Michael Walker: Giddy Huddersfield sample Premier League glory game
Wagner’s minnows will be fortunate to survive the choppy waters of the top flight
Huddersfield Town boss David Wagner. Photograph: Dominic Ebenbichle/Reuters
So precious is sincere enthusiasm in an English football world made mad by money and celebrity and, let’s not forget, old-time incompetence, that it would be churlish to overlook the words of David Wagner in this 25th Premier League pre-season – or 118th Football League pre-season, if you’re not a foal.
“I will never decelerate excitement,” Wagner said. “It makes totally no sense. Everybody should keep this excitement for the first game. I think excitement helps you go over the borderline.”
Wagner is manager of Huddersfield Town, where excitement started to spread through the streets last September when Town won five of their first six Championship matches and locals began to dream of Town becoming the 49th different club to join the Premier League since 1992’s breakaway. It happened.
References to Huddersfield’s excitable zip were frequent. If those were not always justified on the pitch, there was an overall club energy that saw it outperform its budget. When Wagner signed defender Christopher Schindler from TSV Munich last June, the £1.8m fee broke Town’s transfer record.
This is where Huddersfield Town have come from. There is the glorious history of Herbert Chapman in the 1920s, when Huddersfield became England’s first ever three-in-a-row League champions, but modern transfer budgets are the more relevant guide as to how clubs have progressed.
Huddersfield’s budget last season was among the bottom eight of the 24 Championship clubs; they finished 19th the season before last. Wagner’s achievement was to reduce the significance of spending and increase the role of coaching. From 19th, Huddersfield jumped to fifth.
Excitement, exuberance, as personified by Wagner, who is close to Jurgen Klopp, masked nitty-gritty numbers. Town scored fewer than the season before; goals conceded dropped from 70 to 58. This is not dramatic, yet the effect was. Huddersfield’s victory tally almost doubled: from 13 wins the season before last, they jumped to 25, and within that, 22 of those 25 were by a single-goal margin. Huddersfield Town were not this attacking tsunami you may have read about, they were a low-budget team scrapping for every point.
Newcastle’s goal difference was +45, Huddersfield’s was -2 and the latter’s jostling was further revealed in the play-offs, where Town played twice against Sheffield Wednesday and once against Reading and drew all three.
Huddersfield were promoted on penalty-kicks, first against Wednesday and then against Reading at Wembley. In the play-off final, Schindler, the record transfer, scored the decisive penalty.
Schindler said he was, in part, inspired by wristbands Wagner had given to the squad with the phrase ‘No Limits’ on them. That must have cost about 30 quid. The excitement of marginal gains got Huddersfield over the borderline.
It was thought that owner Dean Hoyle’s enthusiasm was decelerating pre-Wagner, after consecutive Championship finishes of 19th, 17th, 16th and 19th. Huddersfield were averaging 13,000.
No more. Town is abuzz, the stadium will be full to its 25,000 capacity and Wagner has been enabled. No less than six times this summer the club has broken that Schindler record: Tom Ince has joined from Derby for £8.5m, Aaron Mooy, the team’s on loan midfield conductor has been made permanent – £8m from Manchester City. And Steve Mounie, a 6ft 3in centre forward, has arrived from Montpellier for £11.5m. The net spend is around £38m.
There is the sort of feelgood factor which sees even the new Dr Who – Jodie Whittaker – getting attached because she comes from the outskirts of Huddersfield.
We have seen this before with nearby Barnsley; it is all part of the Premier League circus, where excitement is never knowingly decelerated. In the many reflections on the 25 years of the League one of the most telling was that before 1992, the game had been undersold. There is no doubt about that.
But for some time it has felt oversold, as seen in recent Champions League seasons. Huddersfield were in League One six years ago, so were Brighton, Southampton and Bournemouth – 20% of the top division. The core of Eddie Howe’s team from the third tier has prospered in the Premier League.
It is another comment on standards, which the breakaway was designed to address. The England team would become stronger. Instead England’s national team has declined and one of the essentials is a lack of individual English participation.
There were only 13 non-British or Irish players on the opening day of the League in 1992; now there are 13, sometimes more, in most squads.
This summer has witnessed another river of spending, with Manchester City leading the torrent. Somehow the club has managed to justify to itself using £50m to acquire an average English full-back, Kyle Walker, but the other seven Pep Guardiola signings are foreign. English – and Irish – players will again feel the squeeze.
Of City’s latest batch, Bernardo Silva of Monaco is most likely to accelerate excitement. Here is an exquisite footballer. City finished 15 points behind Chelsea last season, which sounds like too much to make up, but City have the talent to bridge that gap. If Gabriel Jesus is fit, if Bernardo Silva finds his feet, City will take some beating.
There remains a question mark, though. After starting last season with six straight League wins, a defeat at Tottenham stalled City, who also lost at Chelsea, Liverpool, Everton and Leicester.
Tottenham, who scored more than Chelsea and conceded less, came between the champions and City. A lack of summer spending means question marks for Mauricio Pochettino too, especially without White Hart Lane this season.
But Spurs climaxed the season with two away wins: 6-1 at Leicester and 7-1 at Hull, and In contrast to Huddersfield, the deceleration of anticipation at Newcastle United is marked.
If storylines are a measure of success, then the Premier League is in Booker Prize territory and this season’s first melodrama is likely to be at St. James’ Park where manager Rafa Benitez has been wrong-footed by owner Mike Ashley.
The Champions League-winning Spaniard thought that by managing in the Championship, by winning the Championship, by being fundamental to attracting an average attendance of 51,000 in the Championship, he was moving Ashley into a new phase of ownership in the Premier League.
But Ashley doesn’t want that, not if it means power resides in the dugout. Benitez has missed out on six of his preferred targets since January and as author Martin Hardy has pointed out: “That’s half a team.”
Hardy has written a detailed, evocative account of last season at Newcastle. It is called Rafa’s Way. Were this season to be good, the joke was a there would be a sequel: ‘Rafa’s Howay’. Now gallows humour says the title will be ‘Rafa’s Away’.
Newcastle’s net spend is around £12m and unless that changes, the 4/1 on them being relegated will shrink soon.
At Arsenal they know about such blood-sport, and Arsene Wenger will be glad if he is not the main character in another florid club-fan drama. But Arsenal are in the Europa League like high-stepping ambitious Everton, where Wayne Rooney is back.
Rooney has been one of the keystone figures in the Premier League’s establishment as a global ‘brand’, a throwback player and the shock of the new rolled into one pumping body. He won five titles with Manchester United.
Jose Mourinho has a habit of winning titles in his second season at clubs but United still look short of City. And Chelsea, who did not have European football to consider last season, do now.
For all the money they have spent in recent years, United still lack some stardust. Curiously, Nemanja Matic could prove to be their crucial signing, not solely because of the calm, intelligence he brings in himself, but in the liberating effect he may have on others.
United scored less than Bournemouth last season but if Mourinho can get them on a roll – if anyone can get on a roll in an open top five – then Wagner’s excitement theory could kick in. Roll with it.