I love League One. I always have. It’s the least pretentious of the leagues, and the teams in it seem (generally) more relaxed than the other divisions. Admittedly, it can be a bit ploddy, and it does have a tendency to cleave open in about February as the good teams separate from the mediocre, but its friendly, and I’ve always felt welcome. Of course, as a Huddersfield fan, we’ve assumed the role of permanent residents quite well; the #LeagueOneForever hashtag had been flying round Twitter a lot as we settled in for another season amongst the elite, readying to open the doors to Doncaster, Crawley and Coventry, amongst others, while our stablemates Tranmere and Oldham offered round the cups of tea and sandwiches, and Leyton Orient greeted them from the sofa with a world-weary wave.
When I first watched football, it was Division 3 football. Later, without much changing, it became Division 2 football. Huddersfield moved to what has been both the McAlpine and Galpharm Stadium but has been without sponsor for a season (this has irked me during 11/12, by the way. All official club communication refers to it as the Town Ground, but no media seem to have picked up on it) and that season, as often happens in new grounds, were promoted to Division 1. Some of the teams that we were promoted to face that season serve as an
illustration to how much football has changed; our old friends Oldham and Tranmere were the first two away games, but the likes of Grimsby Town and Luton Town are long gone from that level, as are Wimbledon, in a different way; Port Vale and Southend Utd, too, have fallen on rougher times.
That was a wonderful time; we beat Leicester City at home in the best performance I’ve ever seen from a Huddersfield team; faced off against legends past and future, like Steve Bull, and Robbie Keane – in the same Wolves team. There was some truly big games down at the McAlpine; Sunderland and Bolton’s visits are recalled with a crackling ferocity in my mind, and the derbies we had against Bradford City the year they went up to the Premiership – we won both – were enthralling, engaging and quality, quality stuff. Huddersfield hasn’t really hosted a ‘big’ cup tie since then; Liverpool visiting in 2000. Birmingham (and were beaten) in the interim, but Birmingham seem to always come (though equally always seem to win, too) so they didn’t feel such a big visitor.
Having stayed in Division 1 for a few years, stabilising, then aiming higher – I’d settle for a similar thing this time around, build up bit by bit – the bottom fell out of our club for a number of reasons, and the promise that took so long to build, faded so quickly – replaced by doom. That was 11 years ago. The afternoon Birmingham City, who else, visited Town, Curtis Woodhouse netted twice, and a late Dougie Freedman winner for Palace at Stockport tipped the balance inexorably in their favour as they and Pompey scaled a last day precipice. So there we were.
Adrift in the lower leagues, leaking money and goals, and sinking further and further from something that, truth be told, was probably taken for granted. A failed playoff campaign was followed by another relegation, administration, and Peter Jackson’s second finest hour as a manager. Having engineered one ‘Great Escape’ (in 1997/98) he took a squad with eight players in it, added a sprinkling of talented youth and vast experience – and despite missing out to Torquay on the final day – worked them through the playoffs back to what became League One.
And there we sat. And sat. Much as I enjoy the division, when you’re regularly in the safe area when it splits apart, the seasons become pretty forgettable. It was more and more obvious the club was stagnating, and the games became less and less fun (also the shirts became worse and worse, culminating in the familiar blue and white stripes looking more of a confused Sheffield Wednesday from the mid-90s) as Ken Davy, who not only owned the club, but also looks like the Simpsons’ Mr Burns, manoeuvred the finances around in a way that suggested he favoured the rugby team who share our ground and he still owns, left the club looking more and more of the ‘sleeping giant’ of legend. We were, it seemed, 9th from the first game to the last game of the seasons.
Then, as if from nowhere, we were ‘saved’. Dean Hoyle arrived. It took a while, admittedly. There was a season before his influence was felt, indeed, the first significant act I would attribute to Mr Hoyle would be the installing of Lee Clark. And then things changed. Looking back, it must have been more gradual, but as Clark began to replace the squad Stan Ternent had left him, the players who came in were exciting. The first wave; Theo Robinson, Lionel Ainsworth, Anthony Pilkington, were vibrant, but didn’t have the focussed quality. With the next batch of players, Lee Peltier, Peter Clarke, Jordan Rhodes, it all became very exciting very quickly, and the reputation of slick open football was a buzzword around the club.
Off the field, even by the end of the first full season of Lee Clark, waves were being made. Dean Hoyle was making big decisions and good decisions. Help the Heroes had a league game played in their honour, then the Yorkshire Air Ambulance even had a kit made in red and yellow stripes for their game the season after. I have had a bit of contact behind the scenes with the club as my mum is a headmistress in Huddersfield, and is finding the club far more involved in the community than ever before. She has had visits from players, free match tickets, all sorts of initiatives spearheaded now by Andy Booth, club legend, whose posing as a gardening guru to get children out weeding and planting particularly sticks in my mind, but is only one of many such examples. That’s before the long-distance cycling escapades of Mr Hoyle and ever-growing numbers of fans are taken into account; all raising money, often for the YAA, sometimes for other causes – medical treatment in the US for a Town fan (Bailey’s Game), for example. Compared to what we were used to, Dean Hoyle has been a glorious breath of fresh air and I (personally) cannot thank him enough.
On the pitch the side stalled at Millwall in the playoffs, as they were having none of it – living up to the latter half of their name admirably. The next season the quick punchy breaks and expansive attacking were kept on a leash; then locked up for good after a Christmas tonking at Southampton, which was the jump off point for the ‘controversial’ 43 game unbeaten run. Of course, that run included a playoff final defeat to a Peterborough team who played the kind of swift, attacking football Lee Clark had left behind. During that run, inclusive of friendlies, I only saw Town play four games – all defeats, culminating in the 2-0 reverse at Charlton, who were a class apart both that night, and all season.
This year, after pegging around the Sheffields for the second spot for a long time, the 0-1 defeat to United in February saw the axe fall on the manager. It was a brave, brave decision, and one that saw an even braver move in appointing ex-Leeds manager Simon Grayson – a move that would only be fully justified with promotion. Grayson took a while to get a proper hold of the team, losing as many games in his 16 league games as Clark had in his 30 this season. By hook or by crook, though, he dragged us past MK Dons in the playoff semi final, despite their quick, attractive football, largely as a result of the clinical finishing of Jordan Rhodes. The semi finals, I would say, served as a pretty neat summation of the season. Flashes of good football; more positive results than negative, and settled by Jordan, who finished with 40 goals for the season.
Which leads us all to Saturday afternoon. A baking hot Wembley, and a desperately poor playoff final with Sheffield United. Alex Smithies saw Steve Simonsen’s penalty fly over his crossbar, and 4038 days after leaving Tier 2 (back when it was Division 1) Huddersfield Town returned, to the Championship.
We’re not just Jordan Rhodes; though I admit it might have felt like it sometimes. We weren’t expecting to go up at all when the playoffs started. We have been working towards it for a while, so hopefully the club will take to it. We have an academy that produces some decent footballers, and a crowd that appreciates them being used. We have a successful history, but hope not to have to rely on it too much now for our pride.
We are Huddersfield Town and to all the 23 other clubs already there, this was our story. A lot of you already know us. A fair few have beaten us in the playoffs. 11 years is a long time to have been away, but we’re very pleased to be back and will be happy to make your acquaintance next season.