Peter Jackson: Huddersfield's Special One

Four years after being sacked Peter Jackson returned to find his former club close to collapse. After that kind of test, he tells Sam Wallace, a Cup trip to Chelsea holds no fear
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The Independent Online

And one other as well. At 44, the manager of Huddersfield Town is two years older than Jose Mourinho, but Chelsea's famous leader is up against a unique English manager in the FA Cup third round today: a man who has rescued his club from disaster not once but twice to emerge as one of the brightest young managers in the Football League. At the Galpharm Stadium, at a club that Jackson has led back from the brink of extinction to a Cup tie at Stamford Bridge in less than three years, they consider him their own "Special One".

Special not least because he was sacked by Huddersfield in 1999 despite finishing 10th in what is now the Championship and then agreed to return to the club four years later when a disastrous administration - now departed - and an even worse succession of managers had left them two divisions further down and £20m in debt. There were eight players and no transfer funds on the day he came back in June 2003 and yet since then Jackson has won promotion from League Two and came within one point of the play-off places in League One last season.

There are still no transfer funds and no such luxuries as secretaries or press officers, which is why Jackson meets me himself in reception at the Galpharm Stadium and conducts the tour of the ground with his own bunch of keys. He has been a football man all his life - five clubs, 18 years a player, more than 600 games, no international caps - but has had to learn more than one skill to survive. All the players' contracts are drawn up by the manager, he can tell you instantly how many fans they will take to Chelsea - 6,500 - and has even had to order his new suit for the visit to London himself.

It is that aspect, in particular, where Mourinho might first recognise something of himself in his opposite number today. The television show Soccer AM voted Jackson the Football League's best-looking manager and he takes a great deal of pride in his appearance. "I don't like to see a manager in a tracksuit with his initials on it," he says. "I am my own man and some might disagree but each to their own. I like to look smart and I like to wear nice clothes. I think that comes from my approach of being an English manager who is trying to do something different.

"I think Mourinho has shaken a lot of things up since he has been here. I respect him for that. While I don't really have role models, I respect him for the fantastic job he did at Porto, what he has done at Chelsea, the way that he handles the media, his dress sense and everything about him. He seems to have that quality and that edge, people do look up to him."

Jackson's new suit for the game against Chelsea was due to be delivered to a shop in Huddersfield at the end of the week. A special delivery from the King's Road perhaps? "No," he says, "I can't afford their suits yet."

There are 11 academy graduates in Huddersfield's squad of 22, a good deal of them, Jackson believes, with the ability to play at the very highest level. Since they beat Worcester City to qualify for the third round, the squad - average age 22 - have drawn five and lost two of their League games, which has left them fifth, three points behind the leaders Southend.

Today, however, they will go to Stamford Bridge with a manager who played there once with Newcastle - "1986, played one, won one" - and will be as well prepared as Mourinho.

On the desk of his office are three stapled sets of paper, the kind Mourinho might like to describe as a "dossier", each marked with the word "Confidential". They are Jackson's profiles of the way Chelsea play; he affords me a brief glance of the diagrams and bullet points but no more. Huddersfield prepare this way for every game, although this time the reading has been a little less encouraging.

"Usually we have 'Strengths and Weaknesses' in here. I've been looking through these today searching for the 'Weaknesses section'," Jackson says. "I haven't found it yet, I don't think there are any weaknesses." He adds: "Of course we respect Chelsea, they are one of the best sides in the world, but we are not frightened of them. I want myself and my players to walk off that field at five o'clock knowing that we have played to our full potential. I don't want players saying, 'I could have done better'.

"There will be a shock this weekend, whether that is at Chelsea, Burton, wherever. We are taking 6,500 fans there - they believe. It will be one of the biggest Cup shocks of all time but we are going there to give a good account of ourselves and, hopefully, pull the big one off."

There will also be no change from Huddersfield's 4-4-2 formation to accommodate the famous 4-5-1 system Mourinho employs, even though playing two strikers at Stamford Bridge is an approach that few Premiership sides dare adopt. "I just want to go there with a system that we are used to," Jackson says without fear. "I am not going to change it because we are playing the best club side in the world."

He is without his promising young captain Jonathan Worthington, who is suspended, and yet in Nathan Clarke, David Mirfin, Andy Holdsworth, John McAliskey and Adnan Ahmed he has five more bright academy-produced players.

