How David Wagner redefined the impossible at Huddersfield Town

How David Wagner redefined the impossible at Huddersfield Town

The news of David Wagner’s departure has left a feeling of emptiness amongst supporters of Huddersfield Town. Wagner’s revolution had drawn to a damp, miserable close in South Wales following a poorly overturned decision by referee Lee Mason that denied his Terriers a penalty. The game against fellow relegation strugglers Cardiff finished a predictable 0-0, bringing the end to a reign that was anything but.

Wagner’s route into management was an unusual one. Born to an American mother and German father, Wagner’s playing career ended with eight American caps, and successful spells at several German clubs including Schalke and Mainz. Rather than an immediate jump into coaching, teaching was what interested Wagner. He studied a degree in Biology and Sports Science at the University of Darmstadt, located south of Frankfurt, before becoming a full-time teacher.

However, his greatest passion remained football. Wagner completed his UEFA Pro Licence and soon became part of Hoffenheim’s academy, working with a new generation of gifted youngsters. By 2011, Wagner had found his way into management and was reunited his ex-Mainz teammate and close friend, Jürgen Klopp. Klopp’s new apprentice was trusted to take charge of Borussia Dortmund II, a development side playing in the fourth tier of the German pyramid.

Wagner’s experience at Dortmund laid the foundations for his later success at Huddersfield. Under his vision, Dortmund were promoted to the third tier of German football, the highest-level a B team can reach. More impressively, Wagner guided his team to consecutive survivals in that tricky division, including a record 14th place.

It was at this time that Klopp’s stock was rising exponentially. He had guided Dortmund to back-to-back Bundesliga titles, dethroning the domestic superiority of Bayern Munich with his now famous counter-pressing tactic, Gegenpressing. Klopp’s success inevitably halted, and he left Dortmund in 2015 before later replacing Brendan Rodgers at Liverpool.

When Wagner left his role as Borussia Dortmund II boss a month later, it seemed more of a formality rather than a possibility that he would become Klopp’s number two at Anfield Instead, Wagner now desired his own path to success, the apprentice aiming to escape Klopp’s shadow and graduate as a master in his own right.

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It was the market town of Huddersfield that Wagner would accept his first challenge. It wasn’t without a consultation with Klopp, though, who told Wagner “just do it” and take the job offered to him. Huddersfield were sitting in a precarious 18th position in the Championship and in need of stability and a new identity. Enter the unknown David Wagner, the charismatic and energetic forward-thinker whose main credential to most was having the title of being Jurgen Klopp’s best mate.

The appointment was as much of a risk for the West Yorkshire club as it was for Wagner. Even chairman Dean Hoyle admitted there was an element of danger in the selection of the club’s first manager from outside the UK in its 107-year history. However, Hoyle was more excited about the passion and ambition that Wagner came with, traits notably absent seen in Huddersfield’s previous managers.

Wagner’s first job was to install what he described as an “identity on the grass”. Put more simply, he wanted to form a way of playing that every player could subscribe to, building trust amongst each other along the way. He repeatedly stressed that his side had “no limits”, which was, at the time, perceived by some fans as naive, given the fact his squad in itself was limited, hence the lowly league position, and the lack of finance available.

A 4-2-3-1 was Wagner’s preferred formation for his side, and it was implemented with mixed success in his first season in charge. Crucially, though, he steered the club to safety. It was a first box ticked in Wagner’s masterplan. Ironic chants of “He’s better than Klopp” were already being echoed around the John Smith’s Stadium, though doubts still remained, and humbling defeats to Bristol City and Brentford accentuated the need for reinforcements if Wagner was to accomplish the unthinkable.

The summer of 2016 was an opportunity for Wagner to stamp his authority on the Huddersfield squad. In came 13 additions in total, with the manager particularly astute in the loan market, acquiring talents such as Aaron Mooy from Manchester City and goalkeeper Danny Ward from Liverpool. Equally as important to Wagner was building a togetherness within the camp. It led to Wagner’s famous idea of the perfect team bonding trip.

“We went to Sweden for four days and three nights and we didn’t bring a ball. We were really in the wild, no electricity, no toilet, no bed, no mobile phone or internet. If you are hungry, take your rod and get a fish. If you are thirsty, go to the lake and put your bottle in. If you are cold, make a fire,” he recalled in an interview with the Guardian.

This was a calculated attempt to bind a new squad together quickly, and Wagner was convinced that the better you know your teammates off the pitch, the more you can work for him on it in uncomfortable situations. The trip would mould the Terrier spirit that has been so fundamental to the club’s on-pitch success.

