Interview: Doug Thomson
Last month, we spoke to respected journalist and Town fan Doug Thomson about the past, present, and future of Huddersfield Town.
HP: Let’s begin with a simple question: Why Huddersfield Town?
DT: Well, I come from Huddersfield, so it’s my hometown team. I’ve always supported them. In terms of the newspaper involvement, that came from starting to work for the Examiner and gradually edging my way to the football desk.
HP: When did you start watching Town?
DT: The first game I can remember is Town versus Arsenal in 1971, which I’m pretty sure was also the first match that I attended. I’d have been six then, so I have very vague memories of it.
HP: So, you either started at just the right time or the just wrong time, depending on whether you prefer your glass half full or half empty?
It had all just started to go downhill, I suppose. I’d narrowly missed out on 69-70, which was the iconic Second Division promotion season.
My parents are both Glaswegians, and my Dad was a big football fan—he followed Rangers. He came to Huddersfield around 1962 or 1963 and started going to Leeds Road soon after with a workmate from what was then Huddersfield Technical College.
I inherited that, really. That’s why I like Scottish football, by the way—because of my Dad.
HP: Did you have dual loyalties as a child, then?
DT: I went to watch Rangers and other Scottish teams quite a bit over the summer holidays and Christmas when we visited relatives. But no—it was just Town for me.
HP: What about rugby league?
DT: My Dad wasn’t quite as keen on rugby league, but he knew that I liked it, so we went to games together. Funnily enough, we supported Wakefield. It’s one of those weird things. I think he must’ve known somebody who watched them and that was that. We did follow Huddersfield from time to time, though.
It was the same with football. If Town were playing miles away, we’d go to watch Halifax at the Shay, or occasionally Bradford City. In fact, my Dad had a student who played for Bradford Park Avenue in the Northern Premier League after they’d been kicked out of the Football League. We used to watch them at their old ground and then at Valley Parade before they went bust.
We’d watch anyone, but mainly Town. When I was growing up a lot of my mates supported Leeds and that made me even more of a staunch Town fan.
HP: What are your first proper memories of watching Town?
I’d say the 72-73 season, getting relegated from the old Second Division into the third. And perversely, the worse it got, the more I enjoyed it. It was strange, or maybe different is the right word. No one who I knew followed Town back then, so a sense of loyalty came into it. I never thought about supporting anybody else.
HP: What was it like at Leeds Road in the seventies?
DT: The crowd became fairly sparse at points, but there was the odd big game—Bolton in the early or mid-seventies sticks out in my mind. Once we ended up in the Fourth Division, I thought it can’t get any worse than this. Still, it was exciting, especially being a kid.
HP: Who were your favourite players during those years?
DT: Jimmy Nicholson was my favourite player, but I was also fond of Steve Smith, Geoff Hutt, Jimmy Lawson, the ones who had played in the First Division and stuck around. I liked Alan Gowling, too, partly because he scored goals, and partly because he used to be on a TV programme called York Sport on a Friday night.
HP: What was fans’ sense of the club’s history? Did people think we were a sleeping giant? How close was that memory of the twenties and thirties?
DT: It was close.
I was always keen on history and the history of sport, and that extended to the minutiae and statistics of football. I used to get a Rothman’s Yearbook at the start of every season, that kind of thing. Plus, being Scottish, my Dad knew about Alec Jackson, Bill Shankly, Denis Law, so I was aware that the club had a rich history. As I got older, I read more and more, and it became impossible to ignore.
HP: And around about this time Mick Buxton arrived on the scene?
DT: Yeah. He had an alright first season, but then, in his second, things just clicked.
The Buxton years really cemented my fandom. I’d been going for eight years by then, and it had all been pretty gloomy. Buxton came along and you’d get of bed on a Saturday morning or whatever and think Huddersfield Town have got a good chance of winning a game of football today.
HP: What were you doing in your personal life at this point?
DT: I’ll have been at school doing my O-Levels. I studied for my A-Levels in 1981-1983, before going to university in Leeds.
I became a journalist in 1986. I’d always known that’s what I wanted to do. You couldn’t specify sport in those days, so when I went in it was as a news reporter. My first job was at the Keighley News, which was a weekly paper.
Because I was interested in sport, I started doing little pieces here and there, and when the sports reporter left, I took his place. So, the first club I covered in depth was Keighley Rugby League Club. It was a lot of fun.
HP: What are your thoughts on Town in the eighties?
Things were a lot better. We’d got our act together under Buxton, reached the Second Division, and established ourselves as a decent side, similar, I imagine, to what we were like in the sixties—solid and stable.
I’ve always thought the second tier is Town’s natural level when you take into account the size of the town, its fanbase, and so on. Every now and again we’re going to flirt with promotion and every now and again we’re going to flirt with relegation, which is essentially how it’s worked out, hasn’t it?
