Tuesday 28 January 2020

Unique community ties keeping Huddersfield feet on the ground

Dean Hoyle fulfilled his pledge to loyal supporters and priced their season ticket at £100.’ How the fans spent the money they saved was up to them. Photo: Scott Heavey/PA
Dean Hoyle fulfilled his pledge to loyal supporters and priced their season ticket at £100.’ How the fans spent the money they saved was up to them. Photo: Scott Heavey/PA

Colin Young

You only have to see where Huddersfield Town are today to recognise how far they have come. Their PPG Canalside training ground, just a goal-kick from their old Leeds Road ground, has all the facilities and the look of a top European football club, capable of attracting £40m (€44m) worth of new players, as they have this summer.

But for all its grandeur and state-of-the-art facilities, the Canalside is still at heart a working men's club where the locals can and do mix with the footballers who are playing for their team in the Premier League for the first time.

So when David Wagner brings his players off the training pitches for their stretches, massages and warm-downs, followed by their high-octane lunches, the locals mingle with them. Forget the pasta. The members' main focus is a game of lawn bowls or snooker, followed by fish and chips and a pint for less than a tenner. Or a Blue Monday double bacon cheeseburger for a fiver.

The doors will forever remain open to these supporters and regulars. Canalside was formerly the social club for workers from the chemical factory across the road, now run by Swiss firm Syngenta, and when club owner Dean Hoyle bought the complex for the training ground six years ago, it came with covenants that public access must be maintained. It is far removed from the high-security, gated communities of most Premier League grounds designed to keep fans out, not in.

That means regulars like Alan Hemingway (71) and his older brother Dennis, (79) can still play snooker for a half an hour for £1 (€1.10), and then meet the players. Terriers fan Alan, who once played a frame with Alex Higgins, said: "It's excellent seeing all the players. We chat to them when we get chance. They are all very friendly. It is brilliant that they are now in the Premier League."

Even this smart training complex has undergone a major transformation in the last couple of years. Several million has been ploughed into the upgrade since they were promoted to the Premier League via a play-off victory over Reading at Wembley in May.

There has been a price to pay, however. The croquet lawn, which was taking up a third of one of the first team's pitches, went last summer and during this close season, three of the six snooker tables were sacrificed so the players' lounge could be extended, and one of the two bowling greens is currently being demolished. That has meant some of the social club teams are looking for a new home but the Acre Mills team still play in the Huddersfield Ladies Works Bowling League, and Canalside Veterans are represented in the Huddersfield Snooker League.

Huddersfield's chief executive Julian Winter, who played for the club in the late 1980s, said: "It really is quite a unique environment, but it does work. There is a natural respect from the public not to impinge on the players' jobs and likewise, players respect that the public are here and they treat them with respect. It keeps the players grounded.

"We have tried to create a professional environment, which is the back of the building and for the sole use of the players and then we want a public environment, which is the bowls, snooker and public gym, and a space where we can all come together, which is the bar area and canteen. As a club we want to progress, piece by piece, without losing that ethos and culture."

A mile up Leeds Road is the Kirklees Stadium which today, after a 23-year wait since it was built, will host its first Premier League match when Newcastle United will be the visitors. The town has been waiting even longer. Huddersfield last played in the top flight in 1972. It didn't end well that year. They were relegated after a 22-game winless run and it hadn't been going too well for the club until the last couple of years when Wagner joined either.

Jurgen Klopp's former Borussia Dortmund assistant was the surprise choice to lead the Yorkshire club out of the doldrums. But it was the man who appointed him, chairman and lifelong fan Hoyle, who is really behind this transformation.

In the 45 years outside the top flight, the Terriers, the first club to win three successive English titles, fell down the divisions and eventually into administration. And as the name of the stadium has changed according to sponsors, the ownership continued to change until Hoyle took over in 2009.

He left school without qualifications but with wife Janet built a greeting cards company, the Card Factory, which has now amassed more than 500 shops and a £350m (€382m) fortune. He may be one of the richest British club owners around, but Hoyle has never forgotten his roots or responsibility to his town and Huddersfield Town. When they reached the play-off final in May, Hoyle cycled to Wembley for charity. When they beat Jaap Stam's Reading, he fulfilled his pledge to loyal supporters - those subscribed for season tickets since the 2008/2009 campaign - and priced their season ticket at £100 (€110).

Hoyle said: "We want to make lots of friends. We want to be very proud in the Premier League and we want to do the town, the club and the fans proud and see where that takes us. We are not here just to say 'hello', though. We want to take on the biggest challenge we've had in years, so bring it on. We know this is going to be pretty tough. We had to be busy on signings because, as has been well documented, our wage bill was really low and even to get to the levels of Brighton and Newcastle from last season, we were a million miles away.

"We realised we had lots of catching up to do and lots of loan players, so we had two lists - a Premier League list and a Championship list - and as soon as it finished at Wembley we were on it."

For all that Hoyle is the antithesis of Newcastle's owner Mike Ashley, his path to the promised land of the Premier League with Wagner has not been a smooth one. Where the German-American coach has succeeded, Lee Clark, Simon Grayson, Mark Robins and Chris Powell failed before him. And each time club legend Mark Lillis has had a short spell as the caretaker but declined to do the job full time.

Wagner, while he was the left-field choice to take over from Powell, and Lillis, in November 2015, was ready for the challenge of managing solo after four years as Klopp's assistant with Dortmund. The former United States international spent the least of his Championship rivals last season and still reached the top six with a negative goal difference.

Judging by their Premier League debut victory over Crystal Palace at Selhurst Park last week, comparisons with Klopp and his style of pressing and high-tempo football will continue throughout the season. But that won't bother Wagner, who embraces it.

Honours were even between Wagner and former Liverpool boss Rafa Benitez last season but Huddersfield have been the bigger spenders in the transfer window this term and they have not been shy bringing in new blood, if £8m (€9m) midfielder Aaron Mooy counts after he spent last season on loan from Manchester City. There is also record signing Steve Mounie, an £11m (€12m) striker signed from Montpellier who scored twice last week, plus Tom Ince, Scott Malone, Mathias Jorgensen and Laurent Depoitre for just over £20m (€22m) combined.

Wagner still dismissed the Terriers' tag as favourites for Newcastle's visit today. He laughed it off. Literally. Wagner said: "Who is saying this? These are crazy days. Who can believe Huddersfield Town are favourites going into a Premier League game? This game is totally open and we have a chance, which is the perfect scenario. We don't have an extraordinary chance, or a big, big, big chance. Just a chance. And we have to perform.

"It was only one game last week but it was the perfect result and good performance. It helps us to have more trust, belief and confidence in everything we have done in the pre-season and last season. But even though we won 3-0, it was very open and could have gone either way.

"We are inexperienced in this division so it is more important to have quick points on the board to lift your confidence. With inexperienced players you never know what will happen but we have seen already we are able to be competitive in the landscape and hopefully we can do the same against Newcastle.

"We are very excited to have the first Premier League match at home. We will be prepared to cause Newcastle some problems. They have a lot of experience and quality and a fantastic manager and we have to be prepared."

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