Town planners

wsc299 As Huddersfield’s unbeaten record comes to an end, Steve Wilson looks ahead to the second half of the season

On Radio 5 Live’s Monday Night Club, Neil Clement had only enough time for one leading question to Huddersfield Town manager Lee Clark about the club’s unbeaten run in the league that stretched back to December 28 last year. “Is it actually a distraction you could do without?” he probed. A mixture of confusion and mild disdain coloured Clark’s response. “No,” he said, not unreasonably. “If it carries on for the rest of the season, I’m pretty sure we’ll go up.”

As Town equalled and then surpassed Nottingham Forest’s Football League record of 42 games unbeaten last month, few champagne corks were popped in Yorkshire. The unbeaten record came to an end when Huddersfield were beaten by Charlton at The Valley on November 28. The club enjoyed their moment in the nation’s footballing consciousness, but 11 months of invincibility has done nothing to change the league in which we play. Actual promotion rather than self-promotion is the focus at the Galpharm.

It is as much a relief as a source of pride that the club is well placed to achieve that aim. Leaving Old Trafford on May 29 having watched their reputedly unbeatable side lose to Peterborough United in a heartbreaking play-off final, a cloud of pessimism hung over the 32,000 fans who had travelled to Manchester to see the crowning glory of an incredible five months. A second successive failure in the end-of-season shoot-out made us wonder if the club would be too drained to go one better this seasoon. Anthony Pilkington and Lee Peltier were sold to Norwich and Leicester respectively. Opening season draws to Bury and Rochdale fed the concern.

However, we are over a third of the way through the season and the club remain in rude health. It is testament to the resolve of players, management and owners. The relationship between Clark and chairman Dean Hoyle was seemingly strengthened rather than strained by the experience. A self-made man from the greetings card business, Hoyle is one of those rare owners in football – a genuine fan. Clark tells the story of the dressing room that day at Old Trafford, which he described as the lowest point in his football career. Hoyle sought out his friend and manager and lifted him from his stupor by saying “we just go again”. Roman Abramovich, you imagine, would struggle to be so circumspect.

Hoyle’s loyalty to Clark was reciprocated earlier this season when Leicester found themselves in the not unfamiliar situation of needing a new manager and identified Clark as their preferred option. Few Town fans would have begrudged him the move. A team with genuine aspirations of returning to the Premier League would be a natural career progression. If he accepted the job, Clark risked looking like he lacked respect for the club where he made his managerial name. To refuse could be viewed as a lack of personal ambition. Clark decided there was unfinished business in Yorkshire and expressed the belief that Huddersfield, as much as Leicester, have sights set on the top flight.

One of the reasons behind the club’s consistency lies in a genuine strength in depth. Of the players who were not part of the first 11 that broke the record against Notts County, the names of Alex Smithies, Danny Ward, Lee Novak, Anton Robinson, Liam Cooper and Joey Gudjonsson would form the basis of a side that would reasonably expect to challenge in League One. The recent loan signings of Alex Bruce and Jon Parkin are testament to the club’s ability to outdo their rivals in terms of squad building and manipulation of the short-term market. In the land of the permanently broke, the barely solvent become king.

The club’s resolve will be tested in January when it is expected that Newcastle United and Celtic will try to tempt Jordan Rhodes, who has a  growing and justified reputation as one of the finest strikers outside the top division. A caution against any club considering hiring Roy Keane as manager, Rhodes was picked up from Ipswich in 2009 for relative peanuts. With a strike rate of nearly a goal every other game, and more than twice as prolific this season, as well as full international honours with Scotland, Clark bullishly insists that £2 million – the player’s rumoured release clause – wouldn’t even buy his socks. No doubt his future, like Clark’s, lies higher up the League. Promotion this season may well depend upon no one making the kind of offer for the forward that is too good to turn down in January. As distractions go, we would have preferred the unbeaten run rather than a scramble to keep the club’s crown jewels.

From WSC 299 January 2012