HP: There’s also the backdrop of political unrest and the rise of hooliganism. How did that feed into the atmosphere at Leeds Road?
DT: It was a factor, no doubt, but I recall it being grimmer in the seventies. By the time the eighties came along, we’d get good crowds for a lot of games. It never seemed as empty as it had been a decade or so previous.
Parts of the ground were closed off, though, and I remember the fence going up and all that kind of thing.
HP: When did you start covering Town?
DT: The first game I covered was in 1990. I was at Keighley for about two years. I moved to the Examiner in 1989, and Mel Booth was covering the football. I’ve rarely known him to be ill, but his immune system let him down just before a Tuesday night game at Bristol City, meaning I ended up covering that game and the two after that. Oddly, they were all away—the other two were at Northampton and Bolton.
Afterwards, I became the second football reporter. I covered Emley and the smaller sides but would do Town if Mel was on holiday or had something else going on.
It was a good time. This was pre-internet, so the Examiner was still a proper nuts and bolts local paper. We reported on everything, local sport, regional sport, junior sport, the whole works. The idea was to get as many names as possible in print on the theory that was what sold the most papers. But we also aimed to be comprehensive in covering what was going on in the town and surrounding areas.
HP: Most Town fans of a certain age would associate you and Mel with quality football journalism in Huddersfield. Do you think it was an advantage having two fans covering the club?
DT: An inevitable part of doing the job is that your approach to games specifically and the club more generally shifts. When you’re working, you wear your professional hat. It’s very different from watching as a fan. But, in the end, you still want them to win because it’s your team. Nothing’s going to change that.
HP: What about the paper’s relationships with the club? How close was that?
DT: In the old days it was a familiar one.
You had pretty much unlimited access. You’d head down to the ground in the morning and have a chat with the manager and a few players—whoever you ran into.
All that disappeared as the club began to develop its own communication department, which was aided by the advent of the internet and mobile phones. And, you know, the nature of football changed quite dramatically during the 1990s and 2000s.
HP: Did you cover the last game at Leeds Road?
DT: We published a big supplement, which was a great opportunity, or excuse, for me to interview loads of old players. I always enjoyed that side of the job—the history. I probably did a bit too much of it, to be honest, but that’s what interested me.
Mel covered the game itself, while I was on the terrace. It was a poignant day, but as a journalist, it was also exciting. Everybody who followed Town had spent so much time there and it had been an iconic part of the town for so long.
HP: And what about the new stadium?
DT: It took a while to get going. I remember an early game against Leyton Orient that made me think, it’s going to be alright. Paul Reid scored a late goal to make it 2-1 and the place was bouncing.
It was odd to begin with, though. There were only three sides, so the sound sort of escaped into all that empty space. Besides, you always thought, Town being Town, that the fourth side would never get built.
HP: There was a period around the turn of the millennium when it looked as though Town might become a sustainable top-30 club. What was the feeling in the newsroom?
DT: The first season back in what’s now the Championship was really encouraging. Warnock had gone to Plymouth after the 1995 Playoff Final, and Brian Horton was brought in to replace him. The team wasn’t quite good enough, but they were close to reaching the playoffs, and there were a couple of matches where they played some good football.
It was a similar story under Peter Jackson and Steve Bruce, especially when you factor in the likes of Marcus Stewart leading the line. You often caught yourself thinking, maybe there’s something here. But it was only ever maybe.
Truth be told, in my head, I never thought I’d see Town in the top division again, so when it happened in 2017 it was a complete surprise. There’s always been potential there, but it needed something special to realise it.
HP: We’ll get there! But first, there’s the small matter of successive relegations and administration in the early 2000s. It must have been difficult to navigate that kind of chaos as a journalist and lifelong fan?
DT: The unravelling of Rubery’s ownership was one of the biggest stories we covered. There was definitely a sense of history repeating itself, with strong parallels to the crisis of 1919, when financial shortcomings galvanised fans to save the club.
I remember news of the Ken Davy deal broke on a lunchtime, and we actually replated—that means running a second edition of the day’s paper—which was a monumental thing because it cost a lot of money. It was obviously considered to be a worthwhile undertaking given the importance of the club to the town and Examiner readers.
At the time, rightly or wrongly, we all probably thought that a club the size of Town wouldn’t go under, that somebody would come along with an offer. It was touch and go, but that’s how it often works, where it goes down to the wire. There’d been a few rumours about various people being interested, so we didn’t think it would get to the stage of liquidation and expulsion from the Football League.
That said, it came very close, and it was incredibly worrying for everyone associated with the club.
HP: How do you assess Davy’s stewardship of the club?
