By: Twumasi Duah-Mensah
Imagine you live in Huddersfield, West Yorkshire, England. The town is best known for its working class spirit and wool industry. You own a family wool mill, and want to learn more about English soccer. You hear about its four main divisions (leagues) including the top league: the Premier League. You discover the beauty and grassroots nature of non-league soccer (fifth division and below). You’re captivated by the second division’s playoff–the Championship–in which the winner goes up to the Premier League. You find out more about a team in your area called Huddersfield Town A.F.C., the team everyone is talking about. However, it’s not for the right reasons.
It’s 2003. The team is over $35 million in debt, and the league they compete in wants them out because they’re bad for business. They play in the fourth division, and are on the brink of relegation to non-league soccer (the fifth division). The team can’t possibly afford the burden of relegation; surely, they will collapse. This is a stark contrast from the good ol’ days. Founded in 1908, Huddersfield had won three top-division titles before the end of the 1920s. The three stars on its logo represents the three titles. The last time the team was in the top tier of English soccer before this season was 1971-72. The Premier League hadn’t existed until 1992, meaning that Huddersfield never have played in the Premier League.
Bankruptcy and relegation into non-league soccer are almost certain. Huddersfield owns no stadium, no training facility, and can not pay its players. Luckily, a fan coalition takes over the team and steadied the ship, helping it survive for six years. In 2009, Dean Hoyle, a business mogul who supported Huddersfield for almost 40 years, purchased the team in 2009. It wasn’t until 2015, however, that the Huddersfield team experienced dramatic change under Hoyle’s leadership.
You have a dream that one day Huddersfield will win the second-division playoff final on a winning penalty kick. Maybe that dream will eventually come true…
It’s November 9, 2015. David Wagner is the new manager of Town, and the team is in the second division. Wagner had previously been a youth manager at the German soccer team Borussia Dortmund. His attacking, high-press playing style makes Huddersfield an attractive team to watch. It scores a lot of goals, but gives up a lot of goals in the process.
Wagner’s extreme ideas toward team identity once took the squad to Sweden, testing their survival skills in the woods. With no ball, no bed, no food, no shower, no toilet, the players only had each other. “It was a tough week,” said defender and team captain Tommy Smith in an interview with NBC Sports. “But ultimately, it served its purpose – everyone fighting in the right direction, looking out for each other. All of the stuff you like to see from a team bonding trip.”
Within a year-and-a-half of appointment, Wagner has taken a mediocre Huddersfield to fifth place, securing their spot in the second division playoffs.
The semifinals are played against Sheffield Wednesday FC, a team that hadn’t been in the Premier League since 2000. The game is tough. Even after overtime, it’s a tie. The two clubs have to go to penalties. Huddersfield sticks it out and wins, advancing to the playoff final against Reading FC, a team that had finished 3rd in the league that season. Reading is vying to play in the Premier League for the first time in four years.
88 minutes in, and it’s a deadlock: 0-0. Smith tries to shoot from well outside the penalty box. A defender gets in the way, and the captain goes down with a foot injury. The leader of the squad is out for the rest of the game. Luckily, Town’s defense weathers the storm for the remaining few minutes, extending the game to extra time.
Smith recollected the experience: “The last thing I was thinking about at the time when I [sic] stood on the side with the lads was my foot to be perfectly honest.” He claimed that a big reason for the indifference was that the club’s Premier League life was on the line.
120 minutes later, and not a goal has been scored. It’s time for penalties. Again.
Reading scores. Huddersfield scores. Reading scores again. Up steps Michael Hefele for the West Yorkshire club. A smooth strike… SAVED! Hefele is crushed, falls to his knees, and slams the ground in anger. Reading score their next penalty. Town’s backs are against the wall.
“I remember when Hef[ele] missed… I said ‘we’re gonna lose, we’re gonna lose,’” retold Smith.
Manager Wagner wasn’t so worried. “To be honest, I was totally relaxed at this moment because I was so proud of what the players had done so far,” he answered. “This group was, mentally very, very strong to handle setbacks, and they always believed. They had [a] fighting attitude.”
Huddersfield score. Liam Moore takes the next shot for Reading. He shoots…and the ball goes over the bar!! Huddersfield now has a lifeline. Aaron Mooy steps up for the West Yorkshire club. He runs up and scores! Tied game!
Now Reading must retake the lead. Jordan Obita takes a must-score penalty. He misses! On loan from Premier League club Liverpool, Danny Ward makes a game-changing save for Town! If they score here, Huddersfield will be promoted to the Premier League.
Here comes Christopher Schindler. The dream could be complete with this goal. He takes his stance. Runs up… SCOOOOOORES! HUDDERSFIELD TOWN WILL PLAY IN THE TOP FLIGHT FOR THE FIRST TIME IN MORE THAN 40 YEARS!!!
It’s a dream come true. Never in a million years would the Huddersfield supporters ever think they’d see their small team from West Yorkshire get promoted to the first division.
It’s 2017, and to repay fans for their unwavering support, the owners kept their training facilities open for locals and kept ticket prices low. Their season tickets are the cheapest in the Premier League, priced at $265.50. The average in the league is $905.12. Long-time supporters are rewarded with $133 season tickets.
Town’s start in the Premier League was even dreamier. Away from home, they picked up a 3-0 against South London club Crystal Palace, thanks to two goals from record signing Steve Mounié and an own goal.
Can it get any better? Yes.
In the home opener against Newcastle, Huddersfield win 1-0. Aaron Mooy performed his trademark cut, akin to Arjen Robben, and scored. He celebrated in front of the Huddersfield faithful, rewarded for their resilience.
The team now sits in 13th through 10 games, better than what most expected. But Town has always been good with setting high expectations–then breaking them.
The team’s nickname, the Terriers, comes from a fan vote back in the late 1960s. It’s picked up much more meaning in the past few years. No one expects much from such a small dog; however, it’s not the size of the dog in the fight, but the size of the fight in the dog.