How Herbert Chapman changed the face of management and domestic success at Huddersfield Town

How Herbert Chapman changed the face of management and domestic success at Huddersfield Town

“Town Club Dead” screamed a headline from the Huddersfield Examiner on 6 November 1919. The headline may have contained a touch of hyperbole but at the time Huddersfield Town faced an existential crisis. Just weeks before, Leeds City FC had been found guilty of financial irregularities and expunged from the Second Division, each of its players put up for a unique auction.

It was Leeds City who played a part in the jeopardy that Huddersfield faced. Back after a gap due to the First World War, the 1919/20 season was highly anticipated but dramatic events that took place in Yorkshire in the early months of the campaign would have a long-lasting impact on the English game.

Huddersfield Town were formed in 1908 and elected to the Second Division two years later. Before the Great War interrupted league football, Town rarely rose above mediocrity. A bigger problem seemed to be drawing crowds through the gates. In an era where clubs’ main source of revenue was generated from turnstiles, it was clear that the Terriers would struggle financially.

Local textile Barron, Hilton Crowther, had invested £45,000 to keep the club afloat. In And the Sun Shines Now: How Hillsborough and the Premier League Changed Britain, Adrian Tempany has suggested that the mill owner’s unpopularity might have been the catalyst in further decreasing Huddersfield’s already declining attendance figures. The club’s directors knew that only promotion to the First Division could remedy this and had assembled a strong team led by Fred Bullock, who had survived the Battle of Somme with a shoulder injury while serving with the famous Football Battalion.

Huddersfield made a strong start to the season but, by late October, it seemed like their campaign was in danger of unravelling. Star striker Jack Cock was shipped off to Chelsea for the princely sum of £2,500. The fans were incensed, resulting in an attendance of just 3,000 for the following league match. Gate revenue was a paltry £99. Crowther had lost patience by this point and wanted to shift his focus to a newly-formed club few miles away.

Leeds City FC may have ceased to exist on 17 October 1919 but local authorities were keen to cater to the strong fan base the club had built. Therefore, on the same day, a meeting which housed more than a thousand supporters saw a new club formed – Leeds United FC. Crowther was impressed with the fan frenzy in Leeds so he put forward a proposal to merge Huddersfield Town and Leeds United.

The proposal found backers in Football League officials, who were concerned about Huddersfield’s attendance figures. The glitch in the plan was that Crowther had not bothered to consult Huddersfield directors and, once the news went public, it sparked outrage. On 8 November, Town fans held a public protest in front of the directors’ box during a Central League match against Nelson. The following day, 3,000 had gathered – along with Town officials and dignitaries – to reject the proposal of a merger. Huddersfield were given a steep target to save the club: raise £25,000 over next month to pay off Hilton Crowther or merge with Leeds.

The month that followed brought the community of Huddersfield together to save their club. Exactly 20,000 shares of £1 had been released, converting the club to a public ownership. Factory workers, fans and canvassers asking for subscriptions teamed up to raise the money, with the Huddersfield Examiner playing a major part in spreading awareness.

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As the deadline neared, however, only £9,000 was accumulated. At this point, one of the club’s founders, Amos Brook Hirst, became a crucial figure, buying more time and raising a further £3,000 through the Huddersfield Town Retention Fund. Meanwhile, attendance figures catapulted as 26,000 attended the Christmas fixture against Rotherham. Fred Bullock epitomised the role of a leader, spectacularly balancing his twin responsibilities as a speaker at public fundraising meetings and as club captain. The players kept their focus and Town won nine out of 12 matches in November and December.

The final piece of the jigsaw came thanks to pure coincidence. While having breakfast in Liverpool’s Adelphi Hotel, Joseph Barlow, a wool merchant, overheard a conversation between Crowther and Leeds coach Arthur Fairclough about Huddersfield’s woes. Barlow became interested in joining the fight to save Town and, along with his friends, Alderman Wilfred Dawson and Rowland Mitchell, provided a final injection of funds. Crowther was paid an amount of £17,500 and 12,500 Huddersfield shares, finally ending any liability the club had towards him. Huddersfield Town were finally safe.

