Huddersfield Town v Cardiff City: Wagner feels EFL’s ‘disrespectful’ stance will strengthen Terriers

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The late and great Brian Clough regularly spoke about he and his players ‘closing ranks’ whenever they were questioned by outsiders.

It is something that head coach David Wagner, positively bristling with anger after Huddersfield Town were asked this week by the EFL for their “observations” after making a raft of changes in last weekend’s defeat at relegation-threatened Birmingham City, can probably empathise with this weekend.

Huddersfield Town head coach David Wagner.

Huddersfield Town head coach David Wagner.

Plenty has been said – particularly from the Blackburn and Nottingham ends – regarding Town’s decision to make wholesale changes, 10 in all, for the game at St Andrew’s last Saturday, when the visitors went down 2-0.

The result, of course, had no implications for Town, whose play-off place had been secured up the road at Molineux earlier in the week. But it left a bad taste in the mouths of Blackburn Rovers and Nottingham Forest after a much-changed Huddersfield line-up lost to one of their relegation rivals.

This also accurately describes the feeling at Huddersfield following a missive from the EFL who have tersely referred to the club’s approach as “another challenge to the integrity of the competition”.

For Wagner, the comments are somewhat incendiary.

His fury at the integrity of his team selection being called into question is understandable given that he has regularly rotated his squad at key junctures of the season.

Tomorrow is also likely to be another occasion when he utilises his squad resources and do not expect the German to be making apologies for that.

But amid Wagner’s disappointment and anger, there is perhaps a strategic part of his mind that believes that a negative – in terms of ‘Rotationgate’ – can be turned into a positive. Them against us, if you like.

Wagner has prized collective togetherness and resilience in his squad from day one and it is a big reason for their remarkable campaign.

Right from the moment he took them to a remote and uninhabited Swedish island last summer for a Bear Grylls-style survival and bonding trip.

As head coach, he has missed absolutely nothing this season and he does not shy away from the notion that the criticism from the outside could serve as a launchpad for the upcoming play-offs, with the preparations starting in earnest in tomorrow afternoon’s game with Cardiff City.

Using external forces as a motivational tool is something that Wagner’s opposite number tomorrow in Neil Warnock has also proved masterfully adept at over the years and you sense that the veteran probably likes the cut of his rival’s gib in this respect.

On whether the furore can bond his men even closer together, Wagner said: “Absolutely. From my point of view, it is very disrespectful what they have done against my team and my squad and this is why I totally defend my decision.

“I am focused on my work and not what suits other managers or experts.

“This is nothing to do with integrity. I (do not) feel I have to apologise or excuse something. And I have to excuse nothing.

“I protect and I love every single player and every single player deserves to start games, and they have started a lot of games, to be fair.

“This is why I have no idea and cannot understand how these questions come and this only shows me that we have a few narrow-minded people in this football business who do not understand that changes does not mean weak and no changes does not mean strong. This makes no sense.

“When I got the first information about it, I thought it was a joke. I defend my squad and players like a tiger.

“I think it is very disrespectful to my players on the grass at Birmingham to say this was a weak team.”

What is certainly no joke is Town’s excellent campaign, the club’s best statistically in 45 years.

They pull down the curtain on one season tomorrow ahead of the start of another in what they hope will prove a three-match odyssey in the Championship play-offs, culminating in glory at Wembley in the final later this month.

Much has been made of the various permutations as to who Town will play in the semi-final and whether they would perhaps prefer facing Reading to the alternatives of Sheffield Wednesday or Fulham, whose recent statistics against them are skewed heavily in the latter duo’s favour.

Wagner has a preference that he hopes will come to pass mid-afternoon tomorrow, but it is nothing to do with specific opponents for Town, currently in fifth spot in the table.

He said: “At the end, if I have to make a decision where I can chose one of these opponents or chose to play the first game away, then I would chose the game away rather than the opponent.

“After the play-offs, there is one target to reach the highest level we can have and this is the Premier League.

“There you have to play against everybody, so it makes no sense to try and avoid (certain) teams.

“I have no preferences regarding the opponents. But I would like to play the first game away if possible.

“But if it is an advantage, it is a small advantage and we will take what we have in front of us with a lot of happiness and freedom.

“Because everyone knows we totally over-achieved so far.

“But this does not change our ambition to take a further step.

“The players are very hungry and greedy and even though they know they have over-achieved so far, they want more.”

Offering a glimpse into his mindset ahead of tomorrow’s game, against Cardiff, who Town have not beaten since being promoted to the second tier at the end of the 2011-12 camapign, Wagner added: “It is a game where we will be very focused and concentrated on as it is the final game before the play-offs.

“Some players need the rhythm and atmosphere and some maybe like to calm down before the play-offs. I now have to find out what is the best thing for every individual.

“I cannot promise the result. But I can promise we will try our best and to perform the best we can.”