How Huddersfield Town collapsed from the brink of the Premier League into the third tier

It started with a tumble and then came a long, painful fall.

Two years ago, Huddersfield Town finished third in the Championship with 82 points and reached the play-off final with a shot at returning to the Premier League. But during that game at Wembley against Nottingham Forest, the referee booked Harry Toffolo for diving after he hit the ground in the penalty area — despite replays suggesting Jack Colback had made contact and a penalty might justifiably have been given.

Huddersfield lost 1-0, through an own goal, and in some ways have been suffering self-inflicted wounds ever since. They have plummeted from second tier to third and changed managers four times in less than 12 months.

After Sunday’s play-off final between Leeds United and Southampton crowned another top-flight returnee, players and staff at the John Smith’s stadium are still licking their wounds in the wake of their relegation, and preparing for a tough season ahead in League One.

How has it come to this? How did a team which spent two seasons in the Premier League, from 2017 to 2019, find themselves in English football’s third tier after a miserable campaign that saw them finish second from bottom?

The Athletic has spoken to several sources familiar with the situation, all granted anonymity to protect relationships in the game, with each conceding that, while elements of the club’s plight were avoidable last term, their slump over recent years felt more inevitable when placed in a wider context.

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Toffolo argues with referee Jon Moss at Wembley (James Gill-Danehouse/Getty Images)

In July 2023, American businessman Kevin Nagle completed his takeover of Huddersfield, buying all of British retailer Dean Hoyle’s shares and ending the Card Factory tycoon’s 14-year spell as owner.

That period had seen the Yorkshire club go through plenty of change. The team had risen back into the top flight for the first time in 45 years and, in 2017-18, retained their status under David Wagner with notable wins against Manchester United, Newcastle United and Crystal Palace along the way. Life proved far harder the following year and they finished bottom to return from whence they had come.

Their most recent relegation, though, is the hardest blow for supporters. It comes after an era of regular disappointments and fraught-if-successful fights to stay in the Championship, barring that outlying campaign which culminated in play-off heartbreak.

If Nagle, who also owns American USL Championship side Sacramento Republic, did not realise the scope of the task he bought into last year, he certainly does now.

The 69-year-old Minnesota-born investor communicates regularly with fans through video diaries and social media, and maintained that throughout a difficult first year.

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Nagle also owns American USL Championship side Sacramento Republic (William Early/Getty Images)

From the offset, his task and that of the sporting director he swiftly appointed — former USL sporting director Mark Cartwright — was made harder by the timing of his arrival. Nagle’s takeover was completed towards the end of June and left the pair, along with chief executive Jakes Edwards (another USL hire), up against it when it came to preparations for the new season — crucially about the recruitment of players for then-manager Neil Warnock.

“They were hugely behind the eight ball from the start,” says season-ticket holder Richard Kosmala. “We barely signed anyone in the summer, which we had needed to after only just staying up the season before. On the whole, the last 10 seasons of football have been hard to watch under different people and it does suck the life out of you.

“In the end, when it comes to relegation, you can’t really have any complaints.”

Warnock was in his second spell as Huddersfield boss when Nagle arrived. The irrepressible 75-year-old managed the club from 1993-95, guiding them to the second tier, but his return came in more inauspicious times.


The manager was the third person to take charge, after Danny Schofield and Mark Fotheringham, during the 2022-23 season but his experience kept Huddersfield in the Championship.

Warnock, a former Leeds United and Cardiff City manager among many other clubs, had been appointed on a short-term deal until the end of that season. However, he stayed put in the summer after being offered a further one-year contract — despite a sense in some quarters that Nagle should appoint his own man to complete the changes at a senior football leadership level.

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Warnock believed a top-six finish was a possibility for Huddersfield in the Championship (Matt McNulty/Getty Images)

Seven games later, though, Warnock was out — instigating a cycle of managerial change which some supporters believe contributed a big part to relegation.

It was September, the club were 16th in the table and had just drawn 2-2 with Stoke City, when what Edwards called an “extensive recruitment process” led them to the former Sheffield Wednesday manager Darren Moore.

