Back in September, Pablo Zabaleta was scanning results on his phone following Manchester City’s 4-0 win over Bournemouth when he asked, ‘Huddersfield, they’re doing well, where is that?’
Just 28 miles away from the Etihad Stadium, Town had beaten QPR to stand atop the Championship after an impressive start. Yet it was surprising too, given the previous relegation-fraught campaign where little-known David Wagner had replaced Chris Powell as manager.
Next season, though, City and Zabaleta’s new club West Ham will face the Terriers in the top flight for the first time since 1972 after Wagner orchestrated a promotion that defied expectation. “We’ve brought this fairytale to a happy end,” said the German after last weekend’s Championship play-off final against Reading was settled by penalties.
A footballing fairytale, unforgettable, the accolades endless and comparisons drawn with Leicester’s stunning Premier League success last season because it was as unlikely as it was unbelievable.
“No-one ever expected it,” said Mel Booth, sports editor of the Huddersfield Examiner. “Having finished 19th last season no-one was tipping Town to go up. The fan base was just talking about being a solid mid-table side. People would have settled for that. They have over-achieved massively. People have described it as a fairytale and it is. It is a day many long-time supporters never felt would come again.”
Terry Dolan was part of the Town side that last tasted life in the big time, albeit a bitter-sweet experience. At 20, the midfielder had swapped non-league Bradford Park Avenue for Huddersfield in 1970, but only after turning down Arsenal and the chance of being part of a double-winning league and FA Cup triumph because he was homesick during a pre-season trial.
Instead, having established himself with the Terriers a season later, he was embroiled in a relegation scrap that saw them go down, winning just one of the final 31 games and scoring six times in 1972, two of them own goals.
“It was tough,” he recalled. “We had good players, Trevor Cherry, Frank Worthington, Roy Ellam and Jimmy Nicholson, but finances were tight. Ian Greaves was the manager and we struggled with a lack of goals. We just couldn’t score enough and it cost us.”
Moves for strikers Derek Dougan and Fred Pickering were mentioned, but chairman Frank Drabble would not buy and a threadbare squad was doomed. “Ian had done all he could, the club had experienced players, but everyone knew we needed someone else up front to get goals along with Frank. For whatever reason the manager wasn’t able to get it,” said Dolan.
Relegation prompted a dramatic decline in fortunes for Town as they dropped down the divisions and into the bottom fourth tier for the start of the 1975/76 season. “After that relegation, Trevor, Roy and Frank left, three players in the spine of the team,” added Dolan, who also captained the club until he left in 1976.
“The club didn’t replace them. They gave youngsters an opportunity and I became a regular, but the chairman changed and Ian Greaves also left, so all of a sudden it was unstable. The club never recovered from that relegation.”
And that was not the only time where Town, who notably won three successive First Division championships in the 1920s and were managed by the great Bill Shankly, have had to pick themselves up. No time has been more torturous than in 2003 when they almost went bust after being relegated to Division Three.
Booth has endured the club’s emotional highs and lows since witnessing their last promotion to Division One back in 1970 as a 12-year-old fan and covering them for the Examiner since 1985.
“They were £21 million in debt in 2003, a helluva lot of money for a team in the bottom division,” he added. “They were in serious financial strife, maybe three or four weeks probably from going under. No-one knew who was willing to save them. Ken Davy eventually got them out of trouble and they got promotion that next season.”
As every fan yearns for the right chairman and manager, Town’s current combination has made their wishes come true. Dean Hoyle, who founded the Card Factory, has provided financial stability since he took over in 2009 and, four bosses later, has found the right man following a “left-field” decision to take Borussia Dortmund reserve coach Wagner.
“Dean Hoyle has put it all together and the person no-one thought existed 15 years ago,” added Booth. “A guy with considerable wealth but willing to back the club. He’s a guy from the terraces who has taken his own club right into the Premier League.”
And gamble or not, Wagner has proved an inspired appointment with his vibrant style and passion-filled antics likened to Liverpool chief Jurgen Klopp, his friend and former Mainz team-mate. “He demands high standards and I think he’s a very strong and single-minded man who knows what he wants,” adds Booth. “People didn’t really know much about the guy, but he didn’t waste time in stamping his mark.