Ambrose Langley replaced Fairclough as manager and did an admirable job in getting the best out of a competent squad. The Terriers scored 97 times and sealed promotion by comfortably finishing second behind Tottenham. They were also involved in a brilliant FA Cup run, eliminating Liverpool on the way to their maiden final. In the final itself, they took a strong Aston Villa to extra time before losing 1-0.

The Terriers spent most of the 1920/21 season staving off First Division relegation fears. Their season might not have produced much spark but in December 1920 they employed a man who would change their history. And, yet again, Leeds would play an indirect role.

Herbert Chapman brought down the curtain on his modest playing career in 1909. He had already made his coaching debut with Northampton Town and would quickly make a mark in the quagmire of lower league football. In an era where most coaches focused on physical training ahead of tactics, Chapman proved to be an astute strategist. In 1912 he joined Leeds City, where his team’s brand of well-organised, attacking football drew in a large number of spectators. Leeds were aiming for promotion in 1914/15 but their campaign was derailed by the outbreak of war.

Chapman, as a result, became increasingly detached from football and focused his energy on managing a munitions factory to help the war efforts. In December 1918, he resigned from his post at Leeds City before taking up a job as superintendent in an oil factory. Almost a year after he left his post, Leeds came back to haunt him.

With the club found guilty of financial irregularities, three of its directors, Chapman and his assistant were all banned from football for life. According to Patrick Barclay in The Life and Times of Herbert Chapman, there had been a general awareness, even at the time, that Chapman’s ban wouldn’t really last a lifetime and that the FA would relent. The following year brought more bad news for him as he received a pink slip from his factory job.

Chapman received respite when Huddersfield officials approached him. The club helped him overturn his ban – it was rightly argued that he was away from Leeds for significant periods during the war. Former Leeds chairman Joe Connor’s testimonial also proved crucial. The ban was scrapped and, in February 1921, Herbert Chapman was officially appointed as assistant to Ambrose Langley. 

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Chapman would soon earn a promotion with Langley leaving his post. Huddersfield finished 17th in their first season in top flight, safely away from relegation zone. Regardless of their position, Chapman had already started to lay the groundwork for the future. Never backing down from spending money on transfers, he convinced Huddersfield’s board to spend £4,000 to acquire Clem Stephenson from Aston Villa.

Stephenson had played for Chapman at Leeds as a guest during the war. An inside forward, he was renowned for his vision and passing, with contemporary reports describing him as an “expert schemer”. Stephenson was 32 at the time and past his peak but Chapman was steadfast: “You have talented, mostly young, players – they need a general to lead them,” were his words to the board.

Despite his desire for change, Huddersfield’s squad boasted a number of quality players when Chapman took over. Left-back Sam Wadsworth was signed for a fee of £1,500 in summer of 1921 as the Terriers prepared for the First Division. A war veteran who was cruelly dropped by Blackburn after fighting in Europe, Wadsworth would soon become one of the best in his position and a mainstay for the national team.  

Chapman’s most famous legacy, the W-M formation, was still not perfected but, thanks to the defensive skills of Tom Wilson, the Huddersfield coach was able to utilise a deep-lying centre-half who would break down opposition attacks. Wilson spent 12 seasons at Huddersfield and played 500 times for the club.

Billy Watson had made his Huddersfield debut before the war but he only registered a handful of appearances. The left-half remained a one-club man until he retired in 1926. He was a player with superb fitness and a lynchpin in Chapman’s team. In addition to Wadsworth, Wilson and Watson, Chapman could count on outside left William ‘Billy’ Smith. A small-statured but skilled winger, Smith is arguably the greatest player to represent Huddersfield. In his 20-year career with the Terriers, he played a record 574 matches, scoring 126 goals.

The 1921/22 campaign was Chapman’s first full season as coach of Huddersfield – and it started off poorly. The Terriers won just twice in the first two months and lost three. Come October they saw a dramatic change in form, putting together a six-match winning streak. Sadly, they were never able to maintain the same level of consistency for rest of the season and ended their campaign with the same number of points as the 1920/21 season. However, the season brought cheer in the form of the FA Cup.

