By Cameron Pope
In the eyes of many a neutral, West Yorkshire club Huddersfield Town will long be the lower-division side that enjoyed a fleeting spell in England’s top flight. Their unexpected rise largely took the footballing hierarchy by surprise, before misguided recruitment – and the absence of a ‘Plan B’ – ultimately brought about their swift demise.
But almost a decade before a spirited David Wagner team turned heads with victory over Manchester United and a season-saving point at Stamford Bridge, the Terriers were making headlines for an unprecedented unbeaten streak. Forty-three league games – and almost a full calendar year – without loss is unquestionably a remarkable feat; in fact, the notion that the achievement will never be bettered is certainly not inconceivable. But just as an invincible Arsenal’s Premier League record of 49 not out masked European defeats to Inter, Dynamo Kiev and, at the Champions’ League last-eight stage, Chelsea, the numbers alone do not tell the whole story.
The last of the summer wine had long been supped when Huddersfield headed south to Southampton on 28th December 2010, prepped for a cold Tuesday afternoon’s League One clash. An ice-cool Saints side went to town on their guests, running out 4-1 victors on the final matchday of 2010 and inflicting a second defeat in succession on the Terriers, whose promotion charge had already been hampered by a home loss to Hartlepool, two days earlier. And when New Year’s Day brought more dropped points – this time at the other end of the country, in a draw against Carlisle – Lee Clark’s side had seen a respectable pre-Christmas third-place berth remould itself into a sixth-place slump.
Town had been stuck at third-tier level for six whole seasons. Two attempts at the League One play-offs – the first in 2004/05 and the second just the season prior – had ultimately ended in semi-final heartbreak, but backed by a new owner and on relatively sound economic footing compared to their League One peers, the sentiment at the Galpharm Stadium was clear: it was high time Huddersfield rose again.
The few travelling supporters heading back south from Brunton Park that January evening could never have envisaged the significance of the point their side settled for in Cumbria. On a run beginning that day in the north west and stretching on long into the horizon, no Town fan would see the side on the losing end of a league game for considerable time.
The Terriers’ stock rose over the next few weeks; eight goals saw off Sheffield Wednesday, Plymouth and Walsall as Huddersfield reached second in the league, the humbling at St Mary’s long forgotten. Back on track, it seemed.
All the more startling, then, that a second trip to Carlisle in eighteen days would bring about the most resounding of defeats. Having reached the northern final of the Football League Trophy – a competition for third and fourth-division outfits, seeded geographically up until this two-legged affair, the aggregate winners of which would head off to face southern opposition at Wembley – Town were in touching distance of a first trip to the national stadium since 1995. But London dreams took a battering, with the home side running out 4-0 victors on a bruising night for the Yorkshiremen. The form team were soundly beaten, the contest all but over at the halfway stage.
A league draw with Colchester saw December’s miserable form return and as such, expectations were at a low for the headline event up next on the calendar: an FA Cup fourth-round tie at Arsenal. With promising finisher Jordan Rhodes unavailable and loanee striker Benik Afobe unable to play against his parent club, Town were to be led by veteran forward Alan Lee, still without a goal since his arrival that summer. And yet, a powerful second-half header from the Irishman would bring the Terriers within three minutes of a historic upset against elite opposition, undone right at the death by a contested Cesc Fabregas penalty in a courageous showing from the lower-leaguers. Pride was the overwhelming sentiment in the Huddersfield ranks, closely followed by that of bitter disappointment at having come so close to a memorable replay.
Still, confidence looked to have been restored; Carlisle – again – were comfortably beaten 2-0 when league action returned to the Galpharm days later, with Exeter thumped 4-1 the following weekend. But when the Cumbrians lined up against Town for the fourth time in just over a month – and the fifth that season – only 6,500 were in attendance at the cup second-leg, down 5,000 from the league fixture’s gate.
Those who had braved the elements that freezing night, however, were to have their money’s worth. An Anthony Pilkington strike, midway through the first period, lit a faint candle for the Terriers’ faithful, the first step on the toughest of missions.
