Ipswich Town can learn from Huddersfield Town’s rise to the Premier League
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Huddersfield Town won the Championship Play-Off Final on Monday. Stuart Watson looks at what Ipswich Town can take from the Terriers’ blueprint.
Eight years in the third-tier, followed by finishes of 19th, 17th, 16th and 19th in the Championship. Huddersfield Town, to the uninitiated, have come from nowhere to claim a place in the Premier League.
Smug claim alert: This journalist tipped them as dark horses last summer.
It’s here I must declare that the previous season my promotion/relegation predictions ended up scoring negative points in the system devised by a regional colleague, but I digress. The point is, sometimes you can just sense something good coming together.
I left the John Smith’s Stadium on February 27, 2016 having seen Ipswich win 1-0 courtesy of a Ben Pringle goal, but convinced the Terriers were the club facing a brighter future.
Personable German coach David Wagner, the 45-year-old having been appointed as Chris Powell’s replacement less than four months earlier, had already fostered a clear sense of identity and style of play. The full-backs relentlessly bombed on. Everyone had clearly defined roles and Ipswich weathered an almighty early storm. Terriers fans left having enjoyed the performance, if not the result.
Then Huddersfield chairman Dean Hoyle added to the positive momentum by announcing that season tickets in all areas of the ground would be capped at just £179. The result was a staggering 60% increase in sales, with more 15,000 snapped up.
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Wagner raided the German market he knows so well, added a few key Premier League loanees and the feelgood factor snowballed. His most extravagant transfer fee was £1.8m for defender Christopher Schindler.
The bottom line is, the Yorkshire club have made bold decisions to shake themselves out of a period of stagnation. There was a recognition that Championship stability should not be the limit of their ambition. Limited finances were not used as an excuse.
Those fresh ideas stemmed from Stuart Webber, the 33-year-old head of football operations who has recently been poached by Norwich City.
“I met David (Wagner) at his house and in three hours we talked about everything, how he wants his team to play and every position,” recalls Webber. “He had a pot of chocolate raisins on his table and he put 11 of them out in a 4-2-3-1 formation, and went through every single player.
“He picked up the chocolate raisin right-back and told me exactly what he has to do, then the centre-back and so on. I ate the number 10, but I came away with a real feeling that this was a guy who knows exactly what he wants and exactly how to put it together.
“Huddersfield were like a club that had won a raffle to be in the Championship. The focus wasn’t on winning, it was all about survival and there was no identity. To be frank, it was boring to watch Huddersfield and I wouldn’t have paid £350 or whatever for a season ticket. The club needed a cultural shift, a plan and we needed to do something drastic in terms of appointing a head coach who could help create an identity.”
So many of those words will resonate with Ipswich Town fans. A lack of ambition and entertainment has created serious apathy, with the Suffolk club appearing far too willing to simply tread water in the second-tier.
From Mick McCarthy’s safety-first tactics to Marcus Evans’ unwillingness to do anything creative with season ticket prices, every decision has an air of caution about it. ‘Be careful what you wish for’ and ‘there are others worse off’ are phrases which are beginning to wear increasingly thin.
Of course, every year we have this discussion. Certain things in football come into vogue and everyone is in a rush to copy.
We’ve seen it with England and their 50 years of hurt. First it was the French model, then the Spanish, now the Germans which everyone said should be followed.
Wing-backs are popular again because of Chelsea. Everyone wants a ‘young and hungry’ boss because of what Eddie Howe has achieved at Bournemouth. Looking to non-league for players was boosted by the success stories of Rickie Lambert and Jamie Vardy. It’s a fickle business.
The real lesson to be learnt from Huddersfield is that it is vitally important to have some form of identity of your own – whatever that might be.
Ipswich had one when finishing sixth two years ago. They were a direct, hard-working and physical team. Somewhere along the line that identity has been lost.
Now is the time for fresh thinking and some reinvention. Bold football, emphasis on youth development and family values have always been at the core of this club’s DNA and should be once more.
HOW HUDDERSFIELD DID IT
Sacked Chris Powell in November 2015. The largely unknown David Wagner, 44, is appointed as head coach. He had spent four years as Borussia Dortmund’s youth team boss and becomes Huddersfield’s first overseas manager.
Chairman Dean Hoyle, who made his money through founding the Card Factory stores, is a lifelong Terriers fan who took over as majority shareholder in 2009.
Last summer he decided to take a £1m hit and slash season ticket prices to £179 for adults in all areas of the John Smith’s Stadium. The result was a 60% increase in sales, with more than 15,000 snapped up.
The 50-year-old could be seen collapsing with joy at the end of Monday’s Wembley penalty shoot-out triumph.
Style of play
Dortmund’s style of play was dubbed ‘heavy metal’ and ‘gegenpress’, but Wagner has been keen to distance himself from comparisons to his friend Jurgen Klopp.
“We now call it the Terriers’ identity,” he said. “We are not the biggest dog, we are small, but we are aggressive, we are not afraid, we like to compete with the big dogs and we are quick and mobile and we have endurance. We never give up. This small dog has fighting spirit for sure.”
The formation has hardly ever changed from 4-2-3-1. Attacking full-backs have been key.
Wagner makes 13 summer additions – five from his homeland and four on loan from Premier League clubs. His biggest spend is £1.8m on centre-back Christopher Schindler from 1860 Munich. Man City midfielder Aaron Moy has been influential.
Wagner took his new-look squad to a tiny uninhabited island off the coast of Sweden for a four-day survival trip. Then there was a pre-season camp in Austria. He insists those preparations were key for bonding.
Twenty-two of their 25 league wins came by a single goal. They scored 56 goals (just eight more than Ipswich) and are promoted with a negative goal difference (minus two).