Huddersfield Town's False Prophet

The weather outside may be dark and bleak but inside, where a small group of journalists hang on the every word of Huddersfield Town’s latest manager, glimmers of hope and expectation light the room.

The Huddersfield Town chairman Dean Hoyle, has already had his say, “Some fans may look at the appointment and worry about young age and his perceived lack of experience, but he is exactly what I was looking for and will be surrounded by experience.

“He definitely embraces what we want to achieve here at Huddersfield Town.”

The notion of a footballing gamble is echoed by Dean Hoyle’s new man, but talk of fast-flowing attacking football and a promise to raise the profile of the club quickly change trepidation to anticipation.

There is a feeling, not just amongst the journalists and hierarchy at the club but within the fan base as well that Huddersfield Town are about to embark on a brand new era.

The years of settling for second best – which was perhaps embodied by the persona of previous manager Stan Ternent – appeared to be no longer acceptable. In appointing the inexperienced, yet highly regarded Lee Clark as manager, Dean Hoyle was stamping his authority on the club.

Years of financial austerity under previous owner Ken Davy had worn down the Huddersfield fan base, they were much in need of the excitement brought by the promise of change.

Dean Hoyle’s acquisition of the club the previous summer bore many hallmarks to the campaign of change championed by Tony Blair in 1997.

Not only was the appointment of Clark an apology for cow tailing to the demands of other board members in appointing Ternent, but it was also the first promise from Hoyle’s manifesto of hope and change. D:ream's hit song Things Can Only Get Better may as well have been the themetune to Lee Clark's appointment

Over the course of the next six months Lee Clark was unable to completely rectify the mess made by his predecessor, although he did restore faith amongst the fans. A crowd of 20,928 turned out to watch as a Nathan Clarke header powered Town to a 1-0 home victory over bitter rivals Leeds United.

In the crowd that day were scouts from all over the Premier League, eager to cast an eye over emerging Town talents. Alex Smithies, given his first start under interim manager Gerry Murphy flourished under the stewardship of Lee Clark, at one point attracting serious interest from Arsenal.

The season would end with Town in ninth, not high enough to seriously bother the play-off places but high enough to raise optimism ahead of the 2009-2010 campaign.

Within mere minutes of the season finishing plans were being drawn up by both Clark and Hoyle to transform Town into serious promotion contenders next time around. Huge swathes of players were either released, sold or loaned out as Clark sought to reinvigorate what he deemed to be a stale squad.

On 29th May Clark made his first signing, securing the signature of former Tranmere Rovers captain Anthony Kay. He was followed into the club by Peter Clarke, Lee Peltier, Theo Robinson, Robbie Simpson and Jordan Rhodes.

The financial outlay was enormous for the club, with Simpson reportedly costing £300,000, not to mention the increased wage commitments for players like Peltier, Clarke and Kay who had been key players at their former clubs.

The season started well for Town with Jordan Rhodes – the pick of the new signings – scoring three times in his first two games.

An impressive 3-1 home victory over south coast giants Southampton was followed up with a resounding 7-1 rout of Brighton just a few days after. The early signs were good for Clark and Town, and despite never maintaining a strangle hold on the automatic promotion places, dreams of the Championship were never far away.

The attacking efficacy of Clark’s team combined with the heart and character of the squad was clear for all to see as the season progress. Notably in November when skipper Peter Clarke turned down the chance of a hat-trick by unselfishly handing a penalty over to goal-shy and confidence stricken striker Theo Robinson.

For all of the impressive performances from the team, there was a nagging naivety on show in certain games. When for one reason or another, Town were unable to control a game and play the football they wanted, they often crumbled.

In the face of a physical and determined opponent, Clark’s side buckled on too many occasions, dropping needless points and toughening the task of promotion. At one point in that season, it seemed as though the clubs promotion hopes had all but faded into dust.

