Norwich City: Where were you when you were…good?

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Our latest guest post comes from Adam Orton, one half of  Debra Orton Illustration – bloggers and sellers of limited edition football print artwork and proud Highbury residents. It may surprise watchers of Match of the Day that Norwich City’s current successes are far from a novelty in the history of the club and here, Adam takes an entertaining look back to a previous occasion when the Norfolk club ascended out of Hades. The illustration we have used is a production of Adam and Debra’s business and who wouldn’t be tempted to add this to their list of ideal birthday presents? You can follow Adam on twitter at @IamOrtonomous.

“You get nothing for being top at Christmas” – Mike Walker, 1992

Saturday 15th August, 1992. The first day of the brand new Premier League football thingy. Now I’ve never been one for realising the importance of important things. For example the impact of computers was lost on me even after a stern talking to by the school IT guru within the confines of the hallowed school computer room circa 1980: I just didn’t get it. So I had no chance, let alone the vision, to foresee the massive changes that were soon to befall association football thanks to a greedy Australian and some equally money-mad men in suits in Lancaster Gate. New name, same game I naively thought. If I had got ‘it’ I’d have realised that 1992 would be the last proper season I would ever see my beloved Norwich have a real good go at winning the top title. That is until the money, and narrow media focus on the so called ‘Big 4’, dwarfed everyone else.

But on this summer’s day I was still blissfully unaware of what the future would bring and with a skip in my step I bowled up to my mate Woodsy’s gaff on the Highbury/Islington borders. After exchanging pleasantries we walked the 100 yards from his front door to the Hen and Chickens pub at Highbury Corner for a couple of cheeky pre-match pints. An hour or so later, suitably imbibed by Mistress Stella, we set off to make the short walk to Arsenal’s Highbury Stadium via Highbury Fields, Highbury Barn, Highbury Hill and all other things named Highbury.

Now, it was never the biggest of grounds, but it was an even smaller Highbury that greeted us this time, as the North Bank was being redeveloped as per the Taylor Report’s recommendation for all-seater stadia. To obscure these major building works, some Einstein at Arsenal had decreed that it would be better for the players if they attacked a huge mural made up of painted faces – just like a real crowd, do you see? Initially the giant painting revealed itself as an Aryan masterpiece; a rallying point for the far right, if you will. That was until people complained and some black faces were hastily added. As a PR balls up it was brilliantly executed. Either way, it was a bizarre spectacle to have staring back at you so God only knows what the players made of it.

We took up position in the tiny away-end corner terracing and waited for kick off. I’m always double optimistic before a game whereas Woodsy, Norwich born and bred, always thinks we’ll lose.

Now aside from this being the first day of the Prem there were a couple of other firsts:

1. It was Mike Walker’s, AKA the Silver Fox’s, first competitive match as manager. I’ll confess neither Woodsy or I had heard of him. He had been City’s goalkeeping coach before stepping up and taking the main job. Goalies managing? That’s a bit like a punch-drunk boxer running the country.

2. That day the introduction of the no back pass back rule came into effect; another step into the unknown.

Both these facts unsettled me slightly but I was wrestling another Arse demon, but more on that shortly. The game kicked off and I had every right to feel a tad tense. Arsenal ran us ragged so it was no great surprise when after 28 minutes Steve Bould scored Arsenal’s first which was quickly followed by Kevin Campbell making it two. It was all too easy.

And then suddenly, on 70 minutes, with an Arsenal win seemingly inevitable, everything changed. Walker brought on Norwich’s new signing from Manchester United, Mark Robins, who pretty much scored instantly with a header. Woodsy went uncharacteristically positive here and shouted in my ear that it was good we’d scored, we could go home feeling proud of the lads. Three minutes later it got even better. Jeremy ‘The God’ Goss floated in a cross that should have been bread and butter for the Arsenal keeper David Seaman. But as history would go on to prove, Seaman couldn’t keep a clean sheet when balls were in the air. He stretched out his gloved hand and grabbed a big handful of nothing. It was left to David Phillips to gratefully volley in the equaliser. As Phillips peeled away and performed his customary goal scoring tumble, in the away end we were getting seriously excited. Woodsy was beginning to hyperventilate and shout ‘no more’, ‘sit back lads’, ‘defend’ and ‘settle for what we’ve got’. The rest of us wanted more.

