A WIZARD FROM OZ HOLDS ACES
ASKED if David Wagner has a strategy for halting Sheffield Wednesday, Christopher Schindler rubbed his stubbled jaw, then broke into a grin.
“Yes he does,” said Huddersfield’s giant German defender. “But here is not the place to talk about it. You might be Wednesday fans.”
Maybe, but it doesn’t take a loose-lipped centre-half or spies in the media suite to know what Wagner will do at Hillsborough today. Press like demons. Outwork the opposition.
And, above all else, get the ball to Aaron Mooy.
The Aussie midfielder is Huddersfield’s lynchpin, a diligent drummer setting the rhythm amid the fury and flamboyance of Wagner’s self-proclaimed “rock ‘n’ roll” football.
Does any player at this level possess such a compelling combination of grace, vision and technique? Not according to his peers, who voted the 26-year-old into the PFA Championship team of the season.
And not according to Wagner, who doesn’t even attempt to disguise how vital Mooy is to Huddersfield’s hopes of reaching the top flight for the first time in 45 years.
“If Aaron performs, the whole team performs,” admitted the German. “He is the heart of our team. The pivot. He knows exactly how to accelerate or decelerate the game. He is so calm, so confident on the ball.
“When he underperformed this season, we often as a team had problems as well. It was very rare that we were strong without him.
“So, the fact that we finished fourth and were very consistent tells you everything about what a good season he has had.
“Keep in mind how many times he was involved with the Australian national team, as well. Long flights, changes of time zone, changes of temperature.
“It has been a very tough season for him, but he has delivered his best again and again. He has been top, top class.
“On the other side, of course, Aaron cannot do it on his own. We need Jonathan Hogg to be a proper terrier, who never gives a player a breather. He must always be there, very oppressive.
“We need our centre-backs, Schindler and Michael Hefele, to be very aggressive, very strong in the air.
“Our full-backs, Tommy Smith and Chris Lowe, to be great attackers and proper defenders. Aaron is very important for this team but he needs all the players around him to perform.”
Mooy’s understated arrival in July illustrates why Norwich City poached Stuart Webber, the Terriers’ erstwhile director of football.
Last season, Mooy notched an A-League record 20 assists for Melbourne City, one of several clubs owned by Man City supremo Sheikh Mansour.
Both Txiki Begiristain and Pep Guardiola were keen to take a punt but judged that Mooy needed a Championship loan spell first.
Webber got wind of the plan, offered Huddersfield’s services and the cornerstone of a promotion push was duly laid.
“Stuart actually mentioned Aaron to me at the end of last season,” explains Wagner. “Then, he showed me some clips from the England v Australia game at Wembley (a 2-1 defeat for the Socceroos) in May. After that, I said ‘Yes, let’s try to get him’.
“City were very receptive. Very interested in what we could offer. One thing followed another and Aaron came to meet me here in Huddersfield. We went for dinner with the chairman and, after this, I was pretty sure I wanted him in my
squad. “Since then we have kept in touch with City. We were contacted around January because there was a call-back clause in his contract. Thankfully, they didn’t use it!
“The conversation was very quick and simple. Are you happy? Yes. Are we happy? Yes. Great, then let’s keep going. There was no sense in taking the player out of a situation that was working for him.
“Now, Aaron has a chance to make sure he is involved in the Premier League next season. That is in his own hands, I think.”
Not that Mooy has been seen much recently. The playmaker was one of several players controversially rested for the penultimate match of the season against struggling Birmingham.
The Terriers lost 2-0, leading to accusations from relegation rivals Blackburn and a letter from the Football League asking for Wagner’s “observations” on the team selection.
With £200m at stake, the former Schalke midfielder is unrepentant.
“I was totally surprised how many comments I got about these decisions,” said Wagner. “You have to do what is the right thing for your football club.
“If you are involved in relegation trouble after 46 games, it usually isn’t the starting XI of Huddersfield Town or anyone else that is the reason.
“It is because you made mistakes and didn’t do things right over the whole season. That is what I didn’t like.
“We made those changes to be as best prepared as we could be for the play-offs. And that wasn’t just about rest.
“Danny Ward, our goalkeeper, got sent off against Cardiff in the last game of the season.
“But because Joel Coleman played against Birmingham, he has game time in his legs and is much more ready to come in. That is why I am totally sure I did the right thing.”
Despite finishing fourth, Huddersfield will kick off as underdogs today against a Wednesday side able to dump two £10m strikers on the bench.
Wagner’s entire side cost less than that, but the 45-year-old isn’t worried about perceptions, having started the season among the bookies’ favourites for relegation.
He adds: “I knew in preseason we would not be in a relegation battle, even if some experts predicted trouble for us. Until Christmas, I always said promotion was possible but not realistic. But, after 23 games, I thought ‘Right, now it’s realistic’.
“If we get promoted, this for sure is the Leicester City story reloaded. One hundred per cent. I didn’t deliberately take them as inspiration.
“But if it happens I think this will be a similar surprise and a similar level of achievement.”
MOOY OF SAME: Aaron Mooy celebrates scoring for Huddersfield and, inset, boss David Wagner