A revitalised and rejuvenated Southampton looked likely to pinch sixth place from Town in the end of season table. Ultimately the Terriers held on, largely thanks to a 10 point deduction imposed on the south coast club at the start of the season.

Jubilation at the achievement was soon replaced by trepidation as Town found out the identity of their opponents in the play-off semi-finals. It was third-placed Millwall who stood in the way of Clark’s promotion hopes, the team who had pushed Leeds to within a whisker of automatic promotion.

The team who had outfought, outthought and bullied Town 3-1 at the Den earlier in the campaign. The tie would be a test of resolve that ultimately Town would fail, following up a 0-0 home draw with an insipid and embarrassing performance at the Den, in which they limply succumbed 2-0 to their hosts.

The result, but most importantly the performance would prove to be a significant turning point in the tenure of Lee Clark at Huddersfield Town. After watching the game the former Newcastle midfielder conceded that his team lacked belief and experience.

This conclusion, made in the immediate aftermath of a chastening match would prove to be a topic of serious rumination for Clark over the summer break. Publicly he spoke about teaching his players how to deal with disappointment and using it to spur them on in the future.

Privately he consulted his contact book and sought the services of an altogether more experienced group of players. Players that he believed would transform his team of exciting and talented youngsters into a formidable winning-machine, capable of automatic promotion.

The first signing of the season therefore was somewhat of a misnomer, 21-year-old Scott Arfield arrived from Falkirk in a deal worth £414,000. Despite wanting more experience in the team, Arfield seemed to be too good a deal for Clark to turn down, describing him as “an energetic box-to-box midfielder with great versatility and huge potential.”

It wasn’t long until Clark did embark on his policy of experience first, signing 32-year-old Irish forward Alan Lee from Crystal Palace for a fee of £333,000. The towering forward would be joined by similarly aged players throughout the course of the season including: Joey Gudjonsson, Lee Croft, Stephen Jordan, Nick Colgan, Ian Bennet, Kevin Kilbane, Danny Cadamarteri, Gary Naysmith, Jamie McCombe and Damien Johnson to name but a few…

Some arrived on a free, some for a fee and others on loans from their parent clubs, but all of them significantly increased the average age of the squad.

Listening to the rhetoric of Clark over the summer months, the fans went into the new season full of high hopes and expectations. There would be a new found steel to the squad which would hopefully propel the team to a top two finish.

Goals from Anthony Pilkington and last season’s top scorer Jordan Rhodes helped Town to a 3-0 victory away to Notts County on the opening day of the season. The disappointments of a home draw against Tranmere and a 4-2 loss away to Peterborough were cancelled out by the team’s rise to the top of the table in mid-September.

Things quickly turned sour for Lee Clark as he struggled to grind any form of consistency out of his expensively assembled squad. A terrible run of three straight defeats saw the team slide down to 11th place in the table in the space of a fortnight.

Results were mixed from that point on with Town only maintaining their position in the upper reaches of the league thanks to the misgivings of other teams. Losing 1-0 at home to Hartlepool on Boxing Day was a shock for the fans.

Three days later that shock would turn to rage as Clark’s team fell to an embarrassing 4-1 loss at St Mary’s against Southampton. According to former chairman Dean Hoyle that result was the major turning point in the season.

Frustrated with the result and the team’s lack of consistency, Hoyle instructed his manager to target a run of games without defeat. The Geordie delivered in style, guiding his team to a 25-game unbeaten run which stretched until the end of the season.

There were mightily impressive results along the way, including a 3-2 victory away to champions elect Brighton. Huddersfield Town finished the season with 87 points, 1 more than Leeds United had managed in the previous campaign when they finished second.

0 losses in 25 games was not enough to see Town finish above second-placed Southampton, and they were forced to endure the lottery of the play-offs once again.

Unlike the previous year, there was a real sense of hope and optimism ahead of the semi-final clash against Bournemouth. Town had demonstrated their ability to play well under pressure throughout the second half of the season.

