Huddersfield have been relegated from the Premier League. Now what? Jan Siewert has a few ideas
Jan Siewert could easily feel like he has been handed an impossible job. He took over as Huddersfield Town manager in January, with the club already firmly rooted to the bottom of the Premier League and sinking without a trace, their relegation a formality. David Wagner did an extraordinary job in taking Huddersfield to the Premier League and keeping them there, but his spirit was eroded by the inability to keep the West Yorkshire club punching above its weight.
Enter Siewert, a manager whose only club experience had come with Rot-Weiss Essen in the German fourth tier, as an assistant manager for second-tier Bochum and as head coach of Borussia Dortmund's reserve team. He became the third consecutive manager of that side to move to England.
It has been a baptism of fire. Huddersfield beat Wolves in late February but have lost every other game that Siewert has managed. With four games of the league season remaining, they have three more points than Derby County's record-low total of 11. The somewhat mythical "new manager bounce," whereby teams have a winning reaction to a change of coaches, didn't come to fruition.
"It hurts. It hurts after every game that you lose," Siewert says. We meet in his office at Huddersfield's training complex ahead of a trip to Tottenham, which most pundits and even plenty of Town supporters expect the team to lose comfortably. (It ended 4-0, with Lucas Moura scoring a hat trick.) This is Siewert's first extended interview in England, and he has some things to say. Although you might expect seemingly constant defeats to destroy a new manager's positivity, he has a different perspective.
"We all knew how special the Premier League was to Huddersfield Town and [to the town of] Huddersfield. Losing that can be hard to take, but what keeps me positive is that the club has always held a long-term view of my appointment. I signed a contract for two-and-a-half years. I wouldn't have come here if they weren't on board with the long-term view. There would be difficult times ahead, and there still might be. Many things that could have gone our way haven't. But keep working toward your vision, and that momentum will change. I firmly believe that."
Relegation can be a punch to the stomach, with the effects of the drop lasting well beyond the one season. Last year's relegated trio currently sit fourth, 13th and 15th in the second tier. Supporters of Championship clubs usually view the parachute payments -- relegated teams are given structured payments over three years to help offset the loss of revenue from exiting the Premier League -- as an artificial leg-up that those relegated from the top tier barely deserve, given that the financial gap between the Premier League and Championship has never been greater, but fewer teams are going straight back up than 20 years ago.
The trend suggests two things for relegated teams: They tend to have an overhaul of players and managers following a drop, provoking a full reset and loss of identity, as well as the psychological damage that levels the financial playing field. Does Siewert believe he can change the mentality of players who have grown so accustomed to losing when they try again next year? How does a manager offset the psychological impact of relegation?
"We must have a good preseason," he says. "We must take some time to look at everything that has happened during this season. The club is willing to learn from its mistakes, but there's also no point ever trying to shy away from them. We have to analyse them in detail. That's the only way to turn them into positives.
"Obviously, each manager needs the best players for his style, and in the recruitment, we now look at players who will fit my ethos. This is absolutely key. When I look at all the teams that are toward the top of the Championship now, each manager has created a team that mirrors them but also has a club determined to get players to fit that style.
"The other thing to note about [transfers] is that you want to bring in players with fresh minds and fresh ideas. The players that got this club promoted and kept them in the Premier League deserve huge credit. But they are hurting now, which is totally normal. Fresh faces can help them change their mood."
Siewert insists that preparation, both physical and mental, is key. Since relegation was confirmed, he has been watching matches involving the teams Huddersfield will play next season. Although he points out that teams are punished less for any individual mistakes outside the Premier League, he then points to clubs with big budgets that continue to struggle as proof that going into next season with any ego would be a monumental error.
"I think the biggest mistake would be to say 'We will bounce straight back up,'" Siewert says. "The only thing we can do is to focus our work and stay true to what we believe in. Through that, results will come. If you stick with it, find the right players for it, it will come.
"Maybe it takes one season, maybe two, but more important than when is the how. Have we got an identity as a club? Do we play in a way that we believe in? Have we developed the facilities that allow us to attract players? Have we improved the academy? These are component parts that make the bigger picture work. It's a long-term view, but that's what a club like Huddersfield need if they are to be a real Premier League club again."
Given Huddersfield's Premier League form, I ask Siewert what he considers to be a perfect "Jan Siewert" performance. Pride in performance, counter-pressing, defensive anticipation, aggression to win back the ball immediately and overlapping runs are all mentioned, but Siewert is at his most emphatic when discussing how highly he values the will and fight of his players.
"When I managed Dortmund's second team, the players who made it, like [Dan-Axel] Zagadou and [Jadon] Sancho? They had a built-in identity to fight," he says. "Fighting is separate from skill. It's about mindset. When people talk about [Cristiano] Ronaldo and [Lionel] Messi, of course they have incredible talent. But they are hardworking, more than we could imagine.
"If you have a talent at playing piano, you won't become a maestro without fight. You have to be ugly to yourself every day. It's the attitude of working. Everything comes through that.
"Even if you delay by one or two seconds, which allows an opponent more space, you have a problem. I need players who don't stop, who will catch you and beat you because they are committed to the spirit of this club. Look at the emblem of [Huddersfield]. We are terriers. If a terrier bites your leg, he isn't going to let go."
Of course Siewert is right. Nothing worth having comes easily, and nothing has come easily to Huddersfield this season. Relegation will improve their and his chances of winning matches, but it can also leave psychological wounds that only months of hard work can heal. Huddersfield have no urgent financial need to go straight back up, but the longer you stay away from the top, the harder it can be to retake your seat.
"In a year's time, I want to be sat here saying that I can see my face in this team," he says. "That is the most important thing. If I see myself in the team that represents this club on the pitch, then I know that results will be coming and Huddersfield will be on the right path. If I see myself in the team, the rest will take care of itself. That's always what I've experienced in my career, and that's what I want to experience here.
"This club was taken to an amazing, unthinkable place by Wagner, his staff and the players. Now we will no longer be in the Premier League. So the next step is to develop a club that can get into the Premier League and stay there. I'm the person to take this club through that process."