Making a Miracle:
How manager David Wagner led
Huddersfield Town to dreamland
Once upon a time...
We are located at the genesis of a story seemingly so fictional, the protagonist feels it is more at home in the pages of a fairytale than in modern football.
On an unblemished July afternoon, the sun streaking through the windows of a boardroom at Frankfurt’s opulent Kempinski Hotel, David Wagner’s face is framed with disbelief as he closes in on a remarkable 1000 days as Huddersfield Town manager.
Following a 45 year-absence from England’s top-flight, the German catapulted the Terriers into the Premier League, and against all logic, he has kept them there.
Wagner’s glasses lift above his eyebrows at the enormity of that sentence. And in the city of his birth, as he drinks in developments since his appointment on 5 November 2015, it muddles his senses like the local Apfelwein.
“If someone would’ve told me all this would happen - securing our Championship status, getting promoted and staying in the Premier League - I would’ve told them, ‘Please wake up from this silly dream. No chance.’ It still doesn’t feel real at times,” he admits to JOE.
“Everything that I’d known about Huddersfield before joining, the reality was honestly worse, which makes all this more unbelievable. I think my agent was very smart not to show me the training facilities before I signed.”
The West Yorkshire club, in terms of finances and resources, are most certainly not where they belong.
Their former Director of Football Operations, Stuart Webber, once summed up Huddersfield as being “like a League One club in the Championship.” The description was not out of disrespect, but to magnify how much they were punching above their means.
Huddersfield's Canalside training ground is located less than a mile away from John Smith’s Stadium and it is a public sports venue, where pensioners usually engage in a game of snooker, croquet or bowls.
The canteen is accessible to all, and the only real source of privacy is in the Players’ Lounge, which was constructed last year.
The base is in a contrary realm to the extensive complexes used by the clubs they compete against, and while it promotes a welcome bond with the community, it does put the Terriers at a disadvantage.
Wagner, who couldn't point Huddersfield out on a map before fielding the call from chairman Dean Hoyle offering him the job, admits he was completely startled by the deficiencies in infrastructure when he arrived.
“I had a different expectation because I figured, ‘ok, this is a Championship side that have been in the division for five consecutive seasons so there’s some stability and a level in terms of facilities, backroom staff and the mindset of the club.’ But it was not like that,” he explains.
“Together with my uncertainty - I was never in England before, not even for one night, I had only passed through Heathrow to catch a flight connection - and what I found when I came to Huddersfield, I couldn’t imagine there would be the chance to make what has happened possible.”
That the club are here in Germany, undertaking a demanding pre-season schedule in preparation for their second Premier League campaign is - to borrow the words of one staffer - “very lovely, but very ludicrous.”
The makings of the Miracle Man…
Wagner is “at home” on the training pitch and in the dugout, but for a while, he had been lost to football.
“When I finished my playing career, my contract with Darmstadt meant I was able to join the management team for two years, but I didn’t use that as I wanted to study Sports Science and Biology,” he says.
“The fact that I had negotiated that deal means I had it in my head that I wanted to pursue coaching, but that I didn’t take it up shows I wanted to explore other options too. When you turn professional after being a youth player, you don’t have the opportunity to do anything out of the football environment.
“You think, ‘is the only thing I can do?’ and you try to get a job in the industry when you retire just as I looked to do with the post-playing contract.”
As Wagner undertook his final exams to earn a degree, Jurgen Klopp - godfather to one of his children - urged his best friend to get a Uefa Pro Licence.
He took that advice and cut his teeth with Hoffenheim’s under-19s for two years, but the desire to explore beyond the game was still intense.
“I needed to learn something else, to experience something else and to gain a different perspective," says Wagner, who went back to school.
“In Germany, to be a teacher is a good job - you usually work half a day, get lots of holidays, work to better young people and you can’t get sacked really as it’s a government job so I thought it would be a good option for me.”
Wagner labels this period essential to both opening his mind and helping him realise football was still his driving force.
“I needed the break to get a bigger horizon and see things independently from the game,” he offers.
“I had about two or three years where I was absolutely removed from this football circle and then slowly, I came back when I was close to finishing my practical studies to become a teacher. I felt I was missing something.
“For two or three years, I missed nothing as I was discovering new friends, new interests and that really helped me, as ultimately, it became clear that above everything else I did, it was football that I wanted to be involved in.”
Klopp, then at Borussia Dortmund, asked Wagner to coach their second team in 2011. He thrived there for four years as his methodology was crystallised.