Moore, though, did not last long. From September 21 until January 29 he oversaw 23 league games, winning three, drawing 11 and losing nine.

That drawing habit — not unique to Moore last season — would be damaging. One figure close to the dressing room says Moore seemed to emphasise not losing games over winning them, and the change from the charismatic Warnock to a more softly-spoken man was marked.

The timing of Moore’s departure was equally disruptive. If Nagle was not to blame for the sub-optimal summer transfer window, waiting until the end of the January window — when vital work on the squad was required — was harder for fans to understand. The club nevertheless signed four new players, including two forwards — Rhys Healey and Bojan Radulovic — to address an alarming lack of firepower.

Between them, the pair managed just four league goals and each suffered costly injuries. The season’s top scorer ended up being a centre-back, Michal Helik, with nine.

“Decision-making, in general, is what went wrong,” says the former Huddersfield goalkeeper turned BBC Radio Leeds broadcaster Matt Glennon. “They didn’t mean to make the wrong choices. They didn’t want to go down. But this is a relegation that was very much avoidable.

“Somewhere along that chain of command, they didn’t get things right and that’s what cost them. It has been messy, right from the start of the season. (At one stage) they only needed a couple of wins to get out of trouble. But they just wouldn’t come.”

Nagle was in a reflective mood and willing to accept his mistakes during the first of his two extended video diaries this month.

“Hindsight is a 20/20 thing,” he said in the first video, where he is interviewed by long-term friend and club advisor, the U.S-based radio host Carmichael Dave.

“On our second coach (Moore), we probably waited a little too long, but again we had a lot of injuries at that time. When we talked to Darren — (who is) a wonderful human being — we talked about drawing a lot and moving those draws to wins and that’s what he said his goal was and said it would happen, but unfortunately it didn’t.

“We finished first place when it comes to ties — and first place in that gets you relegated.”

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Moore’s team drew too many matches (Tim Markland/PA Images via Getty Images)

Kosmala, who also contributes to the Huddersfield podcast ‘And He Takes That Chance’, agrees that the club waited too long to move on from Moore. In fact, he says, they probably should not have hired him in the first place.

“It was muddled,” he says. “They seemed to bring him in tasked with playing an attacking brand of football when, if they had looked at his work at Sheffield Wednesday, they’d have realised it’s not what he does.

“It’s like they interviewed a different man to whom they appointed. His tactics seemed cautious. Then in press conferences, he came across as flat. Going from Warnock, who was so charming and had people eating out of his hands, to Moore was a big contrast.

“Fans were leaving games early and he didn’t inspire us at all. I think Moore was his (Nagle’s) biggest error.”

The new owner’s response was to go for a different type of manager again. In February, the former Schalke and FC Zurich boss Andre Breitenreiter arrived. He boasted some pedigree having won the Swiss league title with Zurich in the 2021-22 season and had previously taken Paderborn and Hannover to the Bundesliga.

Yet he took over in challenging circumstances with none of his own players rely on, in what was an increasingly difficult dynamic in the dressing room that other sources agree had already become a concern.

Breitenreiter would later go public with his frustrations. “Teams will go down when they’re not together; this is the truth in every country,” he said after a 4-0 defeat by Swansea in April that left Huddersfield two points from safety with two games remaining.

Others, though, believe the German’s methods turned a normal dressing room, with the usual balance of characters, into a more flawed environment.

“The relationship between him and the dressing room was not the best,” says one source around the first-team squad. “Some of the things he said came as a surprise to people. There were people saying: ‘This is absurd, I am not like this.’ They would be angry. He was like that with a lot of players.

“He had a few run-ins with players around the training ground. It would be about things going on during training, if he heard anyone moaning or arguing.

“It was a difficult environment to play in. People had to get their heads around why a manager was being like this. It was obviously his way of trying to get the best out of people — tough love — but many didn’t agree with that way.

“Everyone had the fear of relegation on their minds. It was tough for some players because they knew their salary would be halved for dropping in League One. It was so important to them for Huddersfield to stay in the division from a living standpoint as well as for professional pride.”

