Fifth place, Championship (promoted via playoffs)
By Daniel Rubens
Of all the unlikely teams to earn promotion to the Premier League, few have done so in as stunning a fashion as Huddersfield Town. The tiny club from a small West Yorkshire town were tipped as a candidate for relegation from the second division this season; instead, a determined, battling group of players came together under a forward-thinking manager and cobbled together a promotion run for the ages. They’ll
Originally founded in 1908, Huddersfield has had a winding history that has recently been mainly spent in the lower tiers of English football. At first, though, that wasn’t the case. Three years after the club’s founding, Huddersfield applied for and was granted a position in the Football League, although it took a concerted effort from residents of the town to avoid a merger with Leeds when funds dried up. The campaign worked, and the club remained in Huddersfield. At the end of the 1910s, another similar situation occurred, and it took another fund-raising effort to again avoid a move to Leeds.
This time, the club came out on the other end in extraordinary fashion. In 1920, the side reached the FA Cup final and earned promotion to the first division for the first time. Huddersfield would remain in the top flight for the next three decades, and they weren’t just bottom-half fodder, either. They won the FA Cup in 1921-22, and in their third top-flight season, the club finished third under new manager Charlie Wilson, who then proceeded to lift the Terriers to the top of the pile the next season. After winning the title in 1923-24, Huddersfield repeated the trick the next season and did it again the following campaign, becoming the first English team to win three straight top-division titles. They dipped at the end of the decade but still managed two runner-up league finishes and two runs to the FA Cup finals, and it looked like Huddersfield would be a threat for the foreseeable future.
That wasn’t to be the case, however. Huddersfield had some good seasons in the 1930s, including second-place and third-place finishes, but they couldn’t quite break back into the winner’s circle. World War II disrupted English football for seven years, and when it ended, Huddersfield found themselves stuck in the bottom of the table. After five years of riding their luck, they were finally relegated in 1951-52. They bounced right back up and recalled past glories in their first year back in the top flight, finishing third under Jimmy Glazzard, just six points back of champions Wolverhampton Wanderers. However, they were relegated again two years later.
Since then, Huddersfield’s modern era hasn’t been one filled with successes. The club spent 14 seasons in the second division before a promotion in 1969-70, but their top-flight stay lasted only two years. After relegation hit in 1971-72, the fall was swift and significant; they dropped down to the third tier immediately and to the fourth division two years later. The Terriers spent next three decades mostly as a yo-yo club between the second and third tiers of the Football League.
Their fortunes began to turn around in the mid-2000s. Under manager Peter Jackson in 2005-06, the Terriers lost in the League One playoff semifinal. They would return to the playoffs at the end of the decade, losing in 2009-10 and 2010-11 under Lee Clark before finally breaking through in 2011-12. After Clark was replaced in the middle of the season, Simon Grayson led the club back to the playoff final, where Huddersfield defeated Sheffield United on penalties to earn a spot in the Championship.
The next four years were mostly unremarkable as the club placed 19th (avoiding the drop on the final day),
On November 7, 2015, Huddersfield were shellacked 3-0 at home by their most hated rivals, Leeds United. Two days later, David Wagner was introduced as the club’s manager. A German-American who played eight games for the United States Men’s National Team in the 1990s, Wagner became a key part of Jurgen Klopp’s backroom staff at Borussia Dortmund in the early part of this decade, serving as head coach of the reserve team from 2011-15. He was rumored to be ready to join Klopp at Liverpool when he resigned from Dortmund at the beginning of November, but he instead decided to take the opportunity to become a first-team manager for the first time and signed on with the Terriers.
Wagner’s first two games in charge ended in defeat and left the club in the relegation zone, but the Terriers won five of their next eight games and never again fell into the bottom three. The 19th-place finish didn’t instill a ton of confidence that a turnaround was nearing, but at least there were reasons for optimism.
What happened next came straight out of a movie script. Huddersfield had an incredibly busy summer as Wagner brought in 15 new players — many on loan — and sent a large numbers of others the opposite direction. He completely revamped the club’s back line and added a ton of depth, but the most important
The pieces came together in stunning fashion. The Terriers won five of their first six games — all by a single goal — to get themselves to the top of the league table. A skid from September until the first weekend of December saw the club drop out of the promotion places, but 11 wins in 13 games pushed Huddersfield back into third place. Their form was again shaky over the latter stages of the season, but they had already done enough to solidify a spot in the promotion playoffs, where the Terriers defeated Sheffield Wednesday on penalties in the two-legged semifinal and, on Monday, Reading in the final at Wembley, also on penalties. In fitting fashion, Huddersfield’s only goal scored during the playoffs other than the penalty sessions came from an own goal.
Now, the Terriers will try to navigate the Premier League for the first time. Truthfully, the odds are stacked against them. No team has ever been promoted with a negative goal differential (Huddersfield finished minus-2) and their 56 goals scored this season is second-fewest of any team to ever go up, the lowest of which was relegated immediately. They don’t have a particularly exceptional defense, and they don’t have a group of goalscorers to carry the load.
What Huddersfield does have is a tactically intelligent manager and a team with an undeniably strong mentality. The Terriers allowed the fewest shots per game of any Championship side this season and had the third-most possession in the division. Wagner has turned his team into a hard-working bunch that presses high up the pitch, keeps the ball, and runs longer distances than almost any other in the league. That alone won’t keep them up, but with a few astute signings and a few more of those intense offseason training sessions, Huddersfield will give themselves a chance. They’ll be the underdogs in almost every match they play next season, but the Terriers will make every team in the top flight work hard to beat them in 2017-18.