They had beaten the best sides in the division and run Premier League side Arsenal close in the FA Cup. Bournemouth after all, were nothing to fear for Lee Clark and his men.

Victory in the first leg of the tie away to Bournemouth was denied by a combination of stout defending from the hosts and poor finishing from Town forward Benik Afobe. The youngster, who was on loan from Arsenal had proved indispensable in Huddersfield’s unbeaten run.

His lack of goals was worrying for some, but his ability to hold up the ball and bring others into play was enough to put him ahead of Jordan Rhodes in the pecking order.

After a solid but somewhat disappointing 1-1 draw in the first leg, the second was seen as a mere formality for many fans. At home, with the backing of 16 thousand vociferous supporters, Town would surely do to Bournemouth what Millwall had done to them the previous season.

When Lee Peltier opened the scoring with a header in the 26th minute it seemed as though Town were on their way to Old Trafford for the final. Steve Lovell had other ideas though as he levelled the scores from the penalty spot midway through the half.

A fine goal from Bolton loanee Danny Ward put Town back in command shortly before half-time, before they were once again pegged back by the visitors and that man Steve Lovell in the 63rd minute.

Bournemouth would not find themselves behind again in the tie with an extra-time header from Danny Ings seemingly sealing the win for the Cherries. Now it was Town’s time to show some character and fight back from adversity, which they managed courtesy of the head of Anthony Kay.

4-4 was the final score after two tight games and extra time, leaving the tie to be decided on penalties. Anthony Kay, perhaps buoyed by the adrenaline of his earlier equaliser stepped up to blast the decisive penalty into the roof of the net.

Town had done it, they were in the play-off final and victory seemed a certainty. Peterborough United, the side awaiting them at Old Trafford were admittedly a troubling team. They had outscored every team in the country that season, with 106 goals from their 46 league games.

Despite their clear attacking threat, they were a side that could be got at, highlighted perfectly by their goals against column which read 75, a whopping 27 more than Huddersfield’s.

Lee Clark appeared to be more worried about Peterborough’s strengths rather than their weaknesses as he selected a safety first line-up, devoid of top scorer Jordan Rhodes.

The game was a tight and tense affair that looked destined for extra-time until Peterborough forward Tommy Rowe broke the deadlock with a fine header from a free-kick in the 78th minute.

Within a matter of minutes Town’s Championship dream had disappeared into thin air with Craig Mackail-Smith and Grant McCann scoring two further goals for Posh by the 85th minute. The crowd of 48,410 – mostly made up of Town fans – were in shock, and showed that in vastly different ways.

Peterborough’s fans jumped up and down and hugged one another in glee and delight, whereas Town’s supporters headed for the exits. Many threw the ‘Believe’ t-shirts which had been provided by Dean Hoyle ahead of the game toward the pitch in disgust.

Others vented their frustrations through more violent means with 15 people been arrested for fighting that left multiple people with injuries, including 2 unfortunate stewards.

Despite the improvements on the pitch in the second half of the season, Town’s campaign had ended in the same way as their previous one, with play-off disappointment. The main bone of contention amongst Town fans was Lee Clark’s decision not to introduce top scorer Jordan Rhodes until the game had escaped his team.

Rhodes had been sacrificed the previous season from Theo Robinson in the final half hour of the second leg, and this time he had been made to sit out the majority of the game. The decision was baffling and led some fans to start questioning the acumen of Lee Clark.

Despite the play-off final loss and the omission of Jordan Rhodes, there was little for fans to actually grumble about. The team had remained unbeaten for half of the season and finished with a points total that, under usual circumstances would have guaranteed them automatic promotion.

Dean Hoyle showed no signs in losing faith in his manager, continuing to back Clark financially in the transfer window. Just under £2 million was spent on new signings, with half of that being paid in the deal to turn Danny Ward’s loan deal into a permanent move.

