The Premier League’s new minnows relish an unlikely stage

Half-way between the footballing madhouses of Leeds and Manchester, you’ll find Huddersfield - a small, sleepy city that, if we’re honest, is better known for rugby league than football. But all that is about to change, if it hasn't already.

Huddersfield Town

Huddersfield Town manager David Wagner (centre) with Aaron Mooy (left) and Elias Kachunga Source: Getty Images

That one of the biggest clubs in England, Tottenham Hotspur, is arriving in town for Saturday’s clash (live on SBS from 9:00pm) will bring the place to a halt. More on that later.

But first, a history lesson – because if we’re honest, who really knows anything about the Terriers?

After winning the FA Cup in 1933, then claiming the First Division three straight years in 1923–24, 1924–25 and 1925–26, followed by runner-up finishes in the next two seasons, and a brief-flurry in the mid-1930s, Huddersfield have been mired in obscurity.

They’ve flitted between the lower tiers of the game for most of the past century; the only notable thing being their home ground – Kirklees Stadium – which stands as an unlikely feat of mid-90’s engineering. There’s no other stadium with segregated stands that are so definitively semi-circled (if you’re into football stadium design, it’s well worth some indulgent googling).

At least that was all true until Huddersfield scrambled into last season’s Championship play-offs, qualifying in fifth. What is widely not known is that they made it there with a goal difference of -2. The team below them, Fulham, had a difference of +28, and you must scroll down to 14th to find a team (Barnsley) with an inferior total.

But where most tipped Huddersfield for an early exit from the knockout stages, what transpired next was extraordinary. In three play-off matches, they scored one goal (an own goal at that) and didn’t win any of their matches in normal or extra time. But it was enough.

To get through their semi-final against Sheffield Wednesday, they needed penalties, and held their nerve in the scoreless decider against Reading to qualify for the English Premier League.

Granted, if you reckoned they were candidates to get relegated quickly, you weren’t the only one. This was a team that had ridden its luck perhaps more than any other in Championship history.

But once they arrived at the peak level, Huddersfield have shown themselves worthy of their nickname.

After six games, they’re one point and one position behind seventh-placed Arsenal, well clear of big spenders like Everton, Newcastle, West Ham and Crystal Palace. Remarkably, a win over Spurs would hoist them into fourth – temporarily, at least. Early doors it may be, but an exceptional feat all the same.

Central to this is Aaron Mooy, of course. Anyone who watched him in Australia could have told you what a fine player he would become but perhaps – perhaps – he has even surpassed even our expectations.

“Aaron adapted very quick to the Premier League and he has shown that even in the Premier League he is able to give our game a stamp which we need,” said manager David Wagner on Thursday. “He has so far done so many things right – accelerate and decelerate the game like he has done in the Championship, scored, gave assists, has a great working attitude as well.”

Mooy has made the 13th most passes in the Premiership right now, ahead of acclaimed ball users like Christian Eriksen, Jordan Henderson and John Stones, all players who would command fees of close to £50 million ($85 million) if they were open market right now. Suddenly, the £10 million ($17.1 million) club record fee Huddersfield forked out to Manchester City looks like a steal.

But it’s not just Mooy making headlines. Christopher Schindler’s dominating performances in defence might soon have the 27-year old talked about as a potential bolter for Germany’s World Cup squad. Tom Ince, son of Paul, is showing himself more than capable at this level after dominating in the Championship.

Towering striker Laurent Depoitre flopped at Porto last season but has a freakish record in Belgium and scored on his club debut. He’ll be the one to watch in the absence of Steve Mounié, a player compared to Didier Drogba after his explosive start to life in the top flight.

But above and beyond all others is Wagner. His story is a unique one – undoubtedly one we will come back to as the season wears on.

Half German, half American - a USA international as a player, but with an exclusively German football education and experience, this is the first time he's managed a senior team – he previously managed Borussia Dortmund’s second team for four years.

As you’d expect from a coach schooled in the manner of Jurgen Klopp and Thomas Tuchel, gegenpressing is his preferred style. They turn the screws as soon as the opening whistle is blown. It’s fascinating to watch – not just to see whether they can keep it up for 90 minutes but for how the opponent adjusts.

For a Tottenham side that fancies themselves as the Premier League’s most skillful, they might want to make sure they don’t write off the Terriers. After all, the hosts have been waiting for 45 years for days like these.

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5 min read
Published 29 September 2017 at 7:32pm
By Sebastian Hassett