The Terriers started their campaign with a 2-2 draw at Burnley before dispatching the Clarets 3-2 in the replay. In the second round, they again needed a replay to get past Brighton & Hove Albion. Huddersfield held Blackburn to a 1-1 draw in the third round but came out all guns blazing in the replay, winning 5-0 with Ernie Islip and Billy Smith scoring twice. Millwall and Notts County posed little resistance in next two rounds as Huddersfield reached their second cup final in three years.

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Huddersfield’s league form during the run-up to the showpiece event was disastrous. From 11 matches played in those two months, the Terriers lost seven times, a 6-2 thrashing by Everton proving the low point. Conveniently, they faced cup final opponents Preston North End a week before the final and duly thrashed them 6-0, picking up a great confidence boost.

On 29 April 1922, Huddersfield started as favourites against Preston in the FA Cup final. The Terriers dominated much of the proceedings and the decisive moment came midway into the second half when Smith was fouled in the box. Referee JWP Fowler pointed to the spot, ignoring protests from the Preston players that the foul had occurred outside. Lilywhites goalkeeper James Mitchell tried to put off Smith with some Bruce Grobbelaar-esque antics but the Huddersfield winger kept his cool to put his team ahead. Preston came out of their shell later in the match but Chapman’s defence held firm.

Barely three years after almost going bankrupt, Huddersfield had won the greatest prize in football. As the team returned from London they were welcomed by a crowd of 30,000, which, according to the Huddersfield Examiner, was the biggest public gathering in the town’s history. The victory also vindicated the toil that the local authorities had put in to keep the club afloat, as well as their faith in Chapman.

Having consolidated his position at the club, Chapman now turned his sights towards the league. Huddersfield had competent defenders but needed a more capable goalkeeper to improve on their record of conceding 54 goals. Ted Taylor from Oldham provided a sufficient step up in quality. Wing-half David Steele was also brought in from Bristol Rovers for a sum of £2,500. Another key transfer was Tottenham centre-forward Charlie Wilson, who had caught Chapman’s eyes after scoring 13 goals in 26 matches.

Huddersfield started their campaign with a wobble and had sunk to 13th in the table by November. However, they finished with a flourish, winning eight of their final 12 league matches to finish third, seven points behind champions Liverpool. The Terriers’ defence had vastly improved and conceded just 32, the second-best record in the division. At the other end, Wilson was the club’s top scorer with 16 goals.

Chapman had taken Huddersfield’s strong foundations and built a talented squad on top of it. His team was already filled with experienced, battle-hardened footballers, and soon featured two youngsters who would eventually become club legends.

George “Bomber” Brown was barely 18 when he was signed straight from his local colliery team. A powerful, prolific striker who also had significant dribbling skills, Brown scored 159 goals, to this day a club record. Signed in summer of 1921, he played sparingly in his first two seasons but became a starter in 1923. The other youngster, Roy Goodall, made his debut in the 1922/23 season and would become one of the best defenders in the league, noted for his superb leadership. He stayed at the club for 16 years and played 440 matches.

After strong showings during the previous season, Huddersfield were considered title contenders at the start of the 1923/24 season. They were expected to offer Liverpool a tough challenge – the club looking to complete a hat-trick of league titles – as well as Sunderland, who had legendary striker Charlie Buchan in their ranks. Few experts, though, could have predicted the way the title race panned out that season.

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Liverpool dropped out of the race in early rounds but Huddersfield and Sunderland made solid starts. The early pacesetters, however, were a club which two seasons later would become the first non-English side to win the FA Cup – Cardiff City. A 3-0 victory at Sunderland saw the Bluebirds take control of top spot after four games, and they would stay there for much of the season.

On 1 March 1924, Leeds Road Stadium played host to the most pivotal game of the season as table-toppers Cardiff faced Huddersfield, who had dropped to fourth. The Terriers had suffered a loss of form in December but had recovered since. The Bluebirds, on the other hand, had lost just twice in previous three months. In front of 18,000 fans, Chapman’s side delivered an all-round masterclass. George Brown struck twice as Huddersfield won 2-0; an invaluable victory.

Cardiff’s pristine campaign subsequently went off the rails as they slumped to three consecutive defeats. Chapman’s team had already demonstrated their knack of finishing seasons strongly due to their superior training regimes, and they could now smell blood. On 27 March they travelled to West Ham and snatched a 3-2 win thanks to a brace from Charlie Wilson. For the first time in their history, Huddersfield found themselves on top of the First Division table.