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Breitenreiter’s public criticisms of the players took their toll (Jess Hornby/PA Images via Getty Images)

Others point to moments like the manager’s substitution of Jack Rudoni, 22, after 30 minutes of the final game of the season: a 2-0 defeat at Ipswich that confirmed they would finish second from bottom and be relegated. The midfielder had lost the ball before the hosts’ first goal and was immediately hauled off, which one source suggests indicated poor man-management.

In his defence, Breitenreiter had previously called for players to double their effort after errors. Others claim he had simply been frustrated at Rudoni’s response to losing possession.

Either way, by then the German had already aimed his biggest public broadside at some of the players, and even Warnock — blaming the latter’s pre-season for poor fitness levels. After the penultimate game, a 1-1 home draw with Birmingham that had all but confirmed relegation as results elsewhere went against them, he let rip.

“All the players are disappointed,” he said. “It’s clear some players are more disappointed than other players. Some players left early, but they leave early every day so this was also a question for me of heart and passion and the willingness to stay together with the team.

“This is also a big problem in the team for the whole season, I think. But, for sure, for the time I am here.”

Some sources concede that, towards the end of the season, a couple of key players did not want to mix with the group, spending the bare minimum of time at team meals before leaving. But they were described more as awkward, disenchanted personalities rather than deeply toxic characters.

“There were no big arguments,” a source close to the dressing room says. “It was players not happy with the manager and what he was saying. He said a lot of things about the players, but the changing room was not really a problem. It was very bizarre. He was saying things when the club still had a chance of staying up.

“He just came across as someone trying to distance himself from the relegation.”

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Rudoni, centre, applauds supporters after the costly draw against Birmingham (MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Nagle seems to have believed Breitenreiter’s version.

“Candidly, I did not know we had the kind of issues we had,” he said earlier this month. “Sometimes what stays in the locker room stays in it, but it got out.”

The club were also beset by untimely injuries to important players — notably, January signing Radinio Balker. And, for Breitenreiter, part of the squad’s physical issues stemmed from Warnock’s preparations last summer.

“I heard about the really poor pre-season where players trained once a day and the focus was on playing golf and maybe staying in the pub,” Breitenreiter told BBC Radio Leeds with the campaign just over. “This never leads to success. They did not train enough to be able to play over 90 minutes; this is what I heard from many, many people around the club.”

Again, Nagle seems to share that summary.

“We had a lot of injuries and some of the players didn’t seem in shape,” he said. “At one stage, we had 12 injuries. In my career — 11 years of owning a professional team — I’ve never seen 12 players injured at one time and we had a number of positions we could just not fill with players in their natural positions.

“We’re not going to have a leisure pre-season (again). I learned my lesson on that. I thought going to a really nice place and letting the lads get to know each other (would work), but instead a disciplined time of getting prepared is important and should reduce injury, too.”

However, one person with detailed knowledge of Warnock’s pre-season disagreed that it was too easy. The club played three fixtures against non-league sides in Cornwall and Devon, before beating League Two outfit Stockport County (4-0) and Dutch top-flight side Heerenveen (1-0).

They point out that the games against non-league opponents were merely considered as extra training sessions on days when the squad had already trained in the morning. They did visit a pub, after a goalless draw with Tavistock, but only for a meal which had been provided for them. Visits to a golf course on another day were considered vital for team bonding.

Finally, they say that, following the second game of the new Championship season, a 1-0 home loss at eventual champions Leicester City, it emerged that Huddersfield’s players had covered more kilometres collectively than in any game over their previous three seasons.

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Huddersfield Town’s players huddle up (John Early/Getty Images)

Warnock left after three losses, two draws and two wins — but even at that stage, the talk in his inner circle had been that a top-six finish was not impossible given good fortune with injuries.

For Glennon, it is too easy to blame Warnock for any fitness issues when morale became an even more pressing concern.

“Breitenreiter had been out of the game for a year, had never managed in the Championship and there was an awkward group of players,” he says. “He didn’t have the man-management skills to sort that out.