After the break, Lee, who seemingly came alive in the cup, rose to nod the hosts two-up. And when he completed his headed brace on 81’, hope was fully restored; Town had dominated the night and in front of a sparse but riveted home crowd, were drawing frighteningly near. The away support sat silenced, agape.
The final stretch, as expected, was thrilling. Ample chances came Huddersfield’s way, with Jamie McCombe and Joey Gudjonsson both clearing the crossbar from inside the box and somehow, when the final whistle came, the Terriers had fallen short once again, beaten 4-3 on aggregate by a Carlisle side counting its blessings.
The second agonising cup loss in a month had a sobering effect on results. Held by the likes of Dagenham and Oldham, four dour draws – though still no defeat – saw Town rooted in third. Sat five points adrift of Bournemouth, who had played one game more, and with an ever-improving Southampton lying fifth, slip-ups could not be afforded if Huddersfield were to escape play-off rigmarole.
And yet, the Terriers were unbowed by the pressure. Spring arrived with a fruitful March, in which five out of seven games ended in three points, the draws with Swindon and Yeovil proving the only blots on the copybook. The Cherries had wilted badly, falling to sixth, with Town now pipping Peterborough to second spot while nervously waiting on the results of Southampton’s three games in hand, the Saints just five points behind.
With just seven to play, Huddersfield were in with a clear shout. Alan Pardew’s south coast side may have had an extra four-and-a-half hours of football still to toy with, but at such a late stage and with fixtures adding up, a point in the bag is the most valuable currency. It is worth remembering, of course, that Town remained technically undefeated, having not lost a league game since their mauling from the Saints the previous December – a run of eighteen matches now garnering attention in the national press.
A month later, however, Town’s fate would bear testament to the level and consistency required for promotion from the third tier that year. Following on from their March romp, Huddersfield had sped through April in a rich vein of form. Five wins and one draw – when a last-minute equaliser from Jack Hunt saved the day, and the much-vaunted unbeaten streak, at home to key contenders Peterborough – brought Lee Clark’s men through to the final day. To add to the draw with Posh, the month had seen some thrilling encounters, too; a rare Gudjonsson goal saw off Charlton late on at the Valley, while Danny Ward netted in the final minute to seal a crucial 3-2 away victory at Brighton in the penultimate gameweek. With lady luck sporting a white Yorkshire rose for the final weeks of the campaign, the neutral fan, unaccustomed to the rigours of League One football, would have been forgiven for thinking that the seemingly unconquerable Terriers’ haul – 86 points from 45 games – would suffice.
After all, the previous season’s Championship had seen Nottingham Forest finish third on 79 points, before which came Sheffield United on 80 and Wolves on just 75. But in the third tier, the table was less forgiving and, put simply, promotion often required more. In terms of recent history, Town’s 85 points with a game to spare was fairly standard for an automatic promotion chaser; in the campaign prior, Millwall had been consigned to the play-offs with the same points tally, with MK Dons third on 87 the year before.
And in addition, Southampton had also been in blistering form. The Saints’ push had been halted by anomalous defeats at Rochdale and Walsall, but they were otherwise unbeaten since late January and, crucially, had put together a run based largely on wins. Indeed, from their last fifteen league matches, Southampton would take 40 points, while Town – who, though unbeaten, had been held 0-0 by bottom side Swindon – managed 35. Fine margins.
And so it came to pass that all eyes were on Home Park, Plymouth, on 2nd May. Southampton’s final away game of the season – a game in hand – would decide both their own fate and that of Huddersfield. For the Saints, bestowed with a vastly superior goal difference, three points would be enough to effectively seal automatic promotion and their comfortable 3-1 win left Town, despite their long-stretching run of invincibility, needing a margin of victory befitting of Yorkshire County Cricket Club – and not to mention a Saints defeat – to turn things around on the final day. With the play-offs beckoning, the regular season would end with a tie, four goals apiece, with Brentford.
Two more draws – by now a speciality on the banks of the River Colne – brought the play-off semi-finals to a dramatic conclusion, with a penalty shoot-out required to book Huddersfield’s passage to the decider. Town led sixth-placed opponents Bournemouth three times across 180 minutes of regulation play, only to be pegged back on each occasion, with a shock briefly on the cards in the one-minute gap between Danny Ings’ extra-time strike and Antony Kay’s leveller, before a tense shoot-out went the way of the Terriers.
