There had been an accident on the M62 somewhere between Saddleworth and Huddersfield. The traffic wasn’t moving, and I had plenty of time to spare, so I thought I’d make a detour along Manchester Road, taking in Marsden, Slaithwaite and its surrounding countryside.
I wound through the Pennines, with the trucks and the impatient Audi drivers, passing valleys dotted with farmhouses, then villages of stone terraces fronted by recycling bins and the occasional busy washing line, sideroads dropping away to the left, and rising into the trees on the right, pubs called The Queen opposite cafes called Snack Attack. On the outskirts of Marsden, there was a car parked in a lay-by; and a man standing near it selling bunches of lilies. As I drove past, the question formed: Why would anyone buy lilies from a lay-by on the A62? Perhaps the lily man knew something about the economic climate that I didn’t. Or perhaps he was just trying to find a way, any way, to get by.
With a good two hours to spare, I arrived at the John Smith’s Stadium to see Huddersfield play QPR in the Championship. Or, as it’s now known, the Sky Bet Championship. A change of sponsorship makes that of the five English domestic competitions open to Premier or Football League clubs this season, only two are sponsored by a company that actually makes something – and one of those is Belgian. The Johnstone’s Paint Trophy stands alone in flying the flag for the remains of the British manufacturing industry.
Football continues to make money like an investment banker circa 2005, and to spend even more of it. The Premier League has more cash to chuck away than ever thanks, in part, to a new television deal with BT, a company that was owned by the state when I was a child. Such is the progress of privatisation. That deal has ensured QPR left the Premier League following last season’s relegation with an astronomical parachute payment, and yet they are still running at a loss, because of their astronomical wage bill. Their owners, led by the Malaysian businessman Tony Fernandes, seem prepared to indulge this for now, in the belief that the club will return to the top division quickly.
Perhaps they will. Harry Redknapp has managed to lever out some of those who undistinguished themselves during last season’s comic relegation – most notably Jose Bosingwa and Chris Samba – while bringing in players arguably better equipped for a Championship promotion challenge, such as Karl Henry, Charlie Austin and Gary O’Neil. The key word there is ‘arguably’: Henry was part of a Wolves side that most observers thought were ideally equipped to bounce back from Premier League relegation 12 months ago. They ended up dropping into League One instead. Having an expensive squad is not in itself enough to guarantee success, even in a competition sponsored by a betting company. The warning signs are there for Redknapp.
Huddersfield don’t have Fernandes and Co’s squillions or a generous parachute payment to chuck at their squad. Chairman Dean Hoyle is certainly not poor, having made his fortune in founding a greetings card business that he then sold to a private equity firm. The lifelong Huddersfield fan does not, though, have a bottomless pit of cash, and runs the club with what one might term a careful benevolence. Maintaining a presence in Europe’s sixth-richest league requires Huddersfield, as the old phrase goes, to think global, act local. Their shirts carry the logo of a Swedish cider company; yesterday’s match was sponsored by a firm of Yorkshire bailiffs. “You wouldn’t want a visit from them, but if anyone owes you any money, give them a call,” said the matchday announcer before kick-off; going on to display audible awe as he read out a seven-strong QPR bench containing three former England internationals and the ex-captain of the Republic of Ireland.
Around the pitch were the same advertising boards for betting websites, credit firms and solicitors that you would find at any Championship ground. Gambling, debt and legal action seem to be the British national industry now. Amid all those ads, it was strangely heartwarming to see a board extolling the virtues of Covonia (‘the cough medicine with clout’) and another which simply read ‘British Bacon Supplies’.
It would be easy – and lazy, as well as inaccurate – to paint Huddersfield as the gritty northern underdog sticking it up those fancy dans from West London. For one thing, no side with the combative Henry in its midfield could possibly be dismissed as fancy. For another, Huddersfield endeavoured to play good football.
When Mark Robins took over as manager of Huddersfield in February, his first match brought a 4-1 FA Cup shellacking at home to a Wigan side then managed by Roberto Martinez. Perhaps something stuck with Robins that day because, having ensured Huddersfield stayed in the Championship last season, he is trying to get them to play the Martinez way, with three central defenders and a style of passing the ball out from the back. His players are clearly still getting used to the new set-up, but they stuck with it.
As Robins admitted afterwards: “We’re a work in progress. Ultimately, it comes down to the players having that belief in their own ability to be able to pass the ball forward in the manner that we need to do to progress down the pitch in the right way, without launching it from back to front.”
Huddersfield’s 3-5-2 formation used two attacking wing-backs in Adam Hammill and Jake Carroll. Down the right, Hammill was helped by striker Martin Paterson’s willingness to pull wide and offer back-up whenever Rangers full-back Yun Suk-Young got forward to support Junior Hoilett down that flank. On the Huddersfield left, however, Jake Carroll did not have the same support, and was regularly stranded upfield or infield to leave plenty of space for Rangers to attack.
Charlie Austin got free down the Rangers right early on to cut the ball back for Andy Johnson – who was only denied by an excellent Anthony Gerrard block. And early in the second half, Austin headed against the bar after Johnson had been given space down the right to cross.
It wasn’t Austin’s day. The striker was unstoppable at Burnley for chunks of last season, ending with 28 goals, and would be a Premier League player by now had he not failed a medical at Hull last month. Fernandes had a spare £4million to spend on him, and so Loftus Road beckoned instead. But a first league goal so far eludes him. He fluffed one early chance, and whipped two more into the side-netting, one either side of his header against the bar. He played the second half with a bandaged head, having picked up a bang in an aerial collision with Huddersfield forward James Vaughan at a corner just before half-time. As Austin lay on the ground, two QPR physios raced on to attend to him. “Two physios? They must be rich,” remarked the reporter from the Huddersfield Examiner.
By the time Austin picked up that injury, Huddersfield had taken the lead and lost it again. Vaughan, a striker of great ability held back by a catalogue of injuries stretching back to his Everton days, bundled in Oliver Norwood’s cross from close range. “Vaughan will tear you apart,” sang the home fans, using just about the only line in Joy Division’s entire musical output that can be converted into a football chant.
Huddersfield’s lead was abandoned too soon. Yun looped in a cross that eluded all three home centre-backs, allowing Hoilett to control and prod in the equaliser.
The half-time cash draw was won by Shelley, a QPR fan. “Bog off back to London,” joked Huddersfield’s matchday announcer, before offering her the chance to increase her winnings by selecting a number from a giant Take Your Pick-style board. She got lucky again. “No!” screamed the announcer, milking the drama. Shelley walked away with £1,750 – enough to pay Joey Barton’s salary for around four-and-a-quarter hours.
Barton had one of his quieter days, but Rangers had more of the second half chances, with Alex Smithies making a couple of decent late saves to keep out Hoilett and Shaun Wright-Phillips, while Huddersfield substitute Sean Scannell almost poked in a late winner at the other end. A draw was about right.
Redknapp couldn’t attend the post-match press conference, as a summer knee operation has limited his ability to get up and down stairs, so his assistant Kevin Bond filled in.
“A lot’s been said about the spirit in the side – or lack of it – last season,” he said. “You do get a sense that things are slightly different now.
“Just being around the club and the players, you get a feel about it all – that they’re more of a resilient bunch and that they’re going to fight for the cause. Sometimes, it’s not going to be great football, but you need to knuckle down and graft.”
In other words: If they want promotion, Rangers will have to earn it. Although if they really need to, they can probably find a bit more cash from somewhere for an extra player or two.