Huddersfield Town are not a great football team. They finished the season with a negative goal difference (-2), the first team to go up with such a statistic, and endured a couple of truly poor runs during the season. They have good players, but no stars — only Aaron Mooy made the Championship’s team of the year, and he could be back to Manchester City for next season with his loan deal expiring.
Yet despite all of that, the Terriers are playing Premier League football next term. And in truth, they have two things that helped them there: a quick start, and the randomness of the play-off.
When Aston Villa sacked Roberto Di Matteo in October, the Claret and Blues had just 10 points from their first 11 matches. Huddersfield had 25. The final gap between the sides was just 19 points.
That means that from Steve Bruce’s appointment through the end of the season, Huddersfield managed just four more point than Villa. This is not an exercise in arguing that Bruce has done a good job — rather, perhaps the opposite. From October on, there was little to split the Terriers and the Villans in terms of quality. Yet one is going up to the Premier League, and one finished the year mired in the Championship’s midtable.
In fact, of the six teams that partook in promotion activities, five of them were sat in the top nine when Villa sacked Di Matteo — just Fulham, who were 14th, made the play-off from outside that group. Derby County played well the rest of the season, but a similarly slow start to Villa’s under Nigel Pearson ultimately did the Rams in.
When you start quick, like Huddersfield Town did, you increase your margin for error. After drawing with Blackburn Rovers on 3 December, capping an eight-match run where they earned just five points, the Terriers fell out of the top six for the first time. The next week, they beat Bristol City 2-1 and returned to the top six, never to fall out.
On the flip, Villa’s post-Bruce appointment run of two losses in 13 pulled them up the table. But the Claret and Blues never got higher in the table than ninth, with the club left to aimlessly chase a promotion that was never coming.
Yes, a team can get the 75 or 80 points required for the play-offs, or the 90 required for automatic promotion, in any order they want to; Fulham’s late-season play proves that. But the biggest thing that hampered Villa this year, especially with how the fixture list looked, was an inability to get out of the gates firing.
Instead of sitting comfortably ahead, without the pressure on every individual match, Villa had to press for a result. When things went wrong, it was a larger-scale problem. Too many times, the Claret and Blues had a “must-win” match. When things went wrong for Huddersfield, they could relax. The work they put in early helped make the rest of the run a lot easier.
And that start’s resulted in the Premier League having another plucky underdog next season.