And that’s what happened. Over the 1992-93 season we continued to improve under the guidance of the Silver Fox and his coaching team. That season, Norwich City played with a mixture of grace, flair and élan. We were fearless and by the season’s end we had won 21 games losing only twice at home (Manchester United, eventual winners of the title, were the only other team to equal that feat) and finished third in the league having led the Premiership for over half the season. The few games we did lose we lost with total commitment to the cause and a certain cavalier attitude to the notion of goals conceded.

The 7-1 tonking at the boots of Shearer and Blackburn was a particular highlight of this philosophy. I shrugged it off. No need to get down in the dumps – after all it was just Norwich being Norwich and they’d bounce back. And we did by beating QPR 2-1. An average result contained within an outstanding season. More importantly a supreme demonstration of personal bravery and dignity by Gunn as he played that game despite having just lost his daughter to leukaemia. I think his achievements as a player for Norwich City Football Club far outweigh his brief unsuccessful period of management. Time to move on methinks..?

Back at Highbury, Arsenal were now definitely rattled. Goss played in Ruuuuuuuuuuuwell Fox, a player who’s name was made for a Norfolk accent and he deftly scored our third goal. I now knew what it felt like to be the love child of Zebedee and the Tasmanian Devil as I bounced and spun around our away cage, punching the air whilst grunting incomprehensible ejaculates of pure ecstasy. As an Islington born lad, by rights I should have been an Arsenal supporter but fate had sent me to Norfolk at an early age in the bosom of a football-hating family. They tried to beat it out of me but I rebelled and eventually I managed to see City play and that was that. Coming back to London hadn’t diminished my City love – if anything it had strengthened it and right now my faith in all things yellow and green was finally paying off. Handsomely.

Woodsy was now sitting on the terrace steps feverishly alternating between shouting “Yessssssssss!” and breathing into a brown paper bag to control the rising panic of a possible Norwich win. Just then Tony Adams miscontrolled a simple ball and, without missing a beat, Robins stole in between him and Lee Dixon and lobbed Seaman from 30 yards out to rubber stamp our win. I became delirious. I don’t doubt some of it was dehydration on account of all that pre-match beer, but as I’ve mentioned previously, something else was heightening my emotions and it was almost too beautiful for words.

Three years previously, ‘referee’ George Tyson had gifted a game at Highbury against us to Arsenal. I’d watched that match as a real person in the North Bank with a Gooner mate. He, along with all his Arsenal chummers, couldn’t believe how the game had been handed to them. Tyson seemed to decide that Arsenal deserved not one, but two soft penalties. The sense of injustice and unfairness as the second one was awarded, for nothing, with 90 minutes up on the clock was heart wrenching. Made worse because Gunn actually saved it only for a miskick of a follow up to be enough to help trickle the ball over the line for the Arsenal win. As I stood there trying to shut out the sound of the celebrations all around me: I was despondent. To almost quote The Smiths all I wanted to do was to go home, to cry and to die. It wasn’t the losing that ate me up, I was used to that, it was the injustice of how the win was achieved. To right the wrong I needed us to win at Highbury so I could move on.

The 15th August 1992 was that time. On the shrill of the final whistle I dragged a prostrate Woodsy off the terrace steps (he was now doing that waving hand over face thing that girls do when they’re trying not to cry) and we hot legged it out of the stadium and back to the Hen and Chickens. As we barged excitedly though the door we discovered we were the first to arrive. ‘What was the score lads?’ the barman asked. ‘We won!’ I shouted back. ‘Oh well’ he replied with a voice that was professionally neutral but still betrayed disappointment. ‘No mate, we won – we’re Norwich!’ ‘Well in that case…’ and he proceeded to give us a pint each on the house because, as it transpired, the barman was a Tottenham supporter (it was a long time Gooner readers, and he no longer works there!).

So now, somewhat belatedly, I’d like to dedicate that free, celebratory pint to: Gunny, Bowen, Butterworth, Polston, Sutton, Ruuuuuuwelll, God, Phillips, Newmario, Meggers, Chippy, Robins and the Silver Fox. Right now, we’re enjoying wonderful times again thanks to Sir Paul of Lambert, Wesley ‘Wessi’ Hoolahan, Grant ‘Horse’ Holt et al. However, back then we’d not seen a Norwich team play football of the silky, smooth quality the 92/93 team served up. Sure we’d always been a pretty, passing side, but Walker installed a sophisticated edge that made it an absolute joy to watch.

Sadly it wasn’t to last. The following season we had our (so called) ‘European Adventure’ after which Robert Chase, City’s then chairman, started asset stripping the squad and Walker eventually resigned in frustration. But before the lights were turned off there was a brilliance emanating from any pitch the 92/93 team graced. And for a season and a bit Woodsy and I basked in it.

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