Murray Wallace, Oscar Gobern and Anton Robinson all joined in combined deals totalling just shy of £1 million. There were more free transfers and loans as Lee Clark looked to plug the gaps left by the departures of Anthony Pilkington and Lee Peltier to Norwich and Leicester respectively.

The 2011-2012 season felt like last chance saloon for Lee Clark and Huddersfield Town, but the campaign started slowly. Three straight draws against Bury, Rochdale and Hartlepool saw Town sitting in 15th by mid-August.

Chants of “attack, attack, attack!” began to increase in volume from the stands with #LeagueOneForever making an appearance on Twitter. The performance against Peterborough in the previous season’s play-off final was soon seen as a ‘tactical bottlejob’ from Clark as fans frustrations began to rise.

Performances did however improve and the club began to make waves in the national press as their unbeaten run in the league edged ever closer to historic records. On November 19th the club set a new Football League record as their 2-1 home victory over Notts County stretched their unbeaten run to 43 games.

The following week Town suffered their first league loss in almost a year at the hands of Charlton Athletic and there was to be no immediate reaction as the team lost 1-0 at home to Bournemouth in their next league fixture.

With the pressure of the unbeaten run off the backs of the player and management, it appeared as though Clark had opted to return to his philosophy of fast-flowing attacking football.

A 4-4 away draw at Sheffield Wednesday was followed by a resounding 6-0 rout of Wycombe at Adams Park a few weeks later. Town and Clark it seemed, were back to their best and in the groove once again.

Dour 1-1 draws with Tranmere and MK Dons burst the bubble before Town slipped to a 1-0 home defeat at the hands of Sheffield United which was to prove catastrophic in the reign of Lee Clark.

Dean Hoyle who was abroad on a skiing holiday at the time finally lost patience with his managerial protégé. To Hoyle there had been no concrete sign of improvement from the previous season and enough was enough. Explaining his decision to BBC Radio Leeds that month, Hoyle said:

“I had lost faith in his ability to guide the team to the top two and I had also lost faith in his ability to manage the team in a play-off final.

“We’d drawn 13 games from winning positions and seen constant squad rotation, I voiced my concerns, and so although it may come as a surprise to many, I had voiced my concerns well before we parted company.”

After three years and three months in charge of Huddersfield Town, Lee Clark’s time at the club was up. His record of 87 wins in 178 games, combined with the impressive 43 match unbeaten run made his sacking seem strange and unfair to some.

However, he was brought to the club with one goal in particular and that was to get Huddersfield Town promoted to the Championship. Would he have managed that had he remained in charge of the club for the remainder of the season? Potentially.

All signs however point toward another failed campaign. On two separate occasions the former Newcastle midfielder had shown himself incapable of handling the pressure of crunch games.

In hindsight, Clark’s results at Huddersfield Town appear to have been heavily reliant on the repeated financial investment of the chairman. During the course of his spell at the club, Clark signed just under 50 players at a combined cost of £5.5 million.

At League One level between 2008 and 2012 that was a staggering amount of money, one which should have guaranteed promotion to the Championship. That those figures do not even account for loan fees, staffing costs and wages is even more damning for Lee Clark.

Still, Lee Clark was revered by the media whilst the club and Dean Hoyle were dragged through the mud in the wake of the sacking. Lee Clark was a fantastic manager and he was going to prove Hoyle and Town wrong by going on to have a phenomenal career.

At the time of writing, Clark finds himself in charge of Blyth Spartans of the National League North after unsuccessful spells at Birmingham, Blackpool, Kilmarnock and Bury.

Dean Hoyle it would appear, made the right decision in sacking Lee Clark. However affable and passionate he may have been, Clark was simply not good enough to manage Huddersfield Town.

Lee Clark was a false prophet, unable to back up the promises made by him and those who identified him. Fortunately, Town fans wouldn’t have to wait long for the real deal, a German who delivered on the broken promises of Lee Clark…

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