With a date at Old Trafford drawing near – Wembley off-limits after hosting the Champions League final – Town had only to navigate their way past Peterborough to reach the promised land of the Championship. Manchester’s proximity to Huddersfield meant that a 35,000-strong horde was to make the pilgrimage over the Pennines, for the most part brimming with confidence. Posh had ended the league season a whole eight points behind the Terriers and Town’s run of form – 27 league and play-off games without defeat – was hard to ignore.
That being said, Peterborough had fared well against Clark’s boys, having taken the points in August’s encounter and coming within minutes of victory in the return fixture, just weeks before.
Furthermore, they led the league scoring charts by a full twenty, running in an impressive 106 to Huddersfield’s 77.
And underscoring everything else was the fact that the occasion begged the unavoidable question: what did those 27 matches matter if the twenty-eighth, the most important of all, ended in defeat?
With the east end of the ground decked in blocks of blue and white, each supporter’s seat adorned with a t-shirt laid on by the club, the stage seemed set. But no sooner had the game begun than the nerves began to show, Craig Mackail-Smith rattling the Huddersfield woodwork in the opening minutes as an anticipant Old Trafford fell quiet.
A somewhat eyebrow-raising decision to leave top scorer Jordan Rhodes – and his 22 goals – on the bench while employing Benik Afobe – with a tally of eight – as a lone striker had been Lee Clark’s set-up of choice for away games and could have proved a masterful tactical call, had it worked. In the end, the Arsenal youngster fluffed his lines and the promotion decider rolled on with chances aplenty but bereft of goals, destined for extra time.
Football, however, is decided on split-second moments. Whole games – or even 27 of them – can come down to one slip, hashed clearance or skewed finish.
Danny Ward’s run down the flank, his cut in-field and well-hit strike could have been that moment, but for the clang of a ball against Manchester metalwork. Denied by the frame of the goal in the twilight of the game, the Terriers would feel an agony they had long been spared just a short spell later, the final act of a five-month unbeaten odyssey unfolding into a seven-minute tragedy.
A Tommy Rowe header from a Grant McCann free-kick sent 12,000 Peterborough supporters into raptures on 78 minutes, before a deflected Craig Mackail-Smith effort compounded Yorkshire grief with the game barely back underway. McCann was again on hand to convert on 85’, sealing a memorable win for Posh and consigning a shell-shocked Huddersfield to another term in League One.
Frustrations brewed in the stands. In some areas, blue and white t-shirts began to rain down to the turf. A return to the second tier after a ten-year absence could have been a crossbar’s width away and while Peterborough were headed for West Ham and Leeds, Town would be lining up against Wycombe and Stevenage.
The story did, ultimately, come to a pleasant ending. A year later, buoyed by a 36-goal stand from Rhodes, the Terriers would go one better and edge Sheffield United at the same stage, this time on penalties at Wembley.
The unbeaten run – of sorts – stretched on, too, with November’s 2-1 home win over Notts County making it eighteen league outings without defeat for the campaign and 43 ‘regular’ league games overall, a Football League record. The achievement, along with the shiny plaque that came with it, was duly celebrated by a 2-0 loss at Charlton on 28 November 2011, a first defeat since the previous December, and another back in Yorkshire against Bournemouth straight after, putting paid to any attempts at continuing a tenuous ‘regular home league games’ streak.
Lee Clark soon found himself out of a job, the club board deciding that new management was needed to take the Terriers to the next tier – a prophecy that held true under Simon Grayson.
In summary, Huddersfield Town’s record-breaking unbeaten run was a fine accomplishment that may be without equal for some time. A run of 43 league matches – three shy of a full season – is nothing to be sniffed at and wholly deserves to be remembered.
That said, the 43 will always be tailed by an invisible asterisk. No Town fan will ever recall that historic run without giving thought to the one defeat that mattered most. And while many sports champions are defined by records, champion football teams win when it most counts, as the footnote in the Huddersfield almanac will always attest.