Saturday Interview: Exciting times back on the agenda for Huddersfield Town

Huddersfield Town Chief Executive Nigel Clibbens.
Huddersfield Town Chief Executive Nigel Clibbens.
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A BOLD move? Yes. A gamble? Probably. But, as Huddersfield Town today prepare to embark on a new era under David Wagner, chief executive Nigel Clibbens believes there is already a palpable sense of excitement surrounding the Yorkshire club.

The German’s appointment as head coach of the Terriers just a day or so after Chris Powell’s 14-month reign had come to an end surprised many in football.

He had kept Town up last season following a turbulent start that had seen Mark Robins quit just hours after the opening game.

The affable Londoner’s side were also five points and four places above the drop zone when the axe fell, a position many consider to be pretty much where a club of Huddersfield’s size can expect to be in a division populated by so many rivals with deep pockets.

The Terriers’ hierarchy, however, see things differently. “You have to strive to go higher,” said Clibbens when speaking exclusively to The Yorkshire Post.

“History shows that if you operate around the bottom echelons of the Championship for too long, eventually you are at risk of having one bad season and dropping out. Look what happened to Millwall last season.

“We don’t want to just be finishing 19th, 17th, 16th every year. You have to aspire to be better – especially, as when you are in that position, it does nothing for the supporters.

“It is not exciting, it doesn’t get fans to come along.”

A desire to re-engage with supporters who had become disenchanted by what they considered to be a ‘safety-first’ approach under Powell was behind the change.

Attendances have dropped off alarmingly, particularly this season. Town have played eight home games in 2015-16 and, discounting the visits of QPR and Milton Keynes Dons –two teams who were not in the Championship last term – the average gate for the corresponding half dozen fixtures is down by more than 3,000.

For a club that has lost more than £11m over the past two years, this had become a dangerous trend. Hence the appointment of Town’s first foreign head coach.

“When we made the change,” added Clibbens, “we knew it would attract a completely different set of opinions locally from our fans compared to those who don’t watch us and just judge things on where we are in the table. Or what Chris Powell is like as a person.

“But we had to do what is right for our club and not necessarily what might get the right short-term headlines.

“It is a bold move, we accept that. But we had to make a step change or we would just stay where we are, which was not very exciting for everyone.

“Our way of playing, particularly at home, has not been great to watch. There have been games when we could have pushed on and won but didn’t. The fans want more.”

Wagner, a key member of Jurgen Klopp’s coaching staff at Borussia Dortmund, is understood to have been on Huddersfield’s radar for some time.

In the wake of Klopp’s departure to Liverpool, he had been expected to either join his best friend on Merseyside or strike out on his own with a German second division club. Then, though, came the call from Town.

“David has made an immediate impact with the players,” says Clibbens.

“He has brought new ideas, which we have already seen in how he approaches training. His preparation is also fresh, as is how he interacts with the players.

“Obviously, it is only early days and there are no quick fixes. But everyone is very excited at what David will bring to Huddersfield Town.”

Wagner is the fifth head coach/manager that Clibbens has worked alongside since joining the club in January, 2009.

He was brought in by chairman Dean Hoyle, who after buying a part share in Town the previous year was due to take full charge at the end of that season.

Much has changed in the intervening six and a half years thanks to the tens of millions Hoyle has invested in the club he supported as a boy.

Promotion was achieved in 2012 after two previous defeats in the play-offs, while off the field the Terriers now boast a state-of-the-art training ground.

Crucially, the club have also regained the 40 per cent share in the John Smith’s Stadium that had been transferred by a previous regime as part of the deal that brought Town out of administration in 2003.

“The club has been transformed under Dean,” added Clibbens, a chartered accountant who specialised in working with distressed companies before moving into football.

“We had literally no assets other than the badge, the fans and our history when Dean took over.

“Even the players we inherited were soon sold or released; I think we got about £200,000 from those deals.”

Player sales also featured strongly earlier this year, albeit on a much more lucrative scale than those first few transfers of the Hoyle era.

Around £8m was banked from the departures of Jacob Butterfield, Conor Coady and Alex Smithies. The previous summer, Town’s ethos of developing players and then selling for a profit had also seen Adam Clayton and Oliver Norwood leave in seven-figure transfers.

It is a necessary practice at a club whose annual turnover in the last accounts for 
2013-14 stood at £10.8m, a figure that can be put into context by Championship rivals Derby County spending £24m on transfers alone in the last window and all three relegated clubs receiving a similar amount in parachute payments.

“Anyone in the Championship who is not planning or expecting to suffer financial losses is in for a rude awakening,” added Clibbens when asked about the financial reality for Town.

“It is a very expensive league to be part of. And with the relaxing of Financial Fair Play for the current season, it will be more expensive this season than last.

“Sustainability comes down to how you run the club and whether you are boom and bust. The bottom line, though, is you have to make progress. That is why we made the change and brought David in.”

As for today, Clibbens is excited about Town’s visit to Hillsborough. Even if he is the first to admit that, since moving from the terraces to the directors’ box, watching games can be something of an ordeal.

“Working for Huddersfield Town is a 24/7 job,” said the chief executive. “And everything we do in the week is geared towards being successful on a Saturday. It means you live and breathe every match, kicking every ball.

“Dean and I don’t sit next to each other, we’d both have heart attacks if we did. So, at the John Smith’s, I sit on the end of a row with Sean Jarvis, our commercial director, in front of me.

“I don’t kick the back of his chair. Not too much, anyway. And I do try not to swear, not in the directors’ box.

“If you hear a swear word at Huddersfield Town, it is usually the chairman.”