In Good Conscience

Huddersfield can claim yet another huge scalp

The last time that Huddersfield beat Liverpool was in November 1959, and three days after that, Liverpool enticed the Huddersfield manager to move to Anfield.

That manager? A certain Bill Shankly.

Just a year earlier, Shankly had chided the Reds' board after another Huddersfield win, this time by five goals. "We beat them with 10 men," Shankly said, in that rasping Scottish brogue of his.

"I watched the Liverpool directors leaving in single file, their shoulders slumped like a funeral procession."

The balance shifted. Denis Law, then a teenager, departed Huddersfield for Manchester United. Shankly's Liverpool went on to dominate the league. And Huddersfield went the way of many, becoming a club that lived principally off their history.

That was then. This afternoon at Anfield, Liverpool versus Huddersfield brings an even more intriguing managerial story than Shankly's switch of allegiance.

Huddersfield's Aaron Mooy celebrating with the club's mascot after their 1-1 draw with Leicester last month. Liverpool can ill afford to give the 27-year-old Australian space to roam in midfield.
Huddersfield's Aaron Mooy celebrating with the club's mascot after their 1-1 draw with Leicester last month. Liverpool can ill afford to give the 27-year-old Australian space to roam in midfield. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

In the home technical area, Jurgen Klopp. In the away area, David Wagner.

This is one of football's most durable friendships, and now one of the more fascinating touchline rivalries.

It was in 1991 when Wagner joined German club Mainz.

He was a forward, and a direct rival for Klopp's place in the Mainz attack.

Some bright spark made the pair roommates. Remarkably, it worked, apart from what Wagner referred to as Klopp's filthy smoking habit.

How would they get along together? Klopp found the answer. He knew that Wagner was the more gifted forward of the two (indeed, that was reiterated when they later met on opposite teams and Wagner evaded Klopp - who converted to a defender late on in his career - to score a hat-trick).

Huddersfield are not known as the "Terriers" for nothing... The invitation is wide open for Wagner's unsung players to pull off a win at Liverpool, who they last beat 58 years ago.

But as Wagner has been telling the media this week, in all else they were soulmates. They lived on what Klopp, the younger man by four years, describes as the same rhythm, the same laughter, the same almost everything bar the smoking.

Even that was accommodated by consent. Klopp disappeared to the toilet to smoke his cigarettes and Wagner gave up trying to dissuade him.

Wagner says they have been friends longer than either of them have known their wives. Indeed, their first Mainz meeting was 26 years ago and Wagner was the best man at Klopp's second wedding in 2005 while Klopp is godfather to Wagner's youngest daughter Lynn.

But while Klopp, with his big presence and his big personality, was consumed by coaching even before his playing days ended, Wagner stepped away from the sport after his retirement. He studied for a degree in biology and sports science and intended to be a teacher.

His pal, Klopp, approved of that and believed that Wagner was better suited to the quiet life, away from the high tightrope of football management.

The trouble was, as Wagner said this week: "Once you've got the football virus in you, it will come back."

Initially, it did in a gentler way. Wagner, whose father is American which might explain his laid-back genes, came back into the sport as coach of Borussia Dortmund's reserve team.

His role was to nurture young players for the team that Klopp, with his driven mentality and his high energy and pace demands, took to two successive Bundesliga titles, beating the odds in Germany which are overwhelming stacked in favour of Bayern Munich.

Klopp exhausted himself, never mind his team, and took a short sabbatical from the game until October 2015, when Liverpool made him the offer that they once made to Shankly.

Despite speculation that Klopp would restore his working partnership with Wagner, it was apparently never discussed.

Wagner had the virus, and intended to pursue it on his own account. A phone call from Huddersfield in the same month that Klopp joined the Kop appealed to Wagner.

In essence, it was an invitation to build a team and help rebuild a club that were struggling in the second tier of English football. Less pressure, a lot less money, less high profile.

But no less ambition.

Wagner brought with him players he felt were underappreciated in Europe. His defensive organiser has been German Christopher Schindler. His midfield is galvanised by Aaron Mooy, a 27-year-old Australian whose career took him to Bolton in his youth, to St Mirren in Scotland, back to Australia and then in June 2016 to Manchester City.

Within a week, City loaned him to Huddersfield. Within a season, Huddersfield gained promotion to the Premier League after a Wembley play-off that Klopp watched on TV and was moved to tears at seeing his soul brother make the managerial leap of his life.

Mooy, incidentally, become a permanent Huddersfield player in the summer. At £8 million (S$14.3 million and with a buy-back arrangement should City wish to trigger it, his fee is substantial for Huddersfield.

As they line up at Anfield, Huddersfield's entire outlay in transfer fees represents about £30 million.

That, of course, is chicken feed to Liverpool who can put 10 times the value on the pitch.

However, Huddersfield are not known as the "Terriers" for nothing. Last week, they faced a similar value discrepancy - and Huddersfield outran, outfought and outscored United.

Jose Mourinho moaned about his players' attitude. Mourinho always knows who to blame. What he got right was to say, "Huddersfield played with everything they had - with aggression, desire, motivation. Simple."

Just as simple was the shock Liverpool suffered when they were taken apart by Tottenham last Sunday at Wembley. Klopp looked bemused, and sounded betrayed by his defence.

Or lack of it. Very seldom has any defender shown visceral fear, along with physical and mental apprehension that Dejan Lovren displayed against Harry Kane.

The pressure is on Klopp to fix it. The invitation is wide open for Wagner's unsung players to pull off a win at Liverpool, who they last beat 58 years ago.

Well, it took 65 years to outshine United.

May the best man, or men, win.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 28, 2017, with the headline 'Huddersfield can claim yet another huge scalp'. Print Edition | Subscribe