If Huddersfield Town win the Championship play-off final against Reading and with it a place in the Premier League next season, it will justify every managerial decision David Wagner has made this season. The windfall of winning a place in the English top flight—and more than £100 million in TV rights payments—will easily offset any fine that he might have to pay for fielding a weakened team against Birmingham City.
Wagner is well on his way to becoming not only the most successful manager in Huddersfield’s recent history but the most famous. The studious, bespectacled German, who worked alongside Jürgen Klopp at Borussia Dortmund, has gained many admirers by taking the Terriers to the brink of the Premier League on one of the smallest budgets in the Championship, and doing so with a pleasing passing style that is not often found in England’s second tier.
The Championship is often described as the most competitive football league in the world, in which the bottom team truly can take on and beat the top team. By skilfully mixing together the players he inherited, such as Republic of Ireland international winger Sean Scannell, with loan signings, such as Chelsea’s midfield prodigy Izzy Brown, and fellow Germans, such as defender Michael Hefele, Wagner has carefully but astonishingly quickly built a team which will have every hope of beating Reading on the 29th May.
Of course, even if Wagner wins promotion to the Premier League, he will have an awful long way to go to match the most famous and successful manager in Huddersfield’s entire history, Herbert Chapman: the man who, before he effectively reinvented Arsenal as one of England’s biggest clubs, took Huddersfield to a remarkable hat-trick of top-flight titles in the 1920s.
It may seem inconceivable now, but nearly a hundred years ago, when Chapman took charge of Huddersfield in March 1921, he was about to make them the most successful football team that English football had seen up to that point. Chapman had cut his teeth as a manager at Northampton Town, where, among other achievements, he rehabilitated the young Walter Tull, who would go on to become the first ever black officer in the British Army and a war hero, after he had been let go by Spurs, partly because he was too much trouble to keep because of the appalling abuse he attracted.
Before he took charge at Huddersfield, Chapman became embroiled in what remains probably the most important case of financial irregularity in English football history. Nearly a hundred years on, it is now surely impossible to prove definitively what happened at Leeds City in the years after World War One, when Chapman was the manager, but there certainly appeared to be some major financial impropriety, involving illegal payments to “guest players” (or “ringers”, as they would now be called) during wartime matches.
As a consequence, Leeds City, who were the original football team in the Yorkshire city, were expelled from the Football League and Chapman was among five club officials who were banned from having any further involvement with football, professional or otherwise, for the rest of their life.
It is not only Arsenal fans who owe Huddersfield an eternal debt for what they did next but arguably the fans of all big football clubs around the world, as Chapman would go on to build the model for what a “big club” should be when he took over at Arsenal and eventually made them the world’s first world-famous club.
None of that would have been possible if Huddersfield had not successfully lobbied the Football Association on his behalf and secured his right to return to football, allegedly by providing Chapman with an “alibi” of sorts. They claimed that because Chapman had been working in a factory during the war, he had not been in charge of Leeds City when the illegal payments were apparently made.
Whatever the truth of the matter, Chapman repaid Huddersfield a hundredfold, as he first took them to FA Cup success in 1922 and then, even more incredibly, turned them into the first English team to win three top-flight titles in a row, between 1923 and 1925. That feat has only been matched since by Arsenal—under the stewardship of Chapman again—Liverpool and Manchester United since. With attackers of the calibre of centre-forward Charlie Wilson and inside-forward George Cook alongside a typically tough Chapman-created defence, Huddersfield won a hat-trick of titles.
They looked set to continue their domination of English football, until Chapman decided to leave for Arsenal. Although the Gunners had not won a major trophy in their history, could literally capitalise on the much larger crowds they could draw in London by paying Chapman double what he had earned at Huddersfield.
What might have happened at Huddersfield if Chapman had stayed in charge is one of the great “what ifs” of football history. What is undeniable, however, is that the club never came close to matching its success under him and indeed for much of the rest of their history they have struggled even to get back to the top division in England, let alone win it. Indeed, they were last in the top flight for two seasons in the early 1970s, and since relegation in 1972 they have not been anywhere near it, at least until now.
Such was the scale of Huddersfield’s decline since their own roaring and scoring twenties that many of their most recent managers have been more concerned about maintaining their presence in the top two divisions of English football than they have been in trying to achieve promotion to the Premier League.
After Peter Jackson’s departure and prior to Wagner’s arrival, the most notable period in Huddersfield’s recent history was the long unbeaten run on which Lee Clark took them in 2010 and 2011. It was a remarkable run of 43 league games without losing, which remains a record for the Football League and one that only Arsenal have surpassed. Indeed, one of the most notable games in Huddersfield’s recent history was their narrow FA Cup defeat by the Gunners in 2011, when they were only rescued by a late rally and contentious penalty after falling behind to the then third-tier Huddersfield early on.
Now, of course, Huddersfield are on the brink of making more history under Wagner. If they can never realistically hope ever again to win the English top flight that they once dominated, they can at least aspire to beating Reading at Wembley and then to trying to establish themselves in the Premier League like other northern teams who were once giants of the game, such as Burnley.
The only cloud in the sky is the possibility that if Huddersfield do not go up this season they may lose Wagner to a bigger, wealthier club, not only in the Premier League but in the Bundesliga. If that happens, and Huddersfield lose another successful manager to another club that is financially much stronger than they are, painful memories of the loss of Herbert Chapman to Arsenal nearly a century ago will surely be evoked.