It was a long journey back from Southampton for Huddersfield Town last 28 December, their 4-1 defeat capping a bleak Christmas following a Boxing Day reverse to Hartlepool. Travelling by plane should have made it easier, but bad weather meant the flight home was diverted, giving manager Lee Clark plenty of time to ponder.
“Christmas is supposed to be a happy time of year but it wasn’t for us,” he recalled yesterday. “We had played quite well in both games, but we looked at it, changed the system a little and learned some lessons.”
The next match, at Carlisle, Huddersfield drew after letting slip a two-goal lead. “I remember saying it was disappointing, but it could be the start of a good run,” said Clark, “I never thought we’d still be unbeaten come November.”
The Terriers are now unbeaten in 42 matches. Avoid defeat at home to Notts County tomorrow and they will eclipse the Football League record set by Brian Clough’s Nottingham Forest 33 years ago. The caveat is that while Forest won the championship during their run Huddersfield failed to gain promotion. Having finished third last season they lost the play-off final to Peterborough – they remain ‘unbeaten’ as, by a statistical quirk, play-off matches are not included in official League statistics.
Clark said: “It’s been a phenomenal run, this is a very competitive league, but unfortunately Brighton and Southampton kept winning.”
After missing out on promotion Huddersfield sold Anthony Pilkington to Norwich and Lee Peltier to Leicester City, but Clark re-invested shrewdly and believes he now has a better squad. It is a a passing team with plenty of experience in veteran goalkeeper Ian Bennett, centre-half Peter Clarke, midfielders Damien Johnson (in his second year-long loan from Plymouth) and Tommy Miller, and target man Alan Lee. There is also youth in the likes of new Scottish international striker Jordan Rhodes, defender Jack Hunt and midfielder Scott Arfield.
“We have young hungry, talented players, and experienced ones who still have fire in their bellies. The younger ones are attracting Premier League interest but, said Clark, he will not be selling in January. The backing of chairman Dean Hoyle, a locally-born multi-millionaire who made a fortune from a gift-card business, should mean he does not have to.
Clark, 39, has been at the Galpharm for three years next month finishing ninth, sixth and third. This impressive first stab at management, after coaching roles at Newcastle United and Norwich City, persuaded Leicester City to court the former Newcastle, Sunderland and Fulham midfielder after sacking Sven Goran Eriksson, but Clark made it clear he was not interested.
“I’m happy here,” he said. “maybe I could move and get more money, and be closer to the Premier League, but it might not be the same somewhere else. I like coming into work, I’ve fantastic backing from the directors, the fans are terrific, we’ve a great stadium and a new training ground. We all dream of the Premier League and clubs like Hull and Swansea have shown those dreams can come true. We have that potential. The hardest bit is getting out of this league.”
Huddersfield are currently second in League One, face well-resourced opposition being five points behind leaders Charlton and two clear of Sheffield Wednesday. Their next away matches are against those teams.
Forest players admitted that towards the end of their run not losing had come to be seen as important as winning. Given Huddersfield have drawn eight of their 17 league matches this season it might seem they are suffering a similar problem but, said Clark, “we go out to win matches, to score goals. Three points for a win is a terrific incentive.”
Nethertheless, given these forthcoming visits to The Valley and Hillsborough remaining unbeaten for another month would be a big step towards automatic promotion. It would also put Huddersfield in sight of the 49-match unbeaten Premier League run of Arsenal’s Invincibles.
* The longest unbeaten run in rugby League is held by Town’s ground-share partners at Galpharm Stadium, Huddersfield Giants. Either side of WWI the team then known just as Huddersfield went 43 matches unbeaten in all competitions, winning 41.
Formidable Forest: The original 'Invincibles'
Nottingham Forest’s 42-match unbeaten run, which stretched from November 1977 to December 1978, earned a newly-promoted team the 1977-78 Football League title en route. It was only eclipsed when Arsenal’s Invincibles went 49 Premier League matches unbeaten from May 2003 to October 2004.
Forest, managed by Brian Clough with a team built around Martin O'Neill, John McGovern, Viv Anderson, John Robertson, Tony Woodcock and Kenny Burns, finally lost at Anfield. Both Liverpool goals were scored by Terry McDermott, now Lee Clark's assistant at Huddersfield.
Clough said at the time: 'I congratulated our lads on a magnificent run,” but admitted, “this defeat means a light relief.' Indeed, several Forest players said the unbeaten run had become a burden. That 1978-79 season they drew nine of their opening 16 unbeaten matches.
Frank Clark, then left-back, subsequently manager and now chairman at Forest, admitted: "As time wore on, I think it started to worry us. It became more important not to lose and keep the run going than to actually win games. To some extent, that's shown by the fact we drew 21 matches during that sequence.”
Clough later said he thought the unbeaten run was a finer achievement than the two European Cup Forest won under him. The silver salver presented by the club, with the details of the 42 fixtures engraved on it, was one of his proudest mementoes.