David Wagner’s arrival at Huddersfield Town was greeted with scorn, but just 18 months later the German has silenced the critics by masterminding his club’s fairytale promotion to the Premier League.
When Wagner was plucked from his role as Borussia Dortmund’s reserve team coach by Huddersfield owner Dean Hoyle in November 2015, many pundits claimed his lack of experience in the cut-throat world of the second-tier Championship meant the appointment was doomed to failure.
Ian Holloway, then a television pundit and now Queens Park Rangers manager, labelled Huddersfield as candidates for relegation at the start of this season.
But Holloway and the rest of the doubters underestimated the urbane Wagner’s pioneer spirit, inspirational personality and tactical prowess.
Having revitalised his team with a host of youngsters signed on loan from the Premier League, Wagner rewarded Hoyle’s faith in spectacular fashion at Wembley on Monday as Huddersfield beat Reading 4-3 on penalties after a 0-0 draw to return to the top flight for the first time in 45 years.
Winning promotion, which is worth £170 million to the Terriers, was a sweet moment for Wagner and, drenched in champagne from his players’ celebrations, he arrived at a post-match press conference keen to remind his critics how far he had come in such a short time.
“By the way Ian Holloway, all the best for next season,” Wagner said.
“I know a lot of the pundits wrote us off. I’m so happy to prove experience is not essential, especially here in England which is so traditional.
“I’ve been in confrontation with experience ever since I’ve been here. People said I’m not used to English football, I’m not used to not having a winter break, and I’d never been in the play-offs before.
“Well, experience is important, but if you have passion and ideas you can match it.”
Wagner’s triumph is even more impressive when you consider Huddersfield’s budget ranked among the lowest in the second tier.
Turning an unglamourous former mill town into a host venue for the star-studded line-ups of Chelsea, Manchester United and company is the stuff of dreams.
“The people that remember Huddersfield being in the top flight are very old,” said Wagner, himself 45 years old.
“It’s special. I’m so proud for the players and so happy for the whole town.
“We set no limits, now we know where our limits are – in the Premier League.
“I told the players they are heroes. They had the opportunity to become legends and they have done it.”
Fittingly for a team who became the first in Football League history to be promoted with a negative goal difference, Huddersfield needed penalty heroics to go up.
They saw off Reading thanks to on-loan Liverpool goalkeeper Danny Ward’s save from Jordan Obita and a cool winning kick from Christopher Schindler.
“Before the shoot-out I said to the players ‘we worked 10 months and you have the chance to come to the Premier League. All you need to do is put the ball in the net from 12 yards,'” Wagner said.
When the fixture list comes out, Wagner will look for Huddersfield’s dates with Liverpool, whose manager Jurgen Klopp has been a close friend since they worked together at Dortmund.
Klopp, who is godfather to one of Wagner’s daughters, was the boss back in Germany, but they will meet in England on equal terms.
“I will speak to Jurgen for sure, about everything that happened,” Wagner said.
“It will be funny to meet him in the Premier League. He’s a pal but it doesn’t meant it won’t be crazy on the touchline.”
While Huddersfield look forward to the big time, Reading manager Jaap Stam faces the difficult task of lifting his players’ shattered morale.
“What we achieved this season is great, but in a final it doesn’t matter how you play, the result is the most important thing,” said the Dutchman.
“Everybody is very disappointed. It’s hard but that’s how it goes.”