Feelgood factor as reverse Brexit effect hits Town

Zaheer Shahid, and Naeem Majid, having fun playing football in the middle of a side street in Huddersfield. 'Picture: James Hardisty
Zaheer Shahid, and Naeem Majid, having fun playing football in the middle of a side street in Huddersfield. 'Picture: James Hardisty
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Behind the reception desk at the Huddersfield Travelodge, Claire Pinches reels off the towns from which tonight’s guests have journeyed.

“Bexhill-on-Sea. That’s not France, is it?”

She is looking for signs that the town might be benefitting from the mini reverse-Brexit that has come its way.

The French team Olympique Lyonnais is playing Huddersfield Town at the John Smith’s Stadium. It’s only a friendly, but it could be a harbinger of things to come. How many had made the journey across the Channel to see them?

There have been two so far, said Ms Pinches.

Few had predicted Huddersfield’s tentative entree into European football, but it is one of the doors that its second season in the Premiership has thrown open – for the town as well as the club itself.

The Lyon match, the only pre-season fixture on Town’s home turf, augers well. Huddersfield win 3-1 against a team in the top flight of what is now officially the world’s top soccer nation.

The few supporters who have made the journey from France are bolstered by around 6,300 from closer to home, and the relatively small turnout – around a quarter of the stadium’s capacity – had been reflected in the absence of any significant pre-match drinking in the Slubber’s Arms up the road.

“Is there a match on tonight?” asked one of the bar staff.

The atmosphere could not have been more different two-and-a-half months ago when a 1-1 draw at Chelsea guaranteed Huddersfield’s survival in the Premiership.

“It was like wartime. We were huddled around the radio, listening to the commentary,” said Paul Giblin, a retired engineer and, with his brother, David, one of only two people at the Slubber’s.

More of a rugby union man, he concedes that there has been “a different buzz” in Huddersfield since the club’s promotion from the Championship.

“Even my wife, who knows nothing about sport, is excited about Huddersfield,” he said. “The rugby union team finished at its highest position ever, and the rugby league side secured a place in the top half of the league. The town’s on a high.”

The extent to which the results can be made to benefit the local economy was what was occupying those in the stadium’s conference room on the day of the Lyon match. Fittingly, the council had chosen the date to host an event called Changing the Future of Huddersfield.

“It’s a very difficult thing to measure and even more difficult to put a figure on,” said Colin Bamford, emeritus professor of economics at Huddersfield University, who has researched the economic impact on the town of its success on the pitch.

“People certainly know where Huddersfield is now. But when you look at it clinically, the ground has a finite capacity and it was already operating at that capacity in the Championship.

“We’ve estimated that fans spend between £5m and £8m a year. That’s not an awful lot really. And there are fewer matches in the Premiership.”

The town’s size, he said was a limiting factor.

“If it was a bigger place and had some bigger firms, the impact might be more dramatic. Even so, there’s got to be some effect. Some firms are seeing a benefit, others are not.”

The football itself was equally even, he noted. “In some ways it’s an unfair contest. You’ve got clubs spending £300,000 a week on a player – that’s probably more than the whole of the Town squad are being paid in a month.

“But there’s certainly a feelgood factor. We’re a relatively unfashionable club in an unfashionable town and we’ve managed to stay up there – it’s the sort of miracle story that people like.”