
There’s always the option of gegenpressing our way out of this bind, of course, but again, I’d advise caution when it comes to our style of play. There’s no doubt that the new additions to the squad are technically and physically suited to Wagner’s favoured high-pressing, possession based system. Still, judging from pre-season, there are a lot of kinks in our game that need ironing out. We have a propensity to overplay, dwelling on the ball for too long, always making that extra pass instead of going for the jugular.
When Klopp’s Dortmund were at their best they were a counter-attacking team, pressing high and in numbers. The objective was to dispossess their opponents while they were in a transitional phase of play (preferably in their own half) and break with pace. We don’t do this nearly enough, and I fear that our options at right-back will weigh heavily as the season progresses. In a traditional 4-2-3-1 formation, the wing-backs provide the team with natural width, overlapping the inside-forwards to pose an attacking threat. Smith and Cranie are decent defenders, but they seem to develop a nose bleed every time they venture past the halfway line.
I also worry about how we’ll cope when teams choose to adopt a high-pressing strategy against us. We seem far too lackadaisical when passing it around at the back, especially across the box (I can almost hear the groans from the Kilner as I type!), and we might struggle against better teams if we don’t figure out how incorporate more direct methods into our game. It will be interesting, to say the least, to see how Wagner and the players adapt in these situations.
So what’s your point, I hear you ask?
That’s easy, and if you’ll bear with me, I’ll tell you.
The good ship Huddersfield Town is in tip-top condition, the best condition it’s been in for a very long time. Under the stewardship of Dean Hoyle, and more recently Herr Wagner, it’s made significant progress both on and off the field. It would be a mistake, however, to assume that the latest chapter in the club’s history will be filled with tales of untold riches and endless success.
The ‘Wagner Revolution’ is a catchy enough slogan, but it’s something of a misnomer. Perhaps a more accurate description would be the ‘Wagner Evolution’, since that’s exactly what’s happening here. As far as I see it, the club—and by that I mean everybody from the players and Board to the NSL and HTSA—is embarking upon an ambitious long-term project based around the Holy Trinity of supporter engagement, financial sustainability, and sporting professionalism. The aim, as always, is to beat the system at the edges.
More than anything, that requires patience.
I’m not advocating a dampening of enthusiasm by any means; just a spot of expectation management. What was it that Harold Wilson said? “I’m an optimist, but an optimist who carries a raincoat.” Seems like pretty sound advice.
By James A. Chisem - Follow him on twitter HERE