In many ways, some might argue that centre-back Michael Hefele was already a cult hero at Town before he kicked a ball.
After signing for Town from his boyhood club Dynamo Dresden in the summer of 2016, Town fans had already developed an emotional attachment to the player thanks to his antics on a megaphone surrounded by Dresden fans in a now infamous video on YouTube.
Fans immediately connected to the way he interacted with those fans. His chanting within close proximity to the fans demonstrated a genuine passion and a human side we rarely see in our British counterparts, who are often mechanically constructed through rigorous media training that produces banal soundbites and engineers players to show as little emotion and as little of an opinion as possible for fear of rocking the boat. ‘The Hef’ didn’t seem to adhere to those stereotypes.
This laid-back, jovial and mischievous character was later confirmed during a pre-season video where during an interview with then new signing Danny Ward, Hef photobombed the interview, strolling through the background in nothing but a large white dressing gown and some shades on. In that moment I think most fans fell in love.
However, it was not until one fateful Tuesday night at Villa Park towards the beginning of the season where we saw a moment of magic or madness depending on what team you supported on the night. As we were inching towards a hard-fought but unfortunate 1-0 defeat to newly relegated Aston Villa, Midfielder Aaron Mooy punted a hopeful long ball upfield for someone to chase. Having just come on as an auxiliary striker, Hef duly chased it down with 99.9% of fans expecting the keeper to clear the ball and for the game to peter out into disappointment. How wrong we were.
After busting a gut to chase the ball down, Hef jumped and turned away from the ball and the ball duly rebounded off his backside and into the back of the Villa net, sending the traveling fans into delirium. One of the most bizarre goals that Town have ever and will ever score, might just have been the catalyst for the utterly magic promotion winning season we have just had.
Hef also made his mark on several other games with important goals, notably against Rochdale when he came on as a second-half substitute and scored twice to kill off a very spirited Rochdale performance. But his most important contribution and one which elevated him from fans favourite into cult icon was undoubtedly his last minute winner in the local derby against Leeds and his subsequent antics that followed.
In hindsight, this was a crucial goal not only in securing Town’s playoff spot but also in derailing Leeds’s campaign. To cap it off, in his post-match interview, ever-honest Hef described the moment as a ‘Fucking dream’. The shock and amazement at this Freudian slip sent tidal waves across social media with his slip of the tongue becoming the catch-word for our unforgettable season and a cheeky chant to spur the players on in games in times of need, albeit with a family-friendly amendment for related merchandise.
We also easily forget that Hef did not become a regular feature of the team until several months into the season thanks to the excellent performances of Mark Hudson which helped us stay top of the league for several weeks, a period some Town fans all too easily forget. In this time, he never once complained and always publicly backed the team both on the sidelines and in interviews. But when he did break into the side, he was an ever-present alongside Christopher Schindler and they formed a largely imperious defence that was the catalyst for the majority of our victories, which often were earned by one goal margins.
Whilst not as graceful on the ball as human Rolls-Royce Schindler, Hef’s footballing qualities are often under-rated by some Town fans. He has shown great calm and composure throughout the season as well as being the starting point for many attacks. Notable examples include the world-class goal that was scored by Nakhi Wells in the away game at Queens Park Rangers which he started as well as performances in the play-off semi-finals against Sheffield Wednesday and final against Reading.
In the playoffs, teams tried to counter our passing game by cutting off the time and space Schindler was afforded and force the Town attacks to be started by Hef. However, he was more than up to the task and acquitted himself excellently. He also gives great balance to the centre of our defence, providing the toughness, visceral strength and organizational skills that are needed to form a strong defensive unit whilst being a clear leader on the field and regularly barking encouragement or orders to players when he needs to.
His performances in the playoffs were imperious and he made several goal-saving tackles, interceptions or blocks with Sky Sports awarding him the Man of the Match for the away leg at Hillsborough.
The most important reason why I and many others, view the Hef as their favourite Town player for many years is his character and the work he has done off the field to support the club. It is very rare you see a professional football player feel so at ease in his own skin and not be afraid to be himself 100%.
If I was a young kid watching Town and seen his antics, that would have had a huge influence on me that I too could be as loud or expressive as I want and be rewarded and praised for it. Young fans are flocking to our club at levels I have never seen before and players like Hef have been massive to achieving that. In a world where players seem to be increasingly being produced in the same robotics factory, this personality trait cannot be overstated.
Maverick is often the phrase people use for players like this but that sometimes has negative connotations with players who spit their dummy out when they are dropped, showboat for the sake of showboating or falling out with managers over wage demands. Champion would be the word I’d use for Hef. He has carried out community work for the Town Foundation, visiting schools who are part of our free breakfast programme, delivered talks to youngsters who might now be inspired to become professional footballers or just to help them become good people and he always has time for fans, even visiting cancer wards at the local hospital for fans whose unfortunate circumstances mean they have not seen him play live in the flesh.
Whilst some fans unfairly seem to think he might not be good enough for the Premier League, what this season should have taught everyone is that this group of players are a very special bunch and deserve the chance to show us what they can do in the ‘promised land’.
I for one, cannot wait to see what he can do and a ‘Hefele 44’ new kit purchase will be one of the first things I do when it’s released. Hef showed all of us that there really are no limits for this club of ours and that a Heffing dream, with hard work, determination and heart can become a Heffing reality.