Perhaps unnerved by the enormity of their achievement, Huddersfield suddenly lost form, drawing four consecutive matches, although one of those was a solid away stalemate at Cardiff. This streak ended with a win against Burnley but was followed by a draw at Nottingham Forest and a loss – their first in three and half months – to Aston Villa in the penultimate round. The Terriers had surrendered the initiative back to Cardiff.

And so it came down to round 42 on 3 May 1924. Cardiff, with 56 points, travelled to Birmingham City. Huddersfield had 55 points and welcomed Nottingham Forest to Leeds Road. This was an era where wins brought two points and teams level on points were separated by goal average. The Terriers needed a home win and a Cardiff loss. The Bluebirds had a goal average of 1.794, better than Huddersfield’s average of 1.727.

Both matches kicked off simultaneously with fans at Leeds Road nervously keeping tabs on the Cardiff match through limited channels of communication. Their team showed fewer signs of nerve and raced to a 2-0 lead thanks to goals from George Cook. In Birmingham, the first half ended 0-0. In the second half, Cardiff won a penalty. Len Davies, their leading scorer, stepped up to take it. He missed.

Meanwhile at Leeds Road, George Brown popped up with Huddersfield’s third goal. The Terriers were now ahead on goal average, and that was how it ended. Huddersfield Town were champions of England – by a goal average of 0.024.

Huddersfield began 1924/25 season as favourites, having retained their league-winning squad which was further strengthened by fleet-footed winger Joey Williams. The Terriers began their campaign by staying true to the billing of front-runners and didn’t lose a match in the first 10 rounds. Their smooth sailing then received a shuddering jolt as first choice goalkeeper Ted Taylor broke his leg. Reserve custodian Leonard Boot struggled to fill in. Top by round 10, the Terriers lost four out of the next five matches, dropping like an anchor to ninth.

As Huddersfield’s campaign entered panic mode, Chapman again relied on his superb scouting skills to sign goalkeeper Billy Mercer from Hull City. By this time, West Bromwich Albion had entered the title race. Another strong challenge came from Bolton, powered by the prolific duo of Joe Smith and David Jack.

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With Mercer providing assurance between the sticks, Huddersfield’s famed defence chimed in to keep 13 clean sheets for the rest of the season. The following six months would see Huddersfield become unconquerable, losing just once.

Charlie Wilson and George Brown formed a brilliant tandem to score 44 goals. In February, a hat-trick from Brown saw the Terriers smash Aston Villa 4-1 and rise to the top of the table. From February until May, they would rarely drop to second and a 1-1 draw with Liverpool ensured their second consecutive league title. It was perhaps not as dramatic as their first but Chapman’s team showed fantastic resilience.

So what made Herbert Chapman’s Huddersfield so successful at such breakneck speed? There are two facets to his reign at Leeds Road.

Fundamentally, his success was tactical. His third-back system was still not in full use but the deployment of Tom Wilson as a deep-lying centre-half was a change that baffled many teams. More conclusive evidence can be deduced from the Huddersfield Examiner’s match report of the 1922 FA Cup final. To describe the Terriers’ defensive organisation, the report said: “Solid teamwork more than individual brilliance enabled Town to win this match. The Town defence generally was magnificent.”

Chapman focused on a balanced offensive system which relied on counter-attacks, often initiated thanks to Clem Stephenson’s exquisite vision. Town wingers were also encouraged to cut back rather than sticking to the touchline. They rarely relied on a single goalscorer and usually had multiple attackers contributing. Indeed, the Examiner describes this as, “All the five [forwards] joined in some bewildering movements.”

The second facet involved how Chapman intricately arranged the way Huddersfield was run. This was arguably a more significant step given it defined the way a modern football manager operates. Published in 1934, Herbert Chapman on Football provides a fascinating window into the great manager’s thought process.

Chapman insisted that his players followed a disciplined fitness regime and regulated their lifestyles. He criticised the practice of club directors picking matchday squads and emphasised that this was the duty of the manager. He opined that floodlit matches would ensure better revenues and was the first manager who started the practice of reserve and youth teams playing the same style as the senior team. Chapman didn’t just believe in winning trophies; he also wanted to build a system which would sustain glory.

