Few outside of Germany and USA had heard of David Wagner when Liverpool, after hiring Jurgen Klopp to a huge media frenzy in October 2015, approached him with an offer to join Klopp’s backroom staff at Anfield.
Wagner had spent four years working alongside Klopp as the manager of Borussia Dortmund’s second team, developing a reputation for the high-intensity pressing style that made his mentor the outstanding candidate to succeed Brendan Rodgers on Merseyside.
Having been best man at his wedding and the godfather to one of his two daughters, a move to assist Klopp at Liverpool seemed a natural next career move for Wagner until Huddersfield Town, sitting 18th in the Championship when they sacked Chris Powell, came calling. The pull of a number one job too strong for a coach who outlined his desire to “bring some German influence to this English culture”.
Fourteen months on from that unveiling and the prospect of a league meeting between Wagner and Klopp, who the Huddersfield boss says he has known longer than his wife, is growing ever more real.
After diverting the Terriers away from relegation trouble in his first campaign, Huddersfield are third in the Championship, playing the high-octane football espoused by the manager and applying pressure on the 2 automatic promotion spots occupied by Brighton and Newcastle.
Tuesday’s 1-0 win over fellow play-off spot holders Reading, their sixth on the bounce, virtually certified a top-6 finish, with the gap to seventh place Norwich now extended to 13 points.
It has been a remarkable story and one that shows no sign yet of being told. An FA Cup replay with Manchester City at the Etihad awaits, following a 0-0 draw with Pep Guardiola’s side, with the prize a place in the quarter-finals but promotion to the top-flight offers an even bigger bounty.
It will be quite an achievement for a club who last played there in 1972 and have meandered to finishes of 19th, 17th, 16th and then 19th in the four seasons that followed their conclusion to eight years in the third tier in 2012.
The club’s owner, Card Factory founder Dean Hoyle, pumped £37 million of his own money into the club since taking control in 2009 but criticism grew from a failure to reinvest the profits from the sales of Adam Clayton, Jacob Butterfield and Oliver Norwood, as well as Jordan Rhodes who left for Blackburn for nearly £9 million in 2012.
Instead Hoyle directed the investment at club infrastructure as well as the development of their Canalside training complex. Ignoring the simple and often ineffective method of throwing money at a glut of talented players in the hope they will quickly gel, Hoyle saw another route to success with a “new style of organisation, fitness and play.” The manager search turned them to Wagner who, aware that he would not be working with vast riches, immediately signed up to the project.
Their last posted turnover was £10.4 million and only Brentford recorded a lower revenue than the Yorkshire club in the 2014/15 financial year. Wagner has not had access to the parachute payments on offer at Newcastle and Norwich or the vast investment at Brighton, instead leading the revolution at the John Smith’s Stadium on a typically thrifty budget that saw an outlay of £3 million offset by the £1.2 million sale of Joel Lynch to QPR.
Last summer saw 15 arrivals and 14 departures as Wagner significantly reshaped his squad with his extensive knowledge of the Bundesliga pyramid helping him to bring in defenders Chris Lowe, Michael Hefele and Christopher Schindler, as well as top-scoring winger Elias Kachunga, from Germany. The £1.8 million given to 1860 Munich for Schindler was a club record and only the third time in Huddersfield’s history they have spent over £1 million for a player.
The contact with Klopp at Liverpool was used to loan in goalkeeper Danny Ward but otherwise Wagner went elsewhere, loaning in midfielders Aaron Mooy from Manchester City and Kasey Palmer from Chelsea, while Isiah Brown already has 3 goals since joining on a 6-month spell from the London club in January.
A comprehensive scouting program has unearthed the likes of Phillip Billing, the 20 year old Danish midfielder who scrambled home the late winner against Reading while Mooy, who was named Australian PFA Player of the Year before moving to City from their sister club in Melbourne in the summer, has been an astute capture, with only 3 players creating more chances or making more tackles than the 26-year-old in the entire league.
With Wagner wedded to a flowing 4-2-3-1 system, Jonathon Hogg has provided solid support alongside him at the base of midfield as one of the old guard who have survived the Wagner revolution. Tommy Smith has responded brilliantly to the highly-charged attacking football preached by the manager, scoring 3 times and offering 9 assists from right-back, while Nakhi Wells has 9 goals to his name.
The elder statesmen Dean Whitehead and Mark Hudson remain on hand to provide experience and know-how to a squad that, with an average age of 25.7, is the fifth youngest in the Championship.
Playing the type of energetic, power-pressing football Wagner honed at Dortmund, only Newcastle, Bristol City and Fulham have averaged more shots than Huddersfield while only Fulham and Reading have averaged more possession. The Terriers are also hugely organised, with no team in the Championship conceding less shots at goal than their 9.7 per game.
The emphasis on fitness and conditioning, with double training sessions introduced immediately after taking over, have worked with 12 of their 43 goals arriving in the last 15 minutes of matches. An innovative pre-season training camp in Sweden, where players were forced to live with just the basic elements and forced to source food or warmth from scratch, bred teamwork and unity.
The result has been a team that continues to usurp expectations, both of themselves and of a league where a common perception of riches equating with success is only now being challenged.
A troublesome period of 5 defeats from 7 games in autumn saw them drop out of the play-offs to a suspicion that Wagner’s methods had worn off. A run of 11 wins from the next 14 games has formed a powerful response and the momentum threatens to catapult the south Yorkshire town into the Premier League. If that chapter is included in this incredible story, the whole world would be left in no doubt as to who David Wagner is.