The last couple of wins before the covid-19 suspension – over Bristol City and Charlton Athletic before the Terriers ran into a revitalised Leeds United – came in a style to leave you yearning for more.
The fantastic front four of Chris Willock, Emile Smith Rowe, Karlan Grant and Fraizer Campbell might not play together again once 2019-20 is over, so the more chance fans get to enjoy them together, the better.
No 10 Smith Rowe has been so good since joining on loan from Arsenal the Gunners’ youth-focused manager Mikel Arteta might be tempted to call him back into next season’s squad. Winger Willock is also on loan, from Benfica, while Karlan Grant has the sort of goal-scoring record – even though Danny Cowley usually plays him wide – which ensures Town’s resolve will be always put to the test in transfer windows.
Seeing the quartet play together with such effervescence has been a highlight in a gloomy campaign, and the fact manager Cowley has been able to steady the sinking ship, if not yet pull it completely away from danger, gives hope for the future.
When he arrived, even though only six matches had been played, things were looking pretty dire.
As 2018-19 reached its dismal conclusion, it was clear some were starting to think appointing Jan Siewert as David Wagner’s successor had not been such a clever idea. The board showed patience, but only until shortly after the summer transfer window shut.
By then it was crystal clear it was not working. Keep things as they were and a second successive relegation looked a strong possibility after one point from six matches. At least the new man had time to turn things around.
It says much for the work done behind the scenes that despite how awful things were on it, chairman Phil Hodgkinson was able to attract a manager of the calibre of Cowley – or two, really, because he and brother Nicky come as a pair having worked hand-in-glove on five promotion-winning campaigns in 12 years. As a result, the Essex boys’ reputation in the game was already strong, and knocking Huddersfield out of the League Cup in August turned out to be a good final on-field interview for the soon-to-be-vacant job.
The Cowleys drove a hard bargain, initially walking away from talks because the Terriers were looking for continental-style coaches when they wanted to be old-school, all-seeing managers. Eventually, the Cowleys won.
They were unimpressed with the attitude of some and at how unbalanced the squad was – frontman Danny complained December’s defeat to Leeds was probably the first time in his career he had picked a team without a left-footer. Despite the sort of injury list which has a nasty habit of following when everything else is going against you, he stuck to his guns in banishing those he thought did not have the right attitude for the battles to come.
Initially, there were battles too. Juninho Bacuna’s skills and goals helped set the ball rolling in the right direction, but it was not always pretty. Huddersfield’s physicality had caused Leeds problems without defeating them in December, but their brawn was too much for Nottingham Forest in a pre-Christmas game that was feisty even in the tunnel at half-time.
By then, their form having improved from non-existent to patchy, it was all about getting through to the January transfer window and seeing what Cowley could do.
Proper judgement will have to wait, but the early signs are positive.
Richard Stearman and former Premier League winner Andy King added further experience beyond that initially provided by free agents Danny Simpson and Campbell. When Kamil Grabara, on loan from Liverpool, picked up a horrible head injury late in the month, Jonas Lossl was tempted back to try to recreate past glories. He returned to find Christopher Schindler and Jonathan Hogg as solid as ever.
The arrival of left-back Harry Toffolo from Lincoln did not start many street parties in Holmfirth and Kirklees, but he knew the Cowleys’ methods, and showed quickly he could apply them in the Championship.
Academy product O’Brien had already shown he was one of the stars of the season, but in Willock and Smith Rowe, two Arsenal academy graduates on the same wavelength, he had boys (roughly) his own age to play with.
Just as important as the Brits coming in, eight players were moved on, most signed from overseas, most Premier League quality in their own heads and often their pay packets, but not on the pitch. Moving so many on was a not inconsiderable achievement by a management team new to this level.
The structural rebuild continues, Leigh Bromby stepping up to head of football operations in the summer, Emyr Humphreys to run the academy. Outside appointments have been trickier, with a new chief executive and commercial director needed.
On the field, silk was being added to the steel and at home at least, this was a team capable of entertaining.
The challenge at that stage was making Smith Rowe and Willock robust enough to play three blood-and-thunder Championship matches a week. If the season resumes, matches could be even more tightly packed in, so the time for strength and conditioning work will need to be well used in lockdown.
Since escaping the relegation zone, Town have been unable to kick clear, so praise for the Cowley brothers needs to be qualified.
If this is a taster of what is to come, though, there is light at the end of the tunnel.
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