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Wagner’s football early in the season was enthralling, and the attacking quality bought in the summer was paying dividends; Kasey Palmer, Izzy Brown and Elias Kachunga all contributing to huge results against the likes of Newcastle and Aston Villa. Town were flying high in the league with fans singing the praises of their enigmatic manager. With talk of the Premier League still premature, many still believed Huddersfield’s early run was just a purple patch within in a long, draining Championship season.

In fact, it wasn’t until much-loved German defender Michael Hefele swept home Mooy’s deflected effort late on against rivals Leeds that fans really started to believe. Over 22,000 at the John Smith’s Stadium had been sent into delirium, none more so than the manager, who sprinted down the touchline like a man 20 years his younger to celebrate with his troops. Hefele, perhaps lost in the moment, described Town’s situation as a “fucking dream” in a live interview in front of the Sky Sports cameras. Hefele was right: the fans were now daring to dream of a most improbable return to English Football’s top-flight for little Huddersfield Town.

Critics focusing on Huddersfield’s playoff games as fortunate favouring them – due to not scoring a goal in either of the two ties – were way off the mark. Rather, the defensive effort was a testament to a resolve that they would need to complete Wagners’ “impossible dream” of Premier League survival.

The manager’s dream was realised at Wembley in the playoff final. The game against Reading was one to forget but came with a sense of inevitability that penalties would decide Huddersfield’s fate. Fittingly, it was Christopher Schindler who scored the winning spot-kick, a man who encapsulates everything Wagner strives for – desire, commitment and fight. Not to be forgotten is the twice shoot-out hero, loanee Danny Ward, who forged unforgettable memories with penalty saves against Fernando Forestieri in the semis and Jordan Obita at Wembley, allowing Schlinder to scribe his name into Town folklore.

Huddersfield were written off as no-hopers at the start of last season’s Premier League campaign, with many questioning the quality of their squad and the inexperience of Wagner. It played perfectly into the hands of the man at the helm, who thrives on the underdog status. To Wagner, it was the size of the fight in his Terriers, rather than the size of the dog itself that would keep them in the Premier League. Again, he was right.

Wagner was shrewd in the transfer market, investing in assets worthy of keeping Huddersfield up. Most importantly, he made the loan deal for Australian star Aaron Mooy permanent. The Aussie’s winner against Newcastle on the opening day reminded us that Wagner’s side were here to compete, and not just make up the numbers.

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It was Laurent Depoitre, a summer signing from Porto, who left fans pinching themselves, wondering if it really was all a dream when he rounded David de Gea to put Huddersfield 2-0 up against Manchester United at the John Smith’s Stadium. The game finished 2-1; the club’s first league victory over United since 1952. Luck was no factor in Wagner’s triumph, either. His Terriers simply wanted it more than José Mourinho’s side. A no-limits attitude instilled in his players was what made such an inconceivable result possible.

Huddersfield, though, were still punching above their weight. The middle-season slump was something of a reality check and left the club needing results away to giants Chelsea and champions-elect Manchester City to pull off a great escape.

The Herculean defending at the Etihad for City’s title parade and at Stamford Bridge to clinch safety was indicative of Wagner’s fighting spirit evident in his players. His side wouldn’t succumb to their opponent’s quality, leaving everything on the pitch for the manager they held in such his esteem. Huddersfield drew both games, giving them 37 points, four more than were needed to realise such an incredible achievement.

This season, however, hasn’t gone as well for Wagner and Huddersfield. The lack of a true goalscorer at the club has been a real problem, and Town have been left exposed to the quality of their Premier League rivals – though it hasn’t been for the want of trying. By the winter, it was clear that Wagner had given all could.

The fairy tale has now reluctantly come to an end, with the club languishing at the foot of the Premier League table and staring relegation in the face.

So what next for the man who delivered the impossible to Huddersfield? An exhilarating three-year rollercoaster ride has understandably taken its toll. Chairman Dean Hoyle noted that Wagner is now ready to take a break from the rigours of football management in an emotional response to his departure. When Wagner’s hunger returns, he won’t be short of offers from clubs in his native Germany and in England.

What is certain is that Wagner has earned the right to be spoken of in the same sentence as Huddersfield greats like Herbert Chapman and Mick Buxton. His achievements at the club are unparalleled and his tenure has left memories Huddersfield Town fans will take to the grave.

By Ben Parsons @ben_parsons20

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