DT: People have got different ideas about Ken. I think his legacy lies somewhere in between the two extremes that you often hear put forward.
I wouldn’t say I know him well, but I’ve spoken to him a few times over the years. There’s no doubt that he’s a proud Huddersfield man. I’m sure he had his own reasons for taking the reins, but I don’t for one minute think that he’d have wanted the football club to disappear. He was a man who was in a position to stop that from happening. That’s what he wanted to do and chose to do.
Then again, you wouldn’t dispute the fact that his first love is the rugby club. But that’s fair enough—that’s Ken, isn’t it?
HP: What did you make of the Hoyle era?
DT: My opinion is that it was a very successful period in the club’s recent history.
From my dealings with Dean, I liked him a lot. He was passionate about the football club, and he wanted it to progress. On balance, I think it’s probably better to look on the positive side, which included two promotions and topflight football for the first time in 45 years.
Watching Town in the Premier League was brilliant.
HP: How do you explain that? How did Town go from also-rans to promotion in the space of a few months?
DT: The club took a gamble on David Wagner, and it paid off. Everything aligned perfectly and the plan worked. But if you tried to do it again, 9 times out of 10 it wouldn’t.
We limped to promotion really. By the time we’d reached the playoffs I think we’d run out of steam. So many of those later games—including the two legs against Sheffield Wednesday—could’ve gone either way. We managed to win them through determination and a bit of luck. We deserved to win the final against Reading, mind.
There was a sort of cinematic quality to that season. If you were to make a film about a football club, you’d be hard pressed to find many with a better story than Town’s. The ups and downs are what make football and life interesting, and Town have had their fair share. I’d be bored supporting Man City or Chelsea because there’s the constant expectation of success.
As I mentioned before, one of the reasons I followed Town in the first place was because everything was cyclical—sometimes we’re good, sometimes we’re bad, but it’s a case of keeping going, often against the odds.
HP: What’s next for Town?
DT: The aim should probably be stability. How to accomplish that is another question. If you turned back the clocks 50 years, fans would have been having the same arguments they are today. That’s Town’s fate.
There’s a club in Scotland called Clyde who people say are too big to be small and too small to be big. I think Town are a bit like that. We’re a big club in too small a town. We achieved our most impressive feats in a different age, when it was much easier for a provincial club to compete and succeed at the top level. The legacy of that is a certain expectation that doesn’t necessarily fit with the realities of the modern game.
HP: Do you think that expectation is a positive or a negative?
DT: A positive. As a Town fan, I wouldn’t swap what’s happened for anything. It’s just more interesting. And like I say, there aren’t many clubs with as rich a history as Town. There are still only four clubs that have won the topflight three times in a row, and to think that one of them is Huddersfield Town is mind blowing.
HP: Maybe this is an easy question, but what do you think is Town’s biggest historic achievement?
DT: Winning the title three times in a row. And not just the fact that we won, but that we were a force to be reckoned with for so long after, especially since we came from nowhere and had nearly ceased to exist.
HP: In terms of those three titles, do you think the third one was the most impressive?
DT: Yeah, because it was by the biggest margin. On top of that, it was under the management of Cecil Potter, who managed to carry on where Herbert Chapman left off—and when Chapman went to Arsenal it was in the same category as Shankly leaving Liverpool.
HP: Here’s a difficult one: If you had to recommend only three players to be inducted into the Heritage Project Hall of Fame, who would they be and why?
DT: I could think about this for weeks!
I’d have to go with someone from the Thrice Champions team. It’s very hard to pick just one. There were so many players who contributed, including a lot of internationals. But thinking about who would have been a flair player—an entertainer—the obvious choice is Billy Smith. Not only did he provide the ammunition for the goalscorers, but he was also one of the club’s longest serving players.
Second, I’d go for a bit of a leftfield choice. For the fact that Town scouted and developed him, and for what he went on to achieve, I can’t look past Denis Law. I remember seeing him play—although not for Town—so I know how good he was. Plus, as a Scot, my Dad rated him a lot.
In a similar way, and to bring it more up to date, I’d say Andy Booth. He was clearly a very talented football, because you don’t score the number of goals he did without talent, but he was a bit old school and stayed loyal to his hometown club. And I know how much it meant to him to play for Town; you could see it on and off the pitch.
HP: Finally, if you could go back in time to watch one Town game, which one would you pick?
DT: Nottingham Forest at Leeds Road in May 1924. Town won 3-0, clinching the first of the three titles on goal difference. It must’ve been incredibly tense. Fans wouldn’t even have been able to listen to a little transistor radio to find out the other results. Maybe they were waiting on a carrier pigeon. After all, legend has it that Examiner reporters would file their post-game copy by sending one from the stadium to the old offices.