The academy was all that Jackson had left when he came back to a wrecked Huddersfield Town in 2003. In October 1997, Jackson, just 36 at the time, had taken charge of a team from Brian Horton that had six points and were bottom of the Championship. Their survival that season became known locally as "The Great Escape" and the following year they were 10th in the division after leading for a period. That summer, the then-new owner Barry Rubery told Jackson that the board wanted a "big name" to attract players capable of competing in the Premiership and gave the job to Steve Bruce, who lasted 18 months.

Out of football Jackson worked as an agent and turned down three management jobs - while in the mean time Huddersfield simply fell apart. After Bruce came Lou Macari, Mick Wadsworth and Mel Machin to try to arrest the decline but, by the time that Jackson returned, Rubery had accepted a £12.5m loss on his investment and departed. Following two relegation seasons, Huddersfield were in League Two. They were, in Jackson's words, "24 hours from going under" until Ken Davy, the chairman of rugby league's Huddersfield Giants, took over the club.

"It took 12 months to get over being sacked and then when this opportunity came it was important that I didn't look back," Jackson says. "What happened at the club was wrong. When I returned, new owners had come in and the ones who had sacked me had gone and it was important I didn't look back at where this club should have been. I didn't think like that - I had enough on my hands with only eight players turning up. I had to turn the club around fast. I was always positive, always looked forward.

"I had three and a half years out of the game and I turned down various jobs because they didn't feel right. I looked at the club and people said I was stupid going back. They only had eight players, no season tickets had been sold and they might not have survived but I felt the only way the club could go was up. I knew the fan base here was excellent, I knew I had a chance and I certainly have no regrets about taking it."

Jackson's assessment of his own career as a footballer is frank and simple: he was, in his own words, "never blessed with the talent of a Gascoigne or a Beardsley, just a hard-working, tough centre-half who was very fortunate to earn a living for 18 years as a player". For a player who is still very fondly remembered at Bradford City and Newcastle United, "very fortunate" is an ungenerous description. Jackson is not, however, driven in the same way you suspect Mourinho is, by thwarted ambition as a player.

"I never look back and think I could have done better with my football," he says. "I look back and think I had a really good career. I played with some of the best in the world, I travelled, met a lot of fantastic people and played in front of some massive crowds. Not bad for an average footballer who always gave 100 per cent."

From Bradford to Newcastle, back to Valley Parade and then on to Huddersfield, Chester City and Halifax, Jackson could tell his charges some tales from his career that would linger in the mind of any young player. Like the day 11 May, 1985 when he ran out at Valley Parade as captain of Bradford City, aged only 22, held aloft the Third Division Championship trophy and then witnessed the fire in the main stand that claimed the lives of 56 supporters. In the following weeks it fell to him as captain to organise the players to attend funerals and visit survivors at the burns unit of the city's Pinderfields hospital.

"It was a horrific time for everybody, I was only 22, not really counselled to do anything like this but the players were excellent in the aftermath of the Bradford fire," he says. "Everybody stuck together and then we went about raising a lot of money for the burns unit. It put life in perspective. I've seen 56 people lose their lives and it does make you grow up quickly."

It was in October 1986 that he went to Newcastle for £250,000, a fee that equalled the club's transfer record at the time and, despite being told by one manager he would never make it there, spent two seasons of his career in the top flight. Not only that, but in a team that also included a teenage Paul Gascoigne and Peter Beardsley, he found himself voted player of the year by the supporters. On the night he had been asked by Bradford to return to present the equivalent award at their club but was ordered to stay in Newcastle.

"So I am stood at the back of the room and there might be 1,000 people in there and they began the announcements," he says. "And in third place it was Gascoigne, in second place it was Beardsley and then they say 'Tonight's winner is Peter Jackson'. It's probably my biggest honour in football. I've won the Third and Fourth Division Championships but to win Newcastle's player of the season - what an accolade that is."

The greatest tribute Chelsea have paid to Huddersfield since the draw was made has been the three matches in which they have had the League One side scouted by Mourinho's assistant Andre Villas Boas in order to prepare for today's match.

Jackson knows his first XI already, his players' names are on magnets on the whiteboard of his small office alongside the photographs from Huddersfield's penalty shoot-out victory in the League Two play-offs against Mansfield Town in 2004. There will be no change to the formation today, the travel arrangements are the same too. Has he thought about what he will say to his young team?

"The main thing is: we can't give the ball away and we have to keep our shape and discipline," he says. "If you give the ball away easily against a side like Chelsea it will take you five minutes to get it back." The last part is said with a smile, but there is no suggestion that the approach of Jackson, and his team, will be anything other than deadly serious today. After all the trials and heartache this club, and especially its manager, have endured to reach FA Cup third round day at the home of the Premiership champions, it could hardly be any other way.

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