“The club went big to get someone who’d been at Schalke and won things — when they needed to go right and get someone with real knowledge about staying in the division.”

During his first post-season video diary, Nagle was still hoping to convince the German, who won two of his 13 games in charge, to stay. However, on May 10 it was announced they would part company — eight days after Breitenreiter admitted he might not have taken the job had he “known about all the things and problems in the team”.

On May 13, Michael Duff became Huddersfield’s sixth permanent manager since July 2022. The former Swansea City boss is charged with leading their journey back into the Championship.

It may not be easy. “It is going to be tough for them,” says the source close to the first-team setup. “When you’re in League One, it is tough to bring in the right players to get back into the Championship. They will find out who wants to stay; there are players looking to get out of there.”

But Nagle remains optimistic and insists the hard work off the field continues apace. Fans such as Kosmala appreciate his accountability and acceptance of his own mistakes. The difficult decision to freeze season-ticket prices — already the lowest in the Championship — should mean most supporters renew and pack out the John Smith’s Stadium next term.

“We didn’t earn the right to raise prices to our fanbase,” said Nagle.

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Duff will hope to oversee Huddersfield’s on-field revival (William Early/Getty Images)

After reviewing staff performance, and asking figures such as Edwards and Cartwright to re-interview for their roles, the American decided to keep the staff behind new boss Duff in place for the new campaign. He plans to continue putting money into the club: swallowing the cost of not increasing the season ticket prices, signing new players, and making improvements to their 24,500-capacity stadium.

He is also hoping to become the ground’s outright owner — the club currently shares ownership with Huddersfield Giants Rugby League club and the local council — and is planning infrastructure improvements to both the ground and their training facility.

There have been progressive additions to the leadership team, too. Well-regarded chief finance officer Ian Hopson arrives from Aston Villa, while Paul Reeves was lured as chief revenue officer from Sheffield United.

Importantly, for the future, Nagle has just resurrected the club’s full Category 3 academy with players joining at under-nine age group, after a previous cost-cutting era when it was downsized to a system featuring just under-17, under-19 and B teams.

Even after the devastation of dropping into League One, the owner is winning over some fans — even more since it has become apparent he saved the club from administration when he arrived last July.

His transparency helps. Nagle’s latest online chat with Carmichael featured the usual mix of submitted supporter questions — not all of them easy to answer.

Their conversation ranged from underlining his immediate goal of promotion next season, and a raw response to Breitenreiter’s blunt criticisms, to how he prefers rotisserie chickens (“I love and respect them”) for his evening meals, and owns 30 pairs of sandals.

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Radulovic digests relegation (MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Nagle likes to be honest and it is one of many positive traits he wants from his players. He will try to weed out potential dressing-room troublemakers at the recruitment stage.

“I was deeply disappointed and shocked (by the issues Breitenreiter raised),” he said. “The one thing you know as an owner is that, if there are issues in the locker room, the play on the pitch is not going to be very good.

“At Sacramento, I told our general manager there is no tolerance for that; cut them if you have to. I knew once that happened, we were going to exit some of those players.

“I like AB (Breitenreiter) a lot. He was very candid about that situation but, at that point, there wasn’t a lot he could do. He was trying to do the best he could with the players he had and bring the best out of them.

“This is really important now. It will be Michael Duff’s team, and one we all build, but we know that when we do character checks that’s right at the top. You can be a great player, but if you don’t have good character you’re not going to be at Huddersfield Town.”

Nagle’s ultimate dream is to lead Huddersfield back to the Premier League. First of all, they must drag themselves off the canvas.

“We got work to do here,” he told Carmichael. “We don’t buy something and just decide we’ll give up after a year. I’ve never done that. This is too much fun.

“It was a tough year. I hate relegation but it’s an opportunity. The fans will be excited in the future. That doesn’t mean there won’t be bumps along the way. There’s a lot of optimism here and people that come and see Town will feel a lot different a few months from now.

“Get ready, baby.”

(Top photo: John Early/Getty Images))

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