When asked about Huddersfield Town’s player acquisition strategy, both Dean Hoyle and David Wagner have emphasised the importance of character in decision making; crucial when the easy option of spending large fortunes is simply not available (and for some of us, this is a positive).
In his first couple of months with the club, which has seen him actually on the pitch for less than 15 minutes, Michael Hefele has effortlessly embodied this philosophy. It isn’t just the giraffe kissing, the robe, the sunglasses in a convertible chic or even the two almost predictable highlights of his fledgling career – being booked before kicking a ball in anger and a deserved if bizarre equaliser at Aston Villa last night; it is his effervescent support of the team from the sidelines despite the disappointment at not being on the pitch, his instant rapport with supporters and his adoption of the club as if he had been with us from an early age.
Following a potentially disastrous first half when Town were outclassed and grimly hanging on against a strong Villa side with quality all over the pitch (particularly the excellent Awey), his teammates had to dig deep to keep the score down to one goal but, far too often they were the authors of their own misfortune as the home side swarmed forward with the backing of a loud and emotional home crowd.
The emotion arose from the desperately sad news that Dalian Atkinson had died in horrible circumstances just the day before and a minutes applause erupted in the tenth minute (10 being Dalian’s shirt number) which was sympathetically enjoined by visiting fans.
Having visited one football cathedral on Saturday, Town fans could enjoy another iconic venue just a few days later and, if anything, the experience was even better. The place reeks of history and if there is a finer sight than Villa’s majestic (and surely Listed) frontage in English football, this correspondent hasn’t seen it.
Inside, the stands – pleasingly symmetrical – carry banks of supporters and even the closure of the upper tier on one side failed to detract from a fantastic spectacle on a cracking summer evening.
The similarities to Saturday didn’t extend to the home fans. While the Geordies were quick to turn on their team even before they went behind, Villa fans were in good voice pretty much throughout and there is an air of optimism about the place after such a prolonged period of troubled campaigns.
That optimism seemed well founded as the home team dominated Town from the off with the visitors seemingly incapable of imposing their identity on the game. With a forward line of Gestede and McCormack, prompted by the strength and skill of Ayew and the trickery of Grealish, the home side were irresistible, though sloppy defending – including trying to be too clever by half – contributed.
Ward, who had an excellent game, was called in to action early, turning an Ayew strike round the post for a corner as the Villans probed Town’s weaknesses with relentless intent.
It was a complete mystery how the visitors held out for 25 minutes, during which time they barely ventured in to opposition territory, but a well deserved if somewhat fortuitous opener came from an entirely predictable source.
Bacuna was released by Ayew down the right – Van La Parra caught dozing – and his far post cross found Grealish unmarked and attempting a spectacular volley which, instead, turned in to a slight sliced cross eagerly put away by McCormack, beating a back pedalling Schindler in the air.
As waves of Villa attacks bore down on Town’s beleaguered back 4, Hogg and Mooy tried to stem the flow but were too often out muscled and any attempts to play higher up the pitch were far too easily rebuffed.
The Terriers’ fragile resilience was constantly tested and the monumental efforts of the weekend appeared to have taken their toll. Ward was frequently called upon for saves, though they were often routine and perhaps predictive of later events as Villa failed to add to their score despite their overwhelming superiority. In retrospect, Ayew’s rather weak effort towards the end of the half when Hudson had little difficulty clearing off the line with Ward beaten may have been the real turning point of the game.
At 2 down, the visitors would have been buried and Villa’s nervous and tired last half hour may never have happened.
In an eminently forgettable first half for Town, a weak Van La Parra effort and one or two touches from Jack Payne were all they could muster. Villa fan Joe Lolley, on what was obviously a big night for him, was injured follow wing a decent run but both wide men struggled to make any impact on a Villa defence which barely had to break sweat to contain Town’s predictable and ponderous play.
Clutching the consolation of being only one goal in deficit, the half time break couldn’t come quickly enough for the dysfunctional visitors and reassessment was inevitable and essential for a clearly annoyed Wagner.
With Scannell replacing the injured Lolley, the first ten minutes of the second half continued in the same vein. Villa remained in the ascendancy and worked an opening for Ayew who fired wildly over and their confidence had, seemingly, not been dimmed in the dressing room.
On 56 minutes, Wells replaced Payne and the tide began to turn. Seemingly from nowhere, Town rediscovered their ability to keep possession, Scannell added much needed strength – both attacking and defending – to the right hand side and, crucially, Hogg and Mooy were finding time and space to lock down a previously overrun midfield.
Wells made a big difference and was denied almost immediately when he couldn’t quite control and turn quickly enough and was swamped by Gollini. Inexplicably, it became clear that Villa had peaked and in their frustration, their minds must have turned to how they wasted their first half dominance and their edginess began to grow.
An audacious Kerchunga overhead kick was well saved by Gollini and Town’s resurgence was becoming as increasingly evident as Villa’s brittle nerves.
With the threat mainly coming from the right – the excellent Smith providing fine support to Scannell – the demons of the first half were being exorcised with pulsating regularity and (largely disappointing) corners were being won as the pressure grew.
Villa were not an entirely busted flush, however, and Ward had to make a smart save from Gestede which Hudson cleared up at the expense of a painful knock, meaning he was missing for the resulting corner, but back for the one then immediately conceded which came to nought.
Scannell, Hogg and Wells had opportunities in a particular purple patch for the visitors before a foul following a partially cleared corner gave the Bermudian a chance from a free kick just outside the box which he curled on to the post with Gollini rooted to the spot.
With time running out, it seemed that we would be tackling the horrendous Birmingham traffic with just the consolation of a brave, entertaining but futile fight back to reflect upon. But then the Hef was introduced as a makeshift striker cum nuisance.
As befits his status as a non playing legend in the making, his impact was immediate. Last Tuesday, and through no fault of his own, his first competitive action was preceded by a booking; this Tuesday, he scored with his first touch as he chased down a back pass which should have been cleared straightforwardly. Instead, Gollini crashed the ball on to the Babarian’s big frame and an unusual, but deserved, equaliser sent the visiting support in to raptures.
Hefele’s incredible intervention was followed by a marvellous, exuberant and typically strange celebration as he formed claws with his hands towards the Town fans (he likes lions as well as giraffes, apparently!) and the bond between supporters and club took another leap forward.
Easily playing out 4 minutes of injury time, the team celebrated with the fans as if they had won the game. From the outside, this will have looked odd and, perhaps, betraying of a small minded syndrome, but for those of us who feel the growing sense of how special this squad and this season could be, we understand why the team felt the need to do it.
Playing a grand old, storied club in a magnificent stadium and recovering from a debilitating first half display which we know would have overwhelmed many previous incarnations of our team (particularly of the recent past) are the reasons behind exuberant celebrations of a draw – it is truly a great time to be a Town fan.
Like Newcastle, Villa will be a major force in the Championship this season and despite their faded second half performance they have very talented players, a surprisingly positive and huge fan base (despite the recent horrors) and a hard fought point felt just as, if not more, special than the 3 garnered at St James Park.
Witnessing the emerging, Kindon like, cult hero status of Hefele – readers are urged to seek out his interview with HTTV – was worth all of the traffic tribulations which awaited.
On to Barnsley at the weekend – a club who have had a knack of pricking Town’s bubble in the past. But this is a very different Town.