Saturday Interview: Crystal Palace date with Huddersfield Town just the job for returning Andrew Hughes
But for Terriers first-team coach Andrew Hughes the buzz phrase that defined last season at the John Smith’s Stadium has extra resonance as it was a factor in him being lured back north from Crystal Palace.
When Huddersfield and Wagner came calling following Mike Marsh’s departure for England Under-17s in May, 2016, the Eagles – where Hughes was an important member of Alan Pardew’s coaching staff – had just a few days earlier been within nine minutes of lifting the FA Cup.
Persuading him to leave the Cup runners-up and the Premier League, therefore, was not expected to be an easy sell – not least because Town had spent the previous four years looking nervously over their shoulders at the Championship relegation zone.
Then, though, Wagner outlined his vision for the future and Hughes was immediately hooked.
“Crystal Palace wanted me to stay and I was happy there,” the 39-year-old told The Yorkshire Post ahead of today’s opening day trip to his old club. “Palace are a great club and had just played in the Cup final.
“But I met David and listened to his ideas, and specifically how he wanted Huddersfield to be a club with no limits. And as I listened more and more to what he had to say, I thought: ‘Why not?’
“Joining Huddersfield was clearly going to be great for me, as it meant being able to learn from David and Christoph (Buhler). So, I decided to leave Palace and join David here.
“None of us could have imagined what would happen next. But ‘no limits’ was the message David drummed into the players and they all bought into it, meaning Huddersfield Town were able to achieve something incredible.”
Rounding off a season at Wembley was nothing new to Hughes. He had played there in 2008, as Leeds United lost the League One play-off final to Doncaster Rovers and then there was that 2-1 loss for Palace to Manchester United just a few days before his own exit from Selhurst Park.
Town’s visit last May, however, was very, very different for the simple reason that it ended in elation and not disappointment thanks to Christopher Schindler’s promotion-clinching penalty in the shoot-out.
“Wembley was really emotional for me,” says the veteran of almost 650 appearances as a player. “The thing that struck me the most was how half of Huddersfield had come to Wembley with us.
“My wife’s friend from work is a Huddersfield Town fan. Her dad has also been a season-ticket holder for 40 years, while she goes to every game and now her child is a fan as well. It shows that supporting Huddersfield Town is a generational thing.
“The fact she works with Kate meant I saw, first hand, how promotion affected both her and the whole family. It brought home just what we had achieved for the town. I had the same feeling when looking at the fans on the day. We stayed at the Hilton next door (to the stadium) so only had to travel about 300 yards by bus. But to see all the families cheering us on was really emotional. It definitely got to me.
“Once I was inside Wembley and on the pitch, I was fine. But that little drive on the bus really got the emotions going. No-one had expected the club to be there and the fact nearly all the town had made the trip just made me believe even more that we would do it.”
Hughes’s certainty that May 29, 2017, was going to be Huddersfield’s day proved justified. That success, though, is now in the past with Town facing arguably an even tougher challenge to establish themselves among the elite after a 45-year absence.
Key to achieving that will be ensuring heads do not go down when, as inevitably happens at some stage for a club new to the Premier League, results take a dip. In that respect, Hughes’s presence in the Terriers dugout could be a godsend as his time at Palace included a truly horrific 14-game winless run that, as the losses mounted, looked increasingly like costing the Londoners their top-flight place.
“We lost something like nine in a row at one stage and that was tough,” he says with a grimace. “We had to come in with a smiley face and try to lift the players. That wasn’t easy because you can’t be false or anything like that or it will be sniffed out by the players. They are not fools.
“A run like that hurts so you can’t be happy and jolly all the time. You learn a lot about yourself at a time like that. All those defeats came amid the Cup run but staying in the Premier League was the priority.
“It would be rude for me to talk about Alan Pardew and how he managed it. Same with (Palace chairman) Steve Parish. But what they did showed why they have been in the Premier League for so long and had success.
“I learned from that. I also learned from the players, how they reacted and trained during such a tough time. And how in key games, the top, top players make the best decisions and produce at the right time.
“For me, it was Jason Puncheon. He produced a bit of magic (against Norwich City) to score a goal to end the run that he had practised all week in training, with no-one watching.
“It was a finishing drill, cutting in from the right and whipping it with his left. I have never forgotten it, as I had worked with him all week on shooting into an empty goal. He scored on the Saturday and that changed the entire season.”
Puncheon will be one of several familiar faces greeting Hughes this afternoon as Huddersfield’s Premier League adventure gets under way at Selhurst Park.
“It was funny when the fixtures came out,” adds Hughes. “Steve Parish texted me straight away, then a few of the lads got in touch – Puncheon, Scotty Dann and (Joel) Ward. They were all having a bit of banter, with Scotty Dann texting to say he always scores on the first day of the season.
“I am looking forward to it, seeing them all again will be great. There are some good people at that club. It will be a good game, too. Palace are a similar identity to us. They have the real hardcore fans, the ultras, who ensure the atmosphere is always bouncing. Anyone who came to our stadium last season will have seen we are creating the same at Huddersfield.
“The main thing, though, is making sure we keep the momentum going. We are not looking at this as a one season thing. We are here, so let’s give it everything we have got. I can promise you we will do whatever it takes to stay there. No limits.”
The Andrew Hughes story...
A full-time move into coaching came in the summer of 2014 but the idea had been floating around Andrew Hughes’s mind since the age of 27.
“I had already done a sports science degree because I liked the fitness side of the game and wanted to help those struggling,” he reveals. “I had been that player in the gym for 10 months, trying to get fit, and it is hard.
“So, I thought I might go down that route. Plus, if I couldn’t stay in football, the degree was something that might let me go into a school and help kids out. My wife works with special needs children and I always thought: ‘If there was anything I can do down that road, it would be great’.”
Fate, however, had other ideas and, after a stint combining playing duties with looking after Charlton Athletic’s Under-18s, he landed the role of development officer at Bolton Wanderers three summers ago.
A brief stay at Rotherham United followed – “They had this idea of building an Under-21s squad,” he says, “but then, unfortunately, decided not to do it” – before Hughes was reunited with Alan Pardew, his manager at Reading and at Crystal Palace.
David Wagner brought Manchester-born Hughes back north in May, 2016, shortly after the Eagles had lost the FA Cup final.