Huddersfield hope history repeats itself in Championship playoff final

·6 min read
<span>Photograph: Nick Potts/PA</span>
Photograph: Nick Potts/PA

It is five years since Huddersfield Town’s last visit to Wembley, for a Championship playoff final shrink-wrapped in nerves that ended with a penalty shootout victory. After the victory the then captain and match-winner, Christopher Schindler, held court in the tunnel and elaborated on the team bond built by David Wagner, whose no-limits motto was plastered on personalised wristbands given to each player, fit with their initials and squad number.

On Sunday another tightknit Huddersfield side, this one led by the methodical Carlos Corberán, stand one game from returning to the Premier League. “The togetherness has been one of the keys to the highly competitive level of the squad,” the Spanish head coach says.

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Huddersfield’s players and staff spent last week on the Algarve accompanied by their families. Dean Hoyle, the chief executive and part-owner who was chairman when the club last won promotion, was keen to reward their efforts, regardless of whether they returned to Wembley, by mirroring a similar trip to Portugal before that triumph over Reading.

The only player who remains from that squad is the current captain, Jonathan Hogg, known as “the general” to his teammates, a moniker given to him by an avid supporter. “Because we got through [to the final] it ended up being a training camp,” says Huddersfield’s head of football operations, Leigh Bromby. “If we hadn’t, it would have been a holiday and a thank you to all of the staff, players and their families. It is probably unique in football.”

Huddersfield have made a mockery of the notion that financial clout is the only way to compete with clubs fattened by parachute payments. The starting XI for their playoff semi-final victory against Luton cost little more than £1.5m and the entire squad about £2.3m. Last summer they set about remedying what was statistically the worst defence in the division last season and moved quickly to take advantage of a flat market, exacerbated by the pandemic, to sign seven players on frees.

They included the goalkeeper Lee Nicholls, who made seven starts in League One for MK Dons last season, and the 21-year-old midfielder Jon Russell, who struggled for game time on loan from Chelsea at Accrington. Ollie Turton joined days after helping Blackpool to promotion at Wembley last season. Then there is Tom Lees, who tasted relegation with Sheffield Wednesday last season, another player who on the surface was not the most obvious pickup.

“The idea is we try to maximise the potential of the players,” says Bromby. “One of the big things we tried to do last summer was make sure that we represent the club and the values with our players, so personality was important to us.

“Tom is almost 32 years old and he has had one of his best ever seasons. Tom is a great professional, someone who adheres to all our values, and every game he gives 100%; he’s come off this year with stitches, a broken nose, everything. We wanted to get back to that spirit and those values being seen on the pitch so that the fans can connect with the team. It was really important for us to make sure of that because I think we had lost a little bit of that.”

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The 19-year-old defender Levi Colwill is the latest Chelsea youngster to flourish on loan, following in the footsteps of Kasey Palmer and Izzy Brown, part of the team promoted five years ago and, more recently, Trevoh Chalobah. In January, Tino Anjorin became the latest Chelsea player to make Huddersfield their temporary home. “We always seem to get them in the FA Youth Cup, and they always beat us, so we get to see them firsthand,” Bromby says, laughing.

Huddersfield’s hierarchy recognised the importance of Corberán having a full pre-season to implement his methods and the results have been fruitful. Formerly an assistant to Marcelo Bielsa at Leeds, he had three weeks to shape his squad before his first season, which ended with Huddersfield in 20th.

Last season they also exited the FA Cup and the EFL Cup at the earliest possible stage and won one of their final 10 matches. That victory? Against Nottingham Forest, Sunday’s opponents. Games being played behind closed doors also helped alleviate any external heat.

“I know there was a lot of pressure from the outside and it was seen as a failure for that first season but he was working with about a dozen players that were going to be out of contract,” Bromby says. “It also gave us an opportunity to say to Carlos: ‘Look, there’s no pressure.’ We needed to watch him, how he trained, his personality, and that allowed us to identify players and personalities that Carlos wanted here. Supporters were not happy with the football or the results but we knew we needed that transitional period. We tried to learn from that year to put things in place.”

The club might not have splashed out on signings but they have invested in staffing, to help players such as Russell and Sorba Thomas to shine. Thomas, who could feature for Wales in their World Cup playoff final, has been one of the standout players in the Championship this campaign, while Russell did not make his full debut until February.

They have had contrasting journeys to this point, Russell arriving from an elite academy which he joined aged seven and Thomas from non-league Boreham Wood. But both spent six months with Huddersfield’s B team and remain on individual development plans, working closely with coach Danny Schofield, Corberán’s assistant when he was in charge of Leeds Under-23s, sifting through clips during the week or working with the psychologist or strength and conditioning coaches.

For Thomas, one of the main focuses was on improving his nutrition and for Russell his physicality. “He’s a man-mountain now,” Bromby says of Russell. “We couldn’t really have improved him technically but we saw a player where we thought we could make some real improvements on the physical side.”

This time last season Huddersfield had almost every signing in the bag, a smart plan that has evidently paid off, but now they are working to two contingencies. “We’ve got plans in place for two different leagues,” Bromby says. “Monday will be a busy day. The buildup is the enjoyable bit – and you have to enjoy it, because it’s been a fantastic season – but as soon as the outcome is decided at, say 7pm on Sunday night, Monday will be about getting everything in place.”

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