Amid yet more horrible weather conditions for this time of year, I travelled to Huddersfield for another football weekend involving catching up with friends but also taking in a game involving the local side.
Huddersfield itself is a large scale town, home to approximately 160,000 inhabitants. Located roughly equidistant from the larger centres of Manchester and Leeds with York slightly further away also. These cities can be accessed via regular train links as well as nearby road infrastructure within around 30-40 minutes. Travelling by train is relatively easy, with both the East and West Coast mainline services stopping in York and Manchester respectively. Upon arriving by train, you enter the Grade 1 Listed station, a beautiful building itself, bookended by pubs at either end and opening out into a large civic area bounded by traditionally built, impressive stone buildings.
Huddersfield Town AFC are the local football team, residing at the impressive John Smiths Stadium which they share with the local Rugby League side Huddersfield Giants. The stadium is located towards the edge of the town, albeit it is within easy walking distance from the centre – taking around 20 minutes to wander down.
The match we were attending was between Huddersfield and Crystal Palace, 2 teams who have struggled slightly this season and both of whom could do with a victory to try and lift them away from the relegation zone in the league table. Notwithstanding the “Relegation 6 pointer” nature of the game, home and away fans alike mixed and mingled happily in the Kings Head pub beforehand. Located in part of the railway station it served traditional beers (including Huddersfield Town themed beer – Hattrick) for an average price of £2.80 – great value considering the excellent location.
The good nature of the fans before the game was an illustration of the town and club themselves. Friendly, honest and welcoming are probably the most appropriate adjectives to describe the club and residents of the town on the basis of our visit. With regard to the club itself, when walking to the game you are struck by the high number of families as well as larger groups of men, women and children attending. Indeed, Huddersfiled have won many plaudits this season for their season ticket prices and continued accessibility for all fans. A quick look at the matchday programme and you notice the number of recent awards for “Family Club of the Year” and similar, which seems merited even when attending a single match. Whether this is just the nature of the club and its decision makers, or the competition they face from other Football and Rugby Clubs within the local area (Huddersfield Giants Rugby, Leeds United, Manchester United, Manchester City all within easy travelling distance) or indeed a combination of both – the family nature and accessibility of the match for all is plain to see and is of course refreshing in this day and age.
Another look through the matchday programme and you also notice that the club were playing in the third tier of English Football until as recently as 2012, as such the community feel of the club, affordable ticket prices and atmosphere generated is perhaps also an indication of an awareness of the club that they are punching above their weight in comparison to recent history and are happy to acknowledge that the same fans now wishing to watch Premier League Football, were previously and could in the future continue to offer their support to the club in a lower league. Again this is a refreshing awareness of the broader situation in this age of commercialism. The club seems to treat its fans as part of the club, part of the community rather than as customers which is great to see.
Even for “football tourists” – there were a few in attendance in addition to ourselves (including an Italian gentleman hailing from Verona), the club welcomes fans with open arms. Tickets for the match were easy to purchase, seats behind the goal secured for £30 each – reasonable value in terms of the “going rate” for top level football. Tickets could also be ordered online and printed out at home (or presumably also saved on a smartphone). The ticket office staff were also incredibly helpful with regard to holding onto a ticket for a member of our party who was held up on the trains – perhaps not an issue that will face many others, but an indication of the nature of the club in any case.
Upon entering the ground there is the usual availability of concession stands, serving a variety of pies, burgers, teas, coffees and beer. Prices were a bit steeper than in town, but given the novelty of beers in the stadium for Scottish fans I felt it necessary to purchase a cold bottle with which to wash down my steak pie. All was very satisfying in any case.
We took our seats in the stand behind the goal and the game kicked off. For a match between 2 struggling teams, both sides looked keen to attack. Palace had much of the early pressure, stringing together some good moves down either flank and forcing a number of corners. Huddersfield were slightly slower to build up into the game and seemed to struggle upon reaching the final third, particularly with regard to creating space or opening up for attempts on goal.
