German lessons from Huddersfield – Opposition Profile
Tuesday, 15th Aug 2017 14:00 by Clive Whittingham
Having failed to make the play-offs amidst a flurry of goals at both ends last season, Norwich City are hoping Huddersfield Town can point the way to better things for them in 2017/18.
The 2016/17 Championship was supposed to be the “toughest ever” before it kicked off. A perfect storm of three big clubs with large support bases and cash reserves (Villa, Newcastle Norwich) coming down from the Premier League at the same time as several of the bigger clubs already in the league got their act together after some fallow years (Leeds, Sheff Wed, Derby). Throw in the ongoing progress at Brighton and a new money man chucking a wedge around at Wolves and it looked a daunting prospect.
While Newcastle and Brighton did indeed take the division by storm, three of the play-off places went to unfancied teams and the third promotion spot was eventually taken by Huddersfield.
The Terriers had no parachute payments, one of the smallest budgets in the league bar Burton and Rotherham, the lowest season ticket prices in the league and had spent several years losing their best players to bigger payers. Alex Smithies, Joel Lynch, Conor Coady, Jacob Butterfield, Adam Clayton, Oliver Norwood, Jack Hunt and Jordan Rhodes had all been picked off after impressing at Huddersfield over the previous four seasons. Chris Powell, Mark Robins, Simon Grayson and Lee Clark had all drifted through the manager’s office since promotion in 2012. They’d finished 19th, 17th, 16th and 19th in the previous four Championship seasons. Having appointed Borussia Dortmund’s reserve team coach David Wagner to his first English management job and lost the last two games of the previous season 4-0 at Bristol City and 5-1 at home to Brentford optimism was not high. Ian Holloway, infamously, tipped them to be relegated last season.
So it’s understandable that clubs who underperformed with greater resources will have been looking at exactly how Huddersfield and Wagner did what they did. Particularly Norwich, who suffered at their hands more than most. They were one of the three big teams coming down from the Premier League with the enormous parachute payments last season and were strongly fancied to bounce straight back up. Their one-season stay in the top flight had been unremarkable but the nucleus of the team that got them there in the first place remained together, and promising young manager Alex Neill – who’d inspired that 2014/15 run to victory over Middlesbrough at Wembley – was still in charge. Alex Pritchard looked a smart, if slightly dear, acquisition from Spurs for £8m. Always a prudently run club with a solid bedrock of season ticket sales there was no need for a post relegation fire sale and they looked primed to make an immediate return.
Indeed, they lost just two of their first 14 league games, and one of those was a freak result at Newcastle where they were 3-2 up in injury time and contrived to lose 4-3. They scored four of their own in a day one win at Blackburn and put six through Coventry in the League Cup. They ended the season scoring 85 goals, including a league-leading 55 at home. Reading were beaten 7-1, Brentford and Forest both went for five, QPR shipped four on the last day.
But something went awry in the autumn. The defensive collapse at St James’ Park proved a harbinger of worse to come and soon they were being beaten 5-0 at Brighton with a calamitous defensive performance more comparable to an episode of Viz’s Drunken Bakers than anything ever seen previously on a football pitch. A winless run quickly stretched to seven – the Keystone Cops defending memorably saw them concede a penalty and lose a player to a red card inside the first 25 seconds of the game with QPR at Loftus Road (Rangers missed it, but won 2-1 anyway).
All was not well behind the scenes. Senior players, who’d seemingly been playing reasonably well, were left out. Wes Hoolahan and Cameron Jerome were both benched for the game in Shepherd’s Bush. Neil started to come under intense pressure from the supporters (not known as a particularly savage bunch, despite the laughably lame attempt to appear so by naming a corner of Carrow Road “the snake pit”) as a play-off push evaporated in a run of seven wins from 28 matches played. They conceded 47 goals away from home across the season – relegated Blackburn and Wigan shipped 35 and 31 on their travels respectively.
Neil would state publicly that he and the club had been too loyal to players, allowing the team to grow old together when they should have bitten the bullet and shifted some old favourites earlier. The board backed their manager through the long downturn in results, but clearly didn’t agree with his diagnosis of the problem and when he again stated his desire to move on certain senior players in the summer at a Friday press-conference looking forward to a March home game with Blackburn they called him in that afternoon and dismissed him. Alan Irvine, former West Brom manager and a coach under Neil, took the team for the rest of the season as it played out time. Another big defeat, 5-1 at Sheff Wed, shortly before Neil’s departure killed off the promotion hopes once and for all.
That somewhat bizarre situation, where a manager is backed through five lean months only to then be sacked on a Friday afternoon before a Saturday fixture having already done the pre-press, is rather typical of the boardroom goings on at Carrow Road in recent times. Seen outwardly as a well run club, with the stability of 20 years under the ownership of Delia Smith and Michael Wyn Jones, there have actually been several issues behind the scenes recently. David McNally left as CEO with a £1.3m pay-off, former Labour front-bencher Ed Balls (who’d joined as chairman) stepped in temporarily for a £90,000 fee until former Wolves CEO Jez Moxey was hired as a permanent replacement. One FA Cup tickets fiasco and an AGM where he said the aims were “promotion, promotion and promotion” later and he was gone after less than six months in the post. Despite a year of Premier League TV money, a £42m parachute payment last season, and a £30m parachute payment due this the club was projected to lose £12.6m last season and now has a bank debt of £8m just two years after it posted a cash surplus of £2m. Not a big deal, but not heading in the right direction.
So, like I say, you can forgive Norwich more than most for casting envious glances at West Yorkshire and Huddersfield Town. David Wagner’s side won at Carrow Road in December in fine style – a victory far, far more emphatic than the final 2-1 score suggested having spent less on a dozen signings than Norwich laid out on Pritchard (who Neil, incidentally, struggled to fit into his team).
The result is the hiring of Stewart Webber, the man who oversaw recruitment at Huddersfield, as sporting director. Sticking to what he knows, Webber has returned to Germany, and to Borussia Dortmund’s reserves, to search for Neil’s permanent replacement. Daniel Farke, who spent almost his entire playing career and then the first six years of his managerial career at lower league side SV Lippstadt, was Wagner’s replacement at Dortmund and Webber will no doubt be hoping the combination of his recruitment and German engineering works as well at Carrow Road as it did in Huddersfield.
Marcel Franke, a centre back from Greuther Furth; Christophe Zimmerman, another central defender from Dortmund; and Mario Vrancic, a midfielder from Darmstadt, have already followed Farke from his homeland. Huddersfield did exactly the same last summer – Hefele from Dresden, Schindler from 1860 Munich, Stankovic from Dortmund. Marley Watkins from Barnsley and Harrison Reed on loan from Southampton look like tidy signings. But the start to the season has been slow, with just one point from the first two league games and a 3-1 home defeat to Sunderland on Sunday who many (yes, ok, us) expect to be a bit of a basket case this season. A back three, still too reliant on the ageing Russell Martin, has struggled so far and lacks physicality. The attack, oddly shorn of Nelson Oliveira who made his feelings at being benched clear with his goal celebration at Fulham on day one, couldn’t convert 70% possession into goals against the Mackems.
Norwich, like all clubs on parachute payments, know they’re on a clock. They’ll get half as much next year and the year after and if you’re not back up by then the financial situation of your club changes profoundly. The Canaries don’t have to look far for a reminder of the sort of decline and malaise that can set in through a prolonged stay in this division – they delighted in holding a round of applause in the fifteenth minute of last year’s Old Farm Derby to remind fierce rivals Ipswich Town of exactly that.
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