The following quote is taken from the Norwich City programme for the game against Everton at Carrow Road.
A word of caution. We must not allow our feeling of pride in last season’s achievements blind us to the fact that this is a new campaign. It will be more arduous, more demanding, than any Norwich City have experienced before, but, given the effort from all concerned, that I am sure will be forthcoming, it can also be the most memorable.
Those words, written by the Norwich City Chairman should strike a chord with all of us. He rightly acknowledges the previous season’s efforts but is at pains to point out that the real hard work started this season, one which we would – and have – inevitably, found much more of a challenge. A cautionary tale in what has been, to date, a season stamped with an element of that caution that Alan Bowkett has illustrated in the above passage.
Except that the words are not those of the current Norwich Chairman, but of one of his predecessors, Geoffrey Watling and the programme they appeared in was the one for our very first game in English top flight football, the First Division fixture against Everton on August 12th 1972.
As things go in the great pantheon that is football, Everton, who return to Carrow Road for the twenty-first time since then for a league game this Saturday have cropped up quite a few times as supporting cast members in the Canaries recent history. Those who were lucky enough to be there for that historic game will recall an exciting game which Everton dominated only for Norwich to go ahead with a 39th minute goal from Jimmy Bone. The Canaries managed to hang until ten minutes before the end before a Canary-to-be, Joe Royle stooped low to conquer, his headed goal earning the Toffees a 1-1 draw and denying Norwