Eyeing Boxing Day knockout as Huddersfield Town stars head into unknown

MICHAEL HEFELE has always been fascinated by the thought of playing on Boxing Day.

Huddersfield Town's Michael Hefele (Picture: Tony Johnson).

A veteran of seven Bundesliga seasons in Germany, the 26-year-old has always had his feet up at this time of year thanks to the leagues shutting down for a month either side of the festive season.

Christmas Eve, when gifts are traditionally shared in German households, was invariably spent with the family, the traditional visit to church being followed by tucking into bratwurst at home and then the dishing out of those presents.

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Time with the Hefele clan also took up Christmas Day and much of the following week before training resumed, often at a warm-weather camp, early in the new year.

For Hefele, this was how life had always been since becoming a professional footballer in his teens, but the defender remained curious about the traditions of English football.

So much so, in fact, that last year Hefele decided to experience the unique attractions of festive football for himself.

“I have always wanted to play on Boxing Day,” said the Huddersfield Town defender, one of half a dozen in David Wagner’s squad about to experience a festive programme for the first time.

“When I was in Germany, we would have no games and I wanted to come across to watch these games.

“My friend, Baba Rahman, played for Chelsea. I asked him if I could watch him and if he could organise me tickets. It was no problem. I also went to Brentford and Reading. They were good to watch.

“I wanted to see them because I had always been interested in playing on Boxing Day. It is a dream for me to play on this day. Everyone is watching you.”

Town host Nottingham Forest on Boxing Day for a fixture that seems certain to attract the largest crowd of the season to the John Smith’s Stadium.

Three victories inside a week have reinvigorated Huddersfield’s season ahead of a game that will mark the halfway stage of the campaign. Two more matches follow inside 48 hours either side of New Year’s Day.

For Hefele and his fellow five summer arrivals from abroad – Christopher Schindler, Chris Lowe, Elias Kachunga, Aaron Mooy and Jon Gorenc Stankovic – it will be a step into the unknown.

Wagner was in the same position a year ago, but his Town side still took seven points from a possible nine over the festive period.

“You can only learn by doing,” said the 45-year-old, yesterday linked with a possible move to Wolfsburg despite sources indicating the Terriers have had no contact from the German club. “It will be unusual for a few of our players. But, on the other side, I have no concerns about it.

“At the beginning (of this season), people said the new signings would have no experience of the Championship and questioned if the signings would work.

“Four weeks later, we were being praised for great signings. Now, people are saying, ‘These signings have no experience of a busy period over Christmas and New Year’.

“Hopefully, they will surprise everyone again.

“It was new to me (last year) but successful, and that is why I enjoyed it. I learned a lot. Our recovery strategies have changed with the experience I had last year.

“Christmas is different here to Germany, but I think all of them have shown they are very good players and very good characters. That is why I have no concerns about no winter break.

“They will learn by doing it. I am sure every player wants to play football matches, even in a busy period like this in December and January.

“It is exciting for every one of them. They are speaking about Boxing Day and New Year’s Eve as something totally new for them.

“They are more excited about that than being afraid. I am happy they will have the experience I had last year.”

Town follow the visit of Forest by hosting Blackburn Rovers on New Year’s Eve and then heading to Wigan Athletic on Monday, January 2.

Two of this festive trio sit in the relegation zone, while Forest are 17th, which suggests Huddersfield have a great chance of maintaining their recent upturn in form.

For Hefele and his five fellow summer arrivals, this Christmas may be a departure from the norm, but he admits that the absence of a winter break could work in the Terriers’ favour after Bristol City, Burton Albion and Norwich City were all beaten to ensure Wagner’s men headed into Christmas sitting in fourth place.

“The danger of a winter break is it can stop a good run,” said the defender, who last year was able to recharge his batteries for five weeks with Dynamo Dresden.

“We usually have one and a half, nearly two weeks, off. Then, we start again on January 2. Then, we go into pre-season for three weeks, maybe go to Spain for one week and have double sessions.

“You can be in a good rhythm, but then you lose that. It can be hard because your next game is not until the end of January and there is not the same feeling.

“I do have one concern, though, about those who have played every game and how they will not now get a break.

“That will be really tough. I can imagine their legs will be very sore.”

As for this year’s festivities, there is one downside for Hefele.

“Normally, I go home to my family, but this year is the first where their little Michael does not go see his mother,” he continued.

“It is very hard for them. My little brother will be coming over to watch me. He will support me and we will celebrate Christmas together. That will be nice.”