29th May 2017, Huddersfield Town won promotion to the Premier League for the first time by edging past Reading from penalties in front of 76,682 people to cement their place in the most-watched football league on the planet. These were the Terriers' wonder years and Town survived a gruelling year in England's top-tier league and beat the drop by the skin of their teeth.
Remarkable Premier League survival
Huddersfield were promoted to the Premier League for the first time in their history when they beat Reading on penalties in the Championship Play-Off Final in May 2017. In a typically tense affair, two hours of football failed to produce a goal so spot kicks were needed to settle the score. Huddersfield missed one, Reading missed the last two and the Terriers were promoted to the big time after a season where they did it the hard way, finishing fifth in the league and successfully negotiating a semi-final against Sheffield Wednesday on penalties.
Under the guidance of David Wagner, they tasted Premier League football for the first time. One of the defining characteristics of Wagner’s game plan was the ability to play high-tempo, pressing football that put the opposition under pressure.
None more so than when on the opening day of the 2017-18 season, they went to Crystal Palace and won 3-0. It was very much a signal of intent and a wake-up call to plenty of other Premier League sides who thought that a match against a side promoted via the Play-Offs and with very little in the way of star names was going to be an easy three points.
They followed up that opening day win with a 1-0 victory over Newcastle and a 0-0 draw at home to Southampton. Those seven points from their first three matches were absolutely crucial. First in terms of giving the side the belief that they were more than capable of competing at this level and perhaps from a more pragmatic point of view, they were seven points that were ultimately the difference between staying up or going down.
A tough season followed where David Wagner completely changed Huddersfield’s tactics and in the absence of top-class players in forward positions, they often struggled to score goals. But a home win over Watford in mid-April followed by back-to-back draws at Manchester City and Chelsea was enough to secure their Premier League status as they lived to fight another day.
Relegation Somewhat Inevitable
The 2018/19 season was a different kettle of fish. The same strategy that served them so well during the early stages of the previous campaign didn’t materialise to the same extent and the fact they got off to such a poor start completely changed the momentum and mood at the club.
This time around they picked up just three points from their opening seven games and were under the cosh from early on. The intent and the energy levels weren’t quite the same, the results were poor and Wagner departed in mid-January.
The change in management didn’t make much of a difference and by the end of March, they were doomed. When they lost 2-0 at Crystal Palace, ironically, it meant they were going down.
The transition to Championship football was at first, disastrous. They opened up the campaign with a 2-1 home defeat to Derby and a 1-1 draw away at QPR, followed by seven straight defeats. Hardly the sort of form you’d expect from a side who had just been relegated from the Premier League and who may have expected to be in contention to go back straight up.
Change in Management, Change in Personnel
Having been in charge when Huddersfield were in freefall in the Premier League during the back end of the 2018/19 season, Jan Siewert wasn’t oblivious to the fact that he had a major job on his hands when he carried on taking charge of affairs ahead of the 2019/20 season.
Understandably, there was a big exit of players who decided they’d rather take their chances elsewhere rather than carry on with a project that may have seemed to some like a slightly fortuitous spell in the big time followed by the inevitable period when they had to do the hard graft back in The Championship, a league that is as tough and uncompromising as it is unpredictable.
Out went some of the men who had been such an important part of their success in reaching the Premier League, such as all-action Danish midfielder Philip Billing, talented winger Rajiv van La Parra and playmaker Aaron Mooy, the later perhaps the most significant loss of all because of his ability to unlock defences whilst dictating the tempo of Huddersfield's play.
The start of the 2019/20 season was quite frankly, disastrous. After five defeats and a draw from their opening six matches, the Huddersfield hierarchy decided they’d seen enough. In early September during an international break, they replaced Siewert with the hugely talented Danny Cowley.
He’d done a fine job with Lincoln City for three seasons and was perhaps just the sort of cute and knowing manager that the side needed during a period where they were trying to come to terms with the rollercoaster ride of the past two and a half seasons. Two defeats followed his appointment but after a few more days working with his players, they bounced back with a home draw against a hardworking Millwall, followed by wins away at Stoke and at home to Hull.
Important Season but Next one is the Crucial One
This might be a season of transition for Cowley and Huddersfield. Promotion from this division is never easy, the style of football is completely different and the expectation that you’re going to go straight back up is as unrealistic as it is naïve.
If there’s one thing that’s good news for 21st placed Huddersfield, it’s that they didn’t make the same mistake as plenty of predecessors in terms of splashing the cash on high-profile players who demand expensive salaries and become a massive headache. Instead, Huddersfield didn’t buy too many star attractions at the outset, have culled a few of the high-earners via loans or transfers and aren’t in the same position as plenty of other clubs in the past who simply didn’t prepare for life after the Premier League.
Check out football outright betting on who is in serious contention to be in the Premier League next season and you’ll see that the Terriers aren’t among the favourites. No matter.
This is a season to understand what they’re all about, redefine their squad and their objectives. Pick the players who are capable of making them promotion contenders and decide which aren’t. Next season is the big one after a year of allowing the dust to settle. Cowley, of course, will be crucial and there’s no reason to think they can’t pull it off.