When the odds are stacked against David Wagner - and they quite often are, as the manager of Huddersfield Town - he has a motto he likes to repeat. Ahead of the Championship side’s FA Cup tie against Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City, he called upon it once again.
“OK, I think there is no doubt that we are the underdogs on Saturday,” Wagner said with a laugh in his pre-match press conference. “But - I’ve said this sometimes before - this is football. Huddersfield Town plays against Man City - is it realistic that Huddersfield Town will win this football match? No, this is unrealistic. This is totally unrealistic in my opinion!
“Is it possible? Yes! It is possible, because it’s football and in football, nobody knows the result before a game. This is, I think, what we have to make sure that we know - usually it’s unrealistic, but it’s football, and this is why it’s possible.”
'Unrealistic but possible’ has defined Huddersfield’s season. “If we look at our competitors in the Championship - their individual quality, their experience, the money they have - then, in my opinion, it is completely unrealistic for us to be in the top six,” Wagner said in December after his team’s superb start to the campaign had faded.
“But it is important to realise the difference between what is realistic and what is possible. Was it unrealistic that Leicester would win the Premier League? Yes, it was totally ridiculous. But was it possible? Yes, because it happened.”
Wagner, a German of American descent, was recruited by Huddersfield based on his reputation as a protege of Jurgen Klopp, having worked under the Liverpool manager at Borussia Dortmund (and served as best man at his wedding). There are plenty of similarities between the two, from the beard, glasses and baseball cap to the stark difference between their intensity during matches and easygoing nature away from them.
The most striking quality they share, however, is a refusal to place a limit on what their teams are capable of achieving. “This is what I always tell my players: Don’t set goals,” Wagner insists. “Don’t think ‘This is something that we have to reach’. In my first meeting with the group this summer, I said we would set no limits for this season. And if you give yourself a target then you give yourself a limit.”
Much like Klopp did at Mainz and then Dortmund, Wagner is redefining what Huddersfield might have thought their ceiling as a club was. They have not been in the top division of English football since the early 1970s - and for just four seasons in total since 1953 - but currently sit third in the Championship, the unrealistic but possible achievement of finishing in the top six and qualifying for the play-offs all but secured.
Ahead of them are Brighton, who missed out on promotion to the Premier League on goal difference last season, and Newcastle United, a behemoth by second-tier standards. Huddersfield are 10 points clear of Norwich City, the first team out of the top six, with a game in hand.
They head into their sold-out date with Man City at the 24,500-capacity John Smith’s Stadium as the form team in the country, having won six matches in a row. At the beginning of February, they beat promotion rivals Brighton and Leeds United in the space of four days, with Wagner’s jubilant, Klopp-esque celebrations after a late winner against the latter - also their Yorkshire rivals - sparking a mass shoving match around the dugouts.
Wagner has achieved all of this not by persuading his chairman, Dean Hoyle, to loosen the purse strings but by mixing loanees and homegrown players with signings from unfashionable German clubs. His centre-backs, Michael Hefele and Christopher Schindler, arrived from Dynamo Dresden and 1860 Munich respectively, while attacking midfielder Izzy Brown has played a major part in the current winning run since joining on loan from Chelsea in January.
“Huddersfield don't have the biggest budget in the Championship, which makes it a tough place to trade,” Hoyle told Talksport. “We wanted organisation and we wanted an identity. People who watched Huddersfield over the years didn't understand what the identity was - it changed from year to year. We needed one and that led us to a foreign coach.”
City, ironically, have played their part by lending Huddersfield midfielder Aaron Mooy, who has been so good that there were rumours Guardiola was considering recalling him in January following the season-ending injury suffered by Ilkay Gundogan. City are also said to have received an £8 million bid for the Australian from another Championship club.
Mooy stayed, but is ineligible to play on Saturday against his parent club. His absence makes Huddersfield’s chances of pulling off a giant killing a little more unrealistic, but with Wagner around anything is possible.