At the end of November, Huddersfield was doing well. Eighth in the Championship represented progress after risking relegation last season. What has happened since is truly remarkable.
No team in the Championship has collected more points since early December. No other team in England’s top two divisions has gone unbeaten in the league during this period. He raised Huddersfield’s level on points with second-placed Bournemouth.
There was no coaching change. Carlos Corberan was appointed in July last year. Leigh Bromby, the head of football operations, took on the role shortly before after having been with the club since 2014. It’s a triumph of patience and perseverance.
Friday March 11 7:30 p.m.
The club was in the Premier League as recently as 2019, but theirs is no story of financial might as they compete with the heavyweights of the Championship. With the bookmakers, Huddersfield were third favorites for relegation at the start of the season.
“It was a tough time this summer,” says Bromby Sky sports. “There was this negativity. But the players won over the fans with their performances. Carlos is growing in the role and has a better connection with the fans.
“We’re always going to be the underdogs. Let’s be honest, there are clubs in the Championship with bigger budgets than us. The type of club we are, we know we’re always going to punch above our weight. But it’s in our culture to find ways around that.
“We have to be creative and innovative to find ways to succeed.”
This innovation began with the appointment of Corberan. The young Spaniard had been part of Marcelo Bielsa’s coaching staff at Leeds United, impressing Bromby with the way he set up their development squad to play a dominant and aggressive style of football.
“He was by no means the finished article in terms of Championship head coach, but he is someone with a clear way of playing. He is very creative but we know that needs time. He is 38 years old and this is his first role as a head coach.”
This first season has started well despite Corberan taking the job under less than ideal circumstances. “We gave him three weeks of pre-season and a very short transfer window. We were under no illusions. It was going to be difficult.”
The team faded after the turn of the year. “We knew the team lacked the depth to manage the championship.” And three wins in 24 games made progress hard to spot. “But watching him coach the players on a day-to-day basis, the green shoots were there.”
Lessons have been learned. Off the pitch, relationships have grown stronger. The injury toll has improved as a result. “It’s because we learned last season what Carlos demands in training. And one of his strengths is that he listened to the staff here.”
On the pitch, there has been an overhaul of the playing squad since that Premier League venture. Only the experienced Jonathan Hogg remains. The payroll has been reduced. This run was built on young talent and undervalued players elsewhere.
They recruited early in the window. “We know he’s good on the grass and it takes time to adapt.” The focus was on changing the dynamic in the locker room. Experienced chefs from Tom Lees and Jordan Rhodes were brought in to help set the tone for others.
“We call them our cultural architects,” says Bromby.
“With the recruiting guys, what we looked at was the culture in the dressing room and what is needed to be successful in the league. Their day-to-day standards at the club are great. They are in the gym, they are professional with their feeding.
“Their positivity around other players is huge. It was important for us to get that balance in the dressing room with players who could teach those standards. It allowed Carlos to be successful. All those little things came together to help with results.”
Signing Lee Nicholls took some imagination. The 29-year-old goalkeeper had lost his place at Ligue 1 side MK Dons and arrived at the club on a free transfer. He was a revelation, a key factor in the team’s 16-game unbeaten streak.
“He’s a totally different athlete this year. With Carlos’ training model and the work being done behind the scenes, we’re very well prepared for the players to come in and do what Lee did. Ultimately, he is one of the best goalkeepers in the Championship.”
Bromby has taken up the challenge “to try to find players who fit our style and also have room for improvement” and there are examples of this throughout the team.
Sorba Thomas is the poster child for this policy. Signed from Boreham Wood, initially to be part of Huddersfield’s successful B-team operation, he is now a Wales international and one of the most exciting young prospects in the Championship.
“I thought he was a perfect fit,” Bromby says.
“What we really liked about him was that he took set pieces with both feet, he stood out in terms of his dribbling ability and he played in many different positions. Carlos is very creative in terms of playing different formations and changing formations in games.
“What he did incredibly well was he took that step very quickly. One thing I would say about him is he came back earlier for pre-season than any other. player. It shows his intention and where he wants to be. He is one of the best players at our club.”
Josh Koroma is the team’s top scorer having been signed from Leyton Orient when they were in the National League and on loan at Rotherham last season. “There are opportunities out there, players with real potential. We have to look to markets that others wouldn’t see.”
Elsewhere there is Jon Russell, 21, who has just broken into the first team after being released by Chelsea on a disappointing loan spell at Accrington. Huddersfield saw something. “We felt he had a lot of potential for the way we play.”
In each example, the talent was identified early, but the player’s development process after arriving in the building was the key. “We’ve put them on a program to help them and they’re thriving. We think we can get the best out of the players.”
This does not only apply to young players. Rhodes, now 32, has the lowest bodyweight of his career right now. Matty Pearson, a 28-year-old free transfer from Luton, has just recorded his highest ever top speed. “There is always a way to improve.”
The result is that Huddersfield, against all odds, have a chance of automatic promotion let alone a play-off spot. Elimination from the FA Cup on Monday night ended their unbeaten run in all competitions but allows them to focus on the Championship.
Do they dare to dream of a return to the Premier League?
“That’s the hardest part of football, enjoying the moment,” Bromby said. “The players give their all.”
There is a theory that Huddersfield haven’t made the most of their time in the Premier League, but Bromby disagrees. “The training ground has improved dramatically. The legacy here is that we have players within the academy who we believe can play in the first team.
“That’s what being in the Premier League allowed us to do.”
Indeed, perhaps the legacy is in the people.
“There was a lot of learning,” he adds.
“The impact of the Premier League has been huge. One of the reasons we’re here now is because we’ve had it before. We have staff here who have had that experience. I don’t don’t see it as a negative that we went up and down.
“We believe the level of staffing here is that of a top Championship club and capable of playing in the Premier League. We are prepared here to be successful. We believe that if we ever have the opportunity to come back up, we are better prepared this time than last time.
“The challenge is to get close to it again.”
Watch West Bromwich Albion v Huddersfield Town live on Sky Sports Football from 7.30pm on Friday evening; kick off 8 p.m.