This is the decision that haunts every Huddersfield Town fan to this day. The greatest “what if” moment in the modern history of the club.
It’s one that every fan of the Terriers will read through their fingers, and one that I would struggle to write without constantly typing “screw Flanders” instead of writing anything.
Fortunately Town fan Pete Anstock tells the story, and does it quite exceptionally.
It all started the on 3 February 1999 with the fireworks display before the FA Cup fourth round replay with Wrexham. Town were sitting comfortably in tenth place in their fourth season in football’s second tier and despite the “Great Escape” of the preceding season, it appeared things were on the up for Huddersfield Town and their manager Peter Jackson.
The fireworks were heralding the takeover of Barry Rubery and as the smoke cleared around the McAlpine Stadium, myself and 15,426 others were probably all thinking that Huddersfield Town were on the verge of something bigger. Little did we know that within less than a year, the fireworks would be remembered as nothing more than smoke and mirrors.
For the short term, the fireworks did their trick and lowly Wrexham were dispatched with goals from Town’s talisman, Marcus Stewart and the enigmatic Ben Thornley, an early season signing, who appeared to be returning to his early form after a series of injuries.
As the season progressed, Barry Rubery made statements about cash pools available for players and how Peter Jackson would be the man to invest in those new players. However, despite the arrival of a couple of players, Town’s season faltered and they ended up finishing 10th; a position they had held since the talks of the takeover had entered the public domain.
The day after that season’s final game at the McAlpine; an uninspiring goalless draw against Crewe; Barry Rubery sacked Peter Jackson. It was a decision which surprised a great number of fans, as Jacko was a popular character. He would ultimately return for a further period of success at the club, albeit under different circumstances, but that is another story. However, the decision to sack Jackson wasn’t the worst decision made under this era; that was still to come.
A little under two weeks after Jacko’s sacking, a billboard sprung up at Shorehead roundabout with the new manager shrouded under a blanket in a pose reminiscent of a heinous villain arriving at court. “Who will it be?” the billboard proclaimed. All was revealed on 25 May 1999 when Steve Bruce was unveiled as the new manager of Huddersfield Town.
The season started well under Bruce, several new signings came in and Town were top of the table in mid-December when Liverpool visited the McAlpine for a televised FA Cup 3rd round tie. Although Town lost 0-2, they were not disgraced and the pundits’ view was that Rubery’s masterplan was working and Town would soon be in this elevated company on a weekly basis.
In the New Year, Steve Bruce decided his priorities lie with Man Utd and their ill-fated trip to Brazil for the World Club Championship (hence the FA Cup tie in mid-December1). Bruce’s dereliction of duty to go fawning over Man Utd coincided with a dip in Town’s fortunes, as they slipped to fifth. Bruce returned, and by the end of January Town appeared to have ridden out their slump with a home win over Tranmere courtesy of a goal by Marcus Stewart, followed by a hard fought point at Selhurst Park, with Stewart scoring a both goals in a draw with Palace. I remember Stewart leaving the pitch that day and applauding the Town fans. Something wasn’t right.
All was revealed on 1st February 2000 when the board announced their crazy decision. This was a decision that would wreck Town’s 1999-2000 campaign, send them spiralling down the Football League, lead to them entering administration within 3 years and spending the next 12 years in the hinterlands of the lower divisions.
That decision was of course to sell leading goalscorer Marcus Stewart to ambitious promotion rivals Ipswich Town, who were 3 points above Town, for a paltry £2.75m.
As Town fans despaired at the board’s stupidity, there was the looming fixture against Ipswich Town 12 days after Stewart’s sale. I’m sure Nostradamus didn’t follow Town, but Town fans were fully prepared for the painful fact that Stewart was destined to score against us. He did. Stewart got the winner in a 2-1 victory that strengthened Ipswich’s position above Town in the playoff chase. 2
There was a lot of anger at the sale of Stewart, and the board countered by naively stating that it was good business for Town as it was the only offer on the table. I never understood that argument. After all, none of the board would have sold their houses for £50k because it was the only offer on the table, so why do it with a prized asset?
Town limped on for the rest of the season, holding onto a playoff place heading into the final game of the season at Craven Cottage against a Fulham side with nothing to play for. The 90 minutes that followed was probably the most insipid performance that I have ever seen by a Town side, as a Lee Clark inspired Fulham ripped Town apart 3-0.
Town finished 8th whilst a Marcus Stewart inspired Ipswich finished 13 points ahead in 3rd and were promoted via the playoffs.
And so it came to pass. The next season was a disaster, Bruce was fired, his assistant Lou Macari took over but failed to stop the rot and Town were relegated at home to Birmingham City on the last day of the season, when the only possible set of results that could send Town down all fell into place, with a little bit of help from Dougie Freedman’s hand.
Meanwhile, Ipswich were the surprise package in the Premier League as Marcus Stewart was the star of Match of the Day as he ran Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink a close second for the Premiership’s golden boot. On the weekend that Town were relegated, Ipswich Town were securing a place in Europe.
Two years later, Rubery and his chairman, Ian Ayre had departed2; Town dropped into the bottom division and then went into administration. This was a chain of events that had been triggered by the unnecessary sale of one key player.
And so 12 years on, with Town proudly completing their hard fought journey back to reclaim their place in the second tier of English football. Armed with their new talisman; the prolific Jordan Rhodes, and an ambitious chairman. What could possibly go wrong?
We couldn’t possibly make the same mistake again could we?
1 The FA Cup 3rd round was held in mid-December that year as it was the start of the systematic devaluing of the FA Cup, when the blazers at the FA rescheduled the rounds to cater for Man Utd entering the World Club Championships in Brazil.
2 Ian Ayre remarkably turned up at Liverpool as MD and has been at the helm for what has unsurprisingly been a turbulent period for the Merseysiders
Be sure to follow Pete on twitter @westerhampete