Bygones: Pulling off Huddersfield Town's '˜Great Escape' one of Peter Jackson's career highs

THE PATH that led Peter Jackson to a farmer's field at Ainley Top, clambering out of a hole designed to look like a trench from World War II, is the stuff of Huddersfield legend.

INFLUENTIAL: Huddersfield Town's Paul Dalton tries to get past Manchester City's Murtaz Shelia during the 1997-98 season.
 Picture: Bruce Rollinson
INFLUENTIAL: Huddersfield Town's Paul Dalton tries to get past Manchester City's Murtaz Shelia during the 1997-98 season. Picture: Bruce Rollinson

Handed the reins in early October, 1997, in the wake of the Terriers suffering the worst start to a season in their history, the managerial rookie seemed to have little hope of keeping the club he had served as a player in the second tier.

Just four draws from nine games under Brian Horton had left Town cut adrift at the foot of the table, a position that did not improve as Jackson’s first five games yielded just a solitary point.

From such inauspicious beginnings, however, came one of the most remarkable turnarounds the Football League has seen with the Yorkshire club ending the campaign sitting 16th in the table and five points clear of safety.

Which is how Jackson, come the end of a season that will forever be known in the town as the ‘great escape’, found himself in a farmer’s field, a stone’s throw from one of the busiest junctions along the M62, re-enacting a scene from the film of the same name.

“The club did a highlights video about the season with a ‘Great Escape’ theme,” the former defender explained to The Yorkshire Post.

“It was great fun as we acted out scenes from the film. We filmed one scene up at Ainley Top in a farmer’s field. Someone dug a hole to look like a trench in the war, and then me and ‘Taff’ (Terry Yorath, Jackson’s assistant) climbed out of it.

“No one had made a video like that before, they were usually just highlights of the goals. But we wanted to be different and this video certainly was.”

KEY SIGNING: Barry Horne of Hudderfield Town, right, gets under the feet of Stoke man Ray Wallace.

Jackson may have stopped short of re-enacting the famous scene in the 1963 film starring Steve McQueen by riding a motorcycle over a fence.

But amazing feats were very much his forte during that 
1997-98 season, be it inspiring a first league win at the 15th attempt as Stoke City were beaten 3-1 in early November or the decisive dash for safety in the Spring that saw 14 points from a possible 18 claimed. He also turned under-performing players into stars of the show.

“Paul Dalton, to me, was the player who made all the difference,” recalls Jackson. “But when I arrived he was in the reserves.

“We had a practice game on my first day and he was everywhere. I asked him, ‘Why are you in the reserves?’

Peter Jackson and Terry Yorath at Huddersfield Town.

“He just said the previous manager didn’t think he tracked back enough. I told him to forget that and concentrate on what he did best. I then told the rest of the lads, ‘Give him the ball’.”

Dalton, confidence restored, was the man who sealed that overdue first win at home to Stoke.

“We were 2-1 up when their goalkeeper came up in the last minute,” added Jackson. “We broke away and as Paul races clear, I am there on the touchline running alongside him all the way, screaming ‘shoot.’ The footage popped up on Question of Sport a few years later.”

Four more victories followed for the Terriers in the next seven games, but, such was the damage done during those early months, Jackson’s men headed to West Bromwich Albion on the final Saturday before Christmas still propping up the table. Not that Jackson’s belief had wavered.

KEY SIGNING: Barry Horne of Hudderfield Town, right, gets under the feet of Stoke man Ray Wallace.

“I knew we would stay up as soon as we had beaten Stoke for that first win,” says Jackson, whose addition of Barry Horne, Wayne Allison and David Phillips in the transfer market proved masterstrokes.

“I can’t explain why I felt like that. I was totally new to management, after all. I had never even been to an interview when I first sat down with the board at a hotel in Wakefield to discuss the job.

“I had my coaching badges, but not a lot else. But what I was determined to do from the start was be myself. I couldn’t be Neil Warnock, Eoin Hand, George Mulhall or anyone else I had played under. I had to be Peter Jackson, be that with the players or the opposition,

“I couldn’t pretend to be anyone else. If I was going to fail or succeed, it had to be as myself.

“I also had to put down markers with the lads who I had played with. There were five or six who knew me as ‘Jacko’ so I had to make sure it was ‘gaffer’ from then on.

“What I did find was the need to learn as I went along. Speaking to players one-on-one in my office was something I was determined to do and I learned so much about their characters.”

Peter Jackson and Terry Yorath at Huddersfield Town.

Jackson’s personal touch clearly worked, a 5-1 win at home to Oxford United in early January taking Huddersfield out of the relegation zone.

There was a relapse in early March via a fortnight spent back in the bottom three before their glorious charge for safety got under way with a 2-1 win at Stoke.

“I can’t deny I enjoyed it,” recalls Jackson, who a year to the day after succeeding Horton had steered Huddersfield to the top of the table.

“That first Christmas, I went along to an LMA (League Managers’ Association) dinner and everyone was there – Joe Royle, Alex Ferguson, Peter Reid.

“I was told to go introduce myself, but I didn’t think I should. These were managerial legends and I had only been in the job a few weeks. I was a bit in awe.

“But, by the end of the night, I was sitting in the middle of them all and having the time of my life. I had all their numbers in my telephone and remember showing my son. He was impressed.

“I loved managing Huddersfield, especially in that first year when things went so well. Being top of the table on my first anniversary was special.

“In fact, the only downside of those first 12 months was the final day of the season.

“We were already safe and all the fans went in fancy dress, characters from the Great Escape.

“Unfortunately we lost 4-0 to Port Vale and that had big consequences elsewhere. It meant they stayed up and Manchester City went down, even though City had won at Stoke. All summer long, I got hate mail from Manchester City fans – accusing me of throwing the game and all sorts. That wasn’t nice.”

Filming for Town’s end of season video did, though, bring a welcome respite.

“Funnily enough, I watched it a few years ago,” he adds. “Me and my wife Alison used to run a care business and one of the old guys said he had a copy and would I watch it with him.

“It brought back some great memories. That was a special time and the only thing that bothers me is it was 20 years ago. Where has all the time gone?”