As the season ended, Chapman had already started the process of improving his squad to complete an unprecedented hat-trick of league titles. Scottish striker Alex Jackson, nicknamed “Gay Cavalier” for his flair, was brought in from Aberdeen. Hence, it was shocking when Chapman resigned from Huddersfield a few days later and joined Arsenal.

In truth, in an era without continental football, Chapman had achieved all that was possible with Huddersfield. He was looking for a new challenge. Arsenal’s significant pay rise coupled with the lure of managing in London in front of bigger crowds was an offer too good to resist. Cecil Potter duly replaced him at Huddersfield.

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Chapman was no longer in charge but the Huddersfield juggernaut rolled on. George Brown was at his devastating best the next season, scoring 35 goals in 41 matches. He was ably supported by Jackson (16 goals) and George Cook (14 goals). The Terriers sailed smoothly through their league campaign, keeping hold of top spot from February until the last round. The title was sealed on 12 April 1926 courtesy of a 3-0 victory over Bolton.

Huddersfield had achieved something that was barely believable back then – a hat-trick of league titles. No team had managed to do this before, not even Preston’s legendary invincibles.

They came close to winning a fourth title the following season. With three rounds remaining, Huddersfield defeated table toppers Newcastle to go a point behind them in the table. Just when it seemed they would pull off another strong finish, the Terriers failed to win any of their last three matches and handed the title to the Toon.

The 1927/28 season was even more agonising for Huddersfield fans. At one point they looked like favourites to complete the 20th Century’s first league and FA Cup double. A free-scoring team, they thrashed Sheffield United 7-1, Sheffield Wednesday 5-0, Cardiff 8-2 and Tottenham 6-1. Sadly, they once again faltered as the finishing line approached, winning just twice in the final seven games, including a damaging home loss to eventual champions Burnley, who pipped them to the title by two points. A 3-1 loss to Blackburn in the FA Cup final ended any chance of silverware that season.

In 1928, Huddersfield’s position as the most important club in British – perhaps world – football was established when as many as five of their players started in a particularly famous international fixture. Almost 81,000 people had crammed into Wembley to watch an England team boasting Tom Wilson, Bob Kelly, Billy Smith and Roy Goodall take on a Scottish side with Alex Jackson. That Scottish team would later be immortalised as the “Wembley Wizards” as they pulverised England 5-1 with Jackson scoring a hat-trick. It was a result that sent shockwaves throughout the game.

With their greatest generation ageing and not adequately replaced, Huddersfield soon lost their way and plummeted down the table, finishing 16th in 1928/29 and 10th in 1929/30. Clem Stephenson took charge and one last hurrah came in the FA Cup. Thanks to Alex Jackson’s run of scoring nine goals in six matches, Huddersfield knocked out league champions Sheffield Wednesday to set up a clash with Arsenal.

The 1930 FA Cup final saw the start of the tradition of teams coming onto the field side by side as the Terriers and the Gunners paid respect to Herbert Chapman. Chapman was much less charitable to his former club, leading Arsenal to a 2-0 victory with goals in either half. This was a symbolic passing of baton – Arsenal would soon become the leading side in English football, matching Huddersfield’s record. Stephenson proved to be a capable coach and would lead the Terriers to two top-three finishes but they never won another major trophy.

Herbert Chapman’s Huddersfield were without a doubt the first great dynasty in English football. From 1921 to 1928, the Terriers won four trophies and finished in the top three on six consecutive occasions. It needs to be remembered that this was an era where footballers had a wage cap and it was significantly easier for clubs to hold on to their best players, making the league more competitive. Chapman’s insistence to “organise victory” ensured this consistency.

At Arsenal, Chapman would achieve even more success, which would somewhat overshadow his Huddersfield days. Town’s record of three consecutive titles was later equalled – but never broken – by Chapman’s Arsenal, Bob Paisley’s Liverpool and Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United. Passing away at the relatively young age of 55, Herbert Chapman opened the door for a new style of management, changing the English game during his brilliant spell at Huddersfield. For that alone, he stands tall as one of the nation’s greatest managers. 

By Somnath Sengupta @baggiholic

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