Twenty years ago this Saturday, give or take a day or so, the Canaries met Coventry City in a Premier League game at Carrow Road in front of a dismally small crowd of 13,613.
The football was as much a letdown as the attendance. Chris Sutton gave Norwich an early lead only for that bright start to ebb away with the winters sun, Micky Quinn replying to the constant terrace baiting he was attracting in the best possible way by thumping home an equaliser midway through the second half.
And that’s how it stayed.
A disappointing result against a team we had been expected to beat. Not the first time it had happened – and certainly not the last. It was all the more of a let-down for the sparse Canary faithful who had attended because of how our nearest rivals in the Premier League table took advantage of our unexpected slip-up.
Aston Villa proceeded to rout Middlesbrough (5-1) on the following day, whilst, a little over 24 hours later, perennial Sky Sports favourites Manchester United took to the stage as half of the footballing side show that followed the main event of dancing girls, inflatable Sumo wrestlers and enough pyrotechnics to obliterate a small planet by doing exactly the same at Queens Park Rangers. Ince, Giggs, Kanchelskis. Bang bang bang, 3-1 and top of the Premier League for the Red Devils. At the expense of the Canaries.
Seems unreal now, doesn’t it? For much of that inaugural Premier League season, Norwich topped the table. At one point we were, and read this slowly, EIGHT points clear at the top. Of the Premier League. Extraordinary. One bloke’s even written a book about that crazy season, that one of Fantasy Football when we could, maybe should, have won it.
That crazy season when Mike Walker went from, in the immortal words of Kevin Baldwin, of being, “…not even a household name in his own household…” to one of the most talked about and sought after names in English football.
Such was the cacophony surrounding him that there were even suggestions that he could eventually become the England manager – speculation which, at that time and the eighteen months that followed, seemed increasingly plausible.
Think about it – were those claims so ridiculous?
He had taken over a provincial Premier League club who commenced that season as odds on favourites for relegation as far as Ladbrokes were concerned. They were offering 5/2 on that happening, the same sort of odds they normally offer on the sun rising in the morning. A certainty in other words, a racing one for a club that had lost nine of their final twelve league games of the preceding season.
During the Summer that followed, the Canaries star player and talisman, Robert Fleck joined Chelsea, unconvinced of both the ambition and direction (as well as the wage structure) that the forever economical Canaries were taking. And, when you consider that Walker’s only other managerial role had been at bottom tier club Colchester United some five years earlier – which had ended with his getting the sack – well, it was not difficult to concur with either the thoughts of the Scot or the odds offered by the bookmakers.
Yet, tellingly, his appointment was a popular one with the players. They knew and respected him. Some, as members of his Reserve Team that previous campaign, were familiar with his coaching and man management skills. They knew that Norwich had made a good appointment and were not slow to share that view with their team-mates.
And, slowly but surely, a buzz began to surround the club, an air of optimism about what was to come, one which started with that famous opening day win at Highbury and reached its zenith with defeat but high praise and Europe-wide recognition and praise at the San Siro less than eighteen months later.
At that precise moment in time, the club could have done one of two things. The obvious and compelling argument was to listen to Walker’s long established viewpoint that the club would stagnate unless due faith and consequent investment was made in both him and the team.
He had long been hinting to his Chairman that continued progress and achievement was possible but, in order for that to be realised, investment in new players was essential. He had stoically borne earlier rebuffs by biting his lip. However, with his club again up there with the Premier League elite, as well as having made a considerable mark on European football at the first attempt, he wasn’t going to be so demure the second time around.
He was ambitious, he had proved his managerial nous and ability. And if he wasn’t going to reach it with Norwich then he’d do the unthinkable and look to do so somewhere else. So he called Mr Chase’s bluff, expecting, along with both players and fans that the money would be found and the Canaries would look to build upon their extraordinary early success in the Premier League.
Which, of course, never happened.
It was one rebuff too many by the Chairman, this time over a request by Walker to renegotiate the terms and security of his own contract that finally tipped the increasingly impatient Walker over the edge. And be honest now; in his position, what would you have done? Walker felt he had no choice but to walk away.
Despite that top three finish and the continued challenge the following season and, despite the clubs run in Europe, it seemed his ability as Manager was still being questioned. Thus, barely a month after he had led his team out at the San Siro, Walker quit the club and was duly appointed as Everton Manager.
Where his managerial downfall is an equally spectacular, if less regaled story.
Everton were in a state of near calamity when he joined them. Since had had masterminded Norwich’s 5-1 victory there back in September, their league record, including that game was nine points from seventeen games. The appointment of Walker made perfect sense. He had not only fought similar fires that might have vanquished the Canaries but lit a few of his own in the process.
The fit seemed perfect – ambitious manager and progressive one. Big club. Big budget. The Goodison faithful sat back and waited for things to happen. Which they most certainly did. Walker’s Canaries had scored five goals in his first game for them. At Everton they went one better, thrashing Swindon 6-2.
From whence on, after just one game, it went as swiftly downhill for Walker at Goodison as it had gone the opposite way in Norfolk. When he took his new charges to Carrow Road for a Premier League meeting with Norwich towards the end of March, he’d only managed a further two wins in the League.
Norwich were doing even worse – the Canaries hadn’t won a league game since his departure! No matter. The Canaries 3-0 victory woefully exposed the shortcomings of his Everton side who only won a further two games that season, a fortuitous victory over Wimbledon on the last day keeping them in the Premier League – just.
He had, depending on your point of view kept them up – or nearly seen them relegated. The people who counted took the latter view. And from then on, his card was most definitely marked.
In typically confident mood, he led the club into the 1994/95 season. But, however much he wanted it, however much he believed in himself, his abilities and his deep conviction that he was the man to make Everton a force again, it appeared, straight away, that they were thoughts that were not shared by his players.
The club had a disastrous start to the campaign, failing to even win a game until the beginning of November, plummeting to the bottom of the Premier League in the process. Thus, by the time they rolled up at Carrow Road on November 5th, the heat was most definitely on. The turgid 0-0 draw that followed was enough for the Everton Chairman who, turning out to be a far greater nemesis for Walker than Chase had ever been, sacked him just two days later.
How ironic – and sad – that his last ever game in top flight football was at the ground where his legend was born and where, in precious hindsight, he may now consider that the grass was indeed greener.
Two decades later of course, Norwich experienced another “Walker moment”. Paul Lambert, who, like Walker, had arrived at Carrow Road from the modest footballing confines of Colchester United also chose to jump ship, determining – like Walker – that this club “ain’t big enough for the both of us”.
He, like Walker again – had found the lure and attraction of taking the helm of a bigger and, for him, a perceived better club, irresistible. And – like Walker – his departure from Carrow Road was accompanied by accusations, claims, counter claims and talk of compensation and tribunals.
It was Karl Marx who said, “History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce.” And if Walker’s departure back in 1995 seemed like a tragedy at the time, then the circumstances surrounding Lambert last Summer certainly seemed farcical at times.
The parallels between the two men are remarkable ones. For, with Lambert enduring a similar disappointing time at his own “bigger and better club”, one is left to wonder if, like Walker, his clubs appointment at Carrow Road on May 4th may meet with a similar denouement for the ex-Canary in charge of the visitors?
Stranger things have happened.