Huddersfield reaping the rewards of Wagner's gamble on the Yorkshire club
HUDDERSFIELD, England -- The players are gone for the day but work at Huddersfield Town AFC's training ground is far from over.
A group of IT experts are busy installing new servers in a storage cupboard behind the press auditorium, while the occasional loud bang from across the hall betrays efforts to get the recently completed players' lounge up and running. Right next door, a couple of elderly gentlemen are immersed in a game of snooker, impervious to the commotion. Huddersfield might have hit the big time in football, but they're still sharing their complex -- including the canteen -- with gym members and bowling, croquet and hockey players from the local community. And why not?
They don't do pretension in West Yorkshire.
"People here are very direct, very honest and very open-minded," says David Wagner. It's "similar" to Germany's Ruhr area, where he was in charge of Borussia Dortmund's U-23 side for four years. "This is a real working-class region; it's a great region for a guy who likes to work."
The Huddersfield Town AFC coach half-jokingly explains that he has "no social life," having done little else but work, without his family, since coming to northwest England in November 2015, and never more than in the previous season, which ended with the Terriers' fairy-tale promotion to the Premier League.
"Forty-five games. The 45th one was the biggest, at Wembley [the playoff final]. It will help us to have fewer games this year. More time to prepare and to recover."
Having been put twice through the grinder that is the ridiculously congested Championship schedule, Wagner still looks much younger than 45. It's that big smile and that genuine sense of wonder of his that keeps him fresh: it's clear he hasn't yet fully figured out how he got to be here, on a sunny afternoon in small town between Manchester and Leeds, near the top of world football's biggest league. The former Mainz 05 and Schalke 04 striker's imagination wasn't big enough to picture that scene.
"Never. It was never in my mind [to coach in England]. I hadn't even been to England before, not even on that five-day London trip that every German goes on during his life. Only Heathrow Airport, to change planes on the way to the United States." He hadn't heard of Huddersfield the town or Huddersfield the club, either. "I didn't know where they were [geographically] or in what division. It took me a few hours, but thanks to the World Wide Web, I got all the information I needed."
Wagner was born in Frankfurt as the son of a German mother and an American serviceman. He spent his first two years in the States but returned to live "a typically German life, albeit with an American background" in the city of Geinsheim. His first Bundesliga game saw him come on as a substitute for Eintracht Frankfurt's Ghana international forward Anthony Yeboah in 1991, but he soon moved on to Mainz in Bundesliga 2, where he became friends with a certain Jurgen Klopp.
Irregular appearances at Schalke 04 earned the dual citizen a UEFA Cup medal in 1997 and eight call-ups for the U.S. national team. Though he failed to make a mark for Steve Sampson's side, Wagner came away with a different outlook on match-day preparation.
"I learned about the easy, American way of life, to take things much easier than in Germany. I learned that you don't have to be 'in the tunnel' 24 hours before a game. You can relax until you come into the dressing room, then focus one or two hours before the game."
After his retirement as a professional in 2002, Wagner studied for five years to become a teacher in sports and biology. But football still exerted a strong pull: He attained a pro coaching licence and came to the attention of tactical innovator Ralf Rangnick, who hired him to take charge of TSG Hoffenheim's U-19s in 2007. Two years later, however, Wagner was out of a job and ready to turn his back on the football family for good. "I had lost the hunger," he said.
Wagner returned to Geinsheim to work as a teacher at the local secondary school and was a few weeks away from becoming a civil servant with a lifelong job guarantee, when his best buddy Klopp came calling in 2011. The Dortmund manager recommended him for the position of the U-23 team, who play in the third division. Away from the limelight, Wagner's star shone enough to get Huddersfield owner Dean Hoyle interested. The rest of the story has become part of local folklore: He won promotion against the odds, with a minuscule budget, a bunch of lower-division imports from Germany, a high-intensity pressing game influenced by Klopp (and Rangnick) and extraordinary togetherness. His sports science and biology background helped make Huddersfield "one of the fittest teams" in the second division, he adds proudly.
Over the winter break, Wolfsburg offered him the opportunity to take charge of a Bundesliga side, but after careful deliberation, Wagner decided he could not bear leaving Huddersfield at the brink of their historic success, having secured their return to the British top flight after more than four decades. "The thought of seeing someone else in charge of the team in the Premier League made me sick," he told ZDF two weeks ago.
Most experts have tipped the novices to go straight down again, but Huddersfield's excellent start, with seven points from three games, might force them to reassess.
"The experts may still be right [in the long run]," Wagner laughs. "Nobody knows. It's only the start of the season. We know that we are the underdog, but we are used to that role. We know where we come from. We are very humble. But we are ambitious. The mood is positive. The vibe in the city is still energetic, very euphoric. Success helps growing your confidence. Even an underdog needs confidence."
Wagner is under no illusions about the size of the challenge. The only chance to compensate for their relative lack of financial resources is "to create [tactical] solutions for our circumstances, to focus on us, on commitment, on togetherness and on the fighting attitude that can give you success. Not over five games against Manchester United, but maybe in one. If we win one of those two games: happy world. If not, we continue to work on our identity."
Wagner believes his cause has been helped by the unique German-British blend of his dressing room. "They have adapted well to each other. The professionalism of the German players influenced the British players a lot when it comes to recovering strategies, nutrition ... [things like] how far away you should live from the training ground, double sessions, training at kickoff times. All these things were normal for Germans but new for the British."
But the homegrown players taught the imports some useful lessons too.
"The game is more honest here," Wagner explained. "People don't stay down. It's rough and tough and you feel no pain. I like it that way. That British mentality and German professionalism has brought us together and helped us to really develop."
The end of October will bring the first-ever managerial meeting of Klopp and Wagner at Anfield on Oct. 28, but the Huddersfield boss insists he hasn't given their reunion much thought. "It may sound boring, but I don't think too far ahead. It will be exciting, but it's not on my mind when I get up in the morning. There are so many games still to play before."
Just like his mentor, Wagner was initially doubtful whether his English would be sufficient to get his message across. "It was my biggest concern," he admits. "Language is key at the end. I said to the chairman, 'I'm not sure my English is good enough.' They made the decision that it was good enough. Maybe they didn't want to search for another manager any longer! I'm happy that I was brave enough to give Huddersfield and myself a chance to impress."
And so are Huddersfield, no doubt.
Raphael Honigstein is ESPN FC's German football expert. Follow: @honigstein