One early incident which proved to be an accurate illustration of how the match would unfold for Huddersfield was when Colin Quaner received the ball in space on the right hand side. He was able to travel forward with the ball for 10-20m before being engaged by a defender. However, none of his 3 or 4 touches when dribbling really gave the impression that he was totally comfortable on the ball. The ball zig-zagged in front of him with every alternate touch which in turn didn’t allow him to set himself for when the defender closed him down. Indeed, when faced up with a Palace defender, the default “knock and run” was the only thing he could muster, this proved easy for the Palace defence to stop. This was a similar story throughout the game, a lack of cutting edge going forward from Huddersfield, too much time taken on the ball in the final third, a lack of ideas or indeed a lack of having the ball in the right position to create anything cost the side.
Even when Mamadou Sakho showed some woeful technique and sclaffed a clearance straight to the striker Steve Mounie, a lack of control and ruthlessness meant that he couldn’t get a shot away before he was tackled by Sakho who made an excellent recovery and essentially offered an illustration of why he has been labelled as “erratic” in the past.
Palace on the other hand had a number of players willing and capable of creating openings. Wilfried Zaha often steals the headlines, close control and an ability to go past players is a valuable facet which he possesses. One criticism which was evident throughout the game however was that Zaha seems to have a need to do a trick at all times – a first time pass could be available, but he needs to do a stepover, a lollypop, a trick, flick or pirouette when he gets the ball – often slowing the move down or losing possession. While clearly a talented player, focussing on tricks with an end product is something that he needs to do. Townsend on the other flank was more direct while the industry of McArthur in the middle of the park coupled with the guile and close control of the captain Milivojevic made sure that Palace came out on top in this area of the field.
Palace looked in control for a lot of the first half. It was from a corner won by Zaha that the centre half Tomkins managed to bundle the ball home from close range after Huddersfield failed to clear or really pick him up or defend properly. The half ended 0-1.
Into the second period and with the temperature dropping and snow/blizzard/Arctic conditions starting Huddersfield put on a bit of pressure, forcing some half-openings but never really looking too threatening. As above, the lack of speed of thought or ruthlessness in the final third was painfully evident. The frustration was growing amongst some fans, but rather than taking this out on the team itself this frustration manifested itself in calls and shouts to kick or hit the opposition hard. Zaha in particular was victim of a few robust challenges as the home side seemed to take it in turns to boot him up in the air.
A breakaway move from Palace saw Townsend brought down in the box for a certain penalty. Palace have struggled from the spot in recent matches as their big striker Christian Benteke has insisted on taking (and missing) penalties. This time, the captain Milivojevic stepped up and scored with a ruthlessness and class which defined his overall performance to make it 0-2. While Benteke didn’t argue about taking the penalty, there were a few other instances which illustrated this side of his character. One such episode was where he found himself with the ball on a Palace breakaway near the end of the game, Townsend had made a good run through the inside right channel and Benteke only had to slip the ball through to him. The pass however was far too heavy, forcing Townsend wide and making his resultant shot more difficult. Upon closer inspection after the shot had been cleared for the corner it could clearly be seen that Benteke was hiving a right old go at the winger for not cutting the ball back – odd when it was his poor pass in the first place. This seemed to me to be a classic case of that old striker move – play a poor pass so your teammate is forced to pass it back to you so you can score, rather than him. This kind of thing plus his previous tantrums in other games over penalty taking don’t paint the big man in the greatest of lights – nor did his swan dive after a shirt pull in the box at the beginning of the half.
As the weather continued to deteriorate and the referee blew for full time, there was a broad acceptance from the Huddersfield patrons that Palace had deserved their victory in this match up. As above, a lack of cutting edge had cost Huddersfield and had made it look as though Palace had them at arms length for much of the game owing to the lack of any clear cut chances.
A disappointing result for the home side, but as an overall experience for a neutral/football tourist this was a good game. Friendly and welcoming as well as refreshingly un-corporate allowed for a better overall experience. There were of course some theatrics from the likes of Zaha and Benteke, not all of it welcomed, and Huddersfield’s robustness and honest running perhaps holds them back going forward, but even then this was an enjoyable spectacle and is a trip worth taking.