“My philosophy got shaped at Hoffenheim, where I was a youth coach and then it absolutely became clearer at BVB. If I compare myself now to my starting point in 2007, the change is incredible,” Wagner reveals.
“I’m totally, totally different. I had no clue how to be a manager to be really honest. Being a player and a manager are two opposite worlds. I had no idea how the game worked from a tactical preparation and analysis point of view, no idea about the scope of the job.
“The biggest switch is being in front of the group - leading the team - than being part of it. You are responsible not just for yourself and your performance but for that of the entire squad and the health of the club as a whole.
“You have to create a culture where there is understanding and belonging. You have to realise there are different ways of management within a group and find the right channels: one player can take things on board by just listening once, another doesn’t need a lot of talking it just comes naturally, a different player may need the message repeated five times… There are so many details to managing a football club before you even can think about tactics or exercises in training.”
One of the core elements of the job is how to handle relationships with his roster and the press. “My way is to just be myself, not to play a role,” Wagner states.
“Whether people like it or not, it’s just me; I can’t be an actor for 12 hours every day. It takes too much energy, and trust me, there are so many things for a manager to worry about that you can’t waste effort on putting on a show.”
Wagner was born in Frankfurt, before moving to America for around three years during his formative period. “I was too young to remember that time, so it doesn’t feel like I ever lived abroad before Huddersfield,” he says.
“My mother and I returned to Germany as the relationship between my parents broke down. We came back to Frankfurt city centre and it was not the easiest time for my mum raising me alone.
“So we went to live with my gran, which is an hour away and it is proper countryside there. There is nothing - really nothing - and so to entertain myself, I’d play football non-stop. There were only 250 people and the next bigger village was seven miles away.
“This feels like a new world now, to be living in England. I couldn't have dreamed this, really,” Wagner adds. “I learn every day, not only as a manager, but as a person. I’ve grown so much in every way since leaving Germany as there are new things to experience, to enjoy or problems to solve.”
It unmerited that the man, who “as far as I can remember, always had a ball with me - in my hands or at my feet,” is primarily viewed through the prism of his friendship with the Liverpool manager.
Wagner may share similar ideals to Klopp and possess a comparable open and engaging persona, but he is not in anyone's shadow.
He has traversed his own path, hurdled divergent complications and been successful with his objectives in his way.
“What he's done for Huddersfield is no small miracle,” a long-time employee says. “Wagner is top class, as a man and as a manager.”
The revolution will be televised…
The sharp ascent of the Terriers may have been unexpected and against all odds, but it is not an accident. Wagner, together with his assistant manager Christoph Buhler, delved into every little and large detail that could possibly give them an edge.
Before their first day at Huddersfield, it was decided that step-by-step change would serve no purpose and a drastic plan was plotted instead. New ideas and a completely alien way of doing things needed to be introduced in a fresh setting so it could better stick, with the manager advocating for a camp in Spain.
Double sessions would become the norm as would players having to live within 15 miles of the training ground to cut out travelling time and aid recovery.
A nutritionist was brought in along with a Head of Performance and a more devoted approach to analysis was applied.
“My assistant manager and I had a discussion before we joined the club and we decided that we’d take the radical route, because if we fail, at least we do so in our way,” Wagner recalls.
“We were given the opportunity based on our style, our belief, our methods and we took the job to implement all that so it would make no sense to do anything else. I was very lucky that I found staff, a team, the chairman and supporters that seemed desperate for something new.
“I became the first non-British manager of this club that’s over 100 years old. The players were very open-minded, especially the experienced pros. Now that I’ve been here nearly three years, I know how important the experienced pros are because the hierarchy within a squad is a much stronger thing than it is in Germany.
“Once I was able to convince them that the plan we had could work, it made life much easier. When we joined the club, it was the November international break and I immediately thought we needed to go away as a group so we chose Marbella.
“The first game we played afterwards was at Sheffield Wednesday, which we lost 3-1, but we were 1-0 up until 78 minutes. We were only tired afterwards, but had played decent against a side that were favourites for promotion.
“You could see the players immediately have the sense of ‘oh, maybe this idea is not the worst in the world, we did very well for a long time in the game.’ The next match we lost against Middlesborough, but we played them off the park. I think we had over 70% possession and chances over chances that we couldn’t convert.
“We got a standing ovation despite the result and I remember saying to Buhler, ‘What’s going on here? We’ve lost two games but the crowd are still happy with what we’re doing.’
“We knew we were on the right track then: players feeling the difference and the supporters too. After those matches we were in the bottom three, before we arrived we had been two points above those spots. We won the third game against Birmingham and never looked back from there, securing our Championship status quite comfortably in the end.”
Huddersfield finished 11 points better than third from bottom and prepared for the following campaign - Wagner’s first full one in charge - with a budget of just £11m, one of the lowest in the division.
The club’s previous league positions heading into 2016-17 read: 19, 17, 16, 19, but the script was about to be switched.
Ready, set, fight!
Once Championship safety was boxed off, the most crucial period began. Wagner could now shape the squad, drill his demands during a full pre-season and fully foster a culture of togetherness.
Seventeen new players, including loanees, were acquired and the 46-year-old knew how the squad harmonised would underpin how the season panned out.
Again, he pushed a radical idea and again, he received Hoyle’s support. Before any ball work could be done, there needed to be a focus on bonding.
“I remember when I said to the chairman that I’d like to make a training camp, but without any football so more of a survival session for four days in Sweden,” Wagner recounts.
“He looked at me and said, ‘Hmm, okay, but why?’ So I explained that it was really important to bind the group as we had so many signings and a lot of foreign players among them. I told him I’d done it before and nothing is better to gel a squad quickly.
“Of course, this is an expensive request - especially for Huddersfield! - but he supported me even if he thought ‘what the hell is this for? This man is crazy.’ We are very fortunate to have his backing in a big way.”
The stay on the small uninhabited island off the coast of Sweden was no lads’ holiday. Chris Lowe, recruited that summer from FC Kaiserslautern, takes up the story.
“It wasn’t fun. Not at all. In the end, it was a good trip because we weren’t strangers, we had become like brothers, but it definitely was no laugh while we were there. Four days we spent without mobile phones, no electricity, no beds, no food being cooked for us, just camping and canoeing in the wild.
“It was a hard trip because for a lot of us, our English wasn’t that good then. It was the first big thing to create togetherness and it was especially important for all the new signings that were from other countries. We needed it to find a sense of unity quickly.”
Wagner also carved an unmistakable ‘Terriers Identity.’ Huddersfield would be aggressive, fearless, tenacious, competitive and not short of endurance or courage.
“The attitude the manager has introduced at the club is one of the key reasons we have done so well and there is such happiness here,” attacking midfielder Collin Quaner, who joined last summer from FC Union Berlin, says.
“We all want to fight for our mates, for the shirt and for any small chance we have in a game. Every time we step on the pitch, we are probably the underdogs, but we enjoy showing what we’re all about.”
When asked what has been Wagner’s overarching message to the squad, Quaner offers: “He often asks: ‘Do you believe in yourself? Do you believe in each other? Do you believe you can be successful together? Do you believe you can win every challenge? Do you believe you can beat the odds?’
“Of course, the boss wants to make sure we get our tactics right and fulfil our roles in a game, but more than anything, he wants us to know we are capable of great things as a group. He tells us all the time that we have no limits.”
That tagline - #NoLimits - was printed on blue-and-white wristbands and given to the squad before the Championship Play-Off semi-final against Sheffield Wednesday last year. It was personalised for every player, with their initials, squad number and the message ‘we’re on our way to W…!’ included.
Christopher Schindler, who scored the decisive penalty against Reading in the final at Wembley to secure Premier League promotion, felt it enhanced trust in themselves. “Maybe it’s just a small detail, but it’s important to make everybody believe you can do it,” he said last May.
“It shows you don’t have to spend a lot to make a big impact – especially if you have good characters.”
The “small dogs” were back in the big time.
Working with the negatives can make a better picture…
If the magnitude of the Premier League challenge wasn’t already centre stage in the minds of everyone at Huddersfield, their last three fixtures of the season ensured just that.
Manchester City away, Chelsea at Stamford Bridge and then Arsenal at home. All the best.
“When the fixtures came out, we looked at it and knew the end would be tough,” Wagner starts. “On the other side, I thought to myself, maybe by then some decisions would already be made especially for the big teams and it could be not the worst time to play them.
“Like always, especially as a manager, you have to sell the bad things as good things and you have to find a positive way to view situations. When it got closer to those games, it was the truth - Manchester City were already the champions - but the problem was they scored 100 goals and no-one managed to keep a clean sheet against them at the Etihad but we thought, ‘come on, let’s try.’
“We go there, get in their faces, try to press, try to be brave.’ For sure, on this day, City were not at their best, there is no doubt about that, but we played without fear and had a couple of good chances and we collected a point.
“We were full of euphoria after this game and then had to travel to face Chelsea, with that match only three days later. All together, we then watched Southampton beat Swansea in the hotel the day before we played at Stamford Bridge.
“I had thought ‘okay a draw or a Southampton win is best for us as if the latter happens, we know we need just one point from our final two games.’ Saints won, but the players had a completely different mindset. They were hugely disappointed as they wanted a draw or Swansea to win and there was this negative atmosphere in our meeting room.
“I can’t remember exactly the permutations, but there was a lot of bad vibrations so I stood up and said: ‘Listen guys, what’s the problem?
“‘We know exactly what we need now - just one further point - so why are you not happy like I am? We will fight for our point.’
“We played the next evening against Chelsea and for me, this game showed what Huddersfield is all about. We showed spirit, togetherness, we battled, we really gave every inch to meet our aim.
“If you are not the giant club, you still have a chance - only a small one - but then you have to take that opportunity and apply yourself to make it bigger, bigger, bigger...
“The problem with this match, unlike the City one, was that everything was on as well for Chelsea - they had trying to qualify for the Champions League to think about.
“So, the end of that game together with the Wembley final the year previously are undoubtably the most emotional moments I’ve ever had as a manager. It was so, so special for Huddersfield.”
That Wednesday night, the players had decided they didn’t want to hop on a flight straight back home, but revel in their achievement together. It was decided they would return by bus instead, but that plan didn’t materialise.
“We had prepared everything very professionally; we got a private plane booked to make sure we could be well rested and ready for the Arsenal game, which would’ve been the biggest match of the season if we didn’t get anything at Chelsea,” Wagner reveals.
“But we cancelled that on the request of the players. We wanted to go home by bus to have beers together, but the driver unfortunately told us he couldn’t deliver because of his hours.
“So we figured no problem, we’ll go back by train instead. We took the first one back at 6am the next day and enjoyed our time together in London - the city that never sleeps - and for sure, we didn’t sleep!”
Huddersfield had partied until it was time to leave the venue and get on board the train. #NoLimits indeed.
Quaner giggles as he thinks back to “a crazy, happy, unbelievable celebration with friends” and says, “this is what it’s all about. We worked really hard, fighting for each other and for the club to stay in the league. It was our moment to take in the journey we’ve had.”
Happily ever after…
On 30 May 2018, Huddersfield shared the piece of news they’d been crossing more than just their fingers for. Wagner had signed a new three-year deal despite fielding interest from multiple clubs domestically and in the Bundesliga.
“I understand why David is so talked about and sought-after given the things he has achieved here; he’s a very talented head coach and has played a huge role in transforming Huddersfield Town into the club it is today.”
Wagner is more than a great trainer and an expert man manager, he has moulded the Terriers into a modernised, forward-thinking outfit.
He has revolutionised how they operate and has been instrumental in their plan to pursue improved facilities.
“This was not what I had in my head when I joined this football club,” Wagner admits. “I am much more involved in a lot of things that go on behind the scenes here.
“We are now able to build a proper Premier League facility. It takes around 18 to 24 months, but there is so much information and discussions on what should be the first thing to work on, how we prioritise so no two days in this job are alike.
“I know that I have a lot of responsibility and I try to use it to make the right decisions for now and for the future. I’m very fortunate to have strong partners in all departments at this club to pull this together.”
Does Wagner feel fortunate that he's been given the freedom to remodel Huddersfield rather than just zone in on results? “Football is a very short-term business usually for managers,” he reasons.
“A year can be considered being long in the job these days. I’m really privileged to be here for nearly three years now to help influence the direction of the club, to share ideas and to help Huddersfield develop.
“It’s nice for me and it makes me very happy to see people who have worked for this team for over ten years, who have seen it in League Two, that they have these moments in the Premier League. It lifts me to see them feel the atmosphere in the stadium, to see how much joy they have along with supporters that this club is progressing.
“Often, it’s not happening quick enough off the pitch for my liking, which is why I have discussions with the chairman to say ‘come on, come on, what are we waiting for?’
“I do absolutely know the jumps we’ve made from where we were to where we are. Saying I’m proud wouldn’t be the right word, I’m just really pleased for everyone this has a positive impact on.”
The dilemma for Huddersfield is the more Wagner elevates them, the greater the interest in him will be.
“I’ve signed a new contract, and I had signed one as well the year before,” he points out.
“A lot of people who I respect in this business gave me the same advice: find the right moment to leave. In the past, when I joined Dortmund II and when I came here, I just had this feeling that it was the correct choice. I do not have that same vibe now urging me to leave, we still have some interesting work to do.”
When he does get that feeling and bids Huddersfield goodbye, Wagner will have made a formidable imprint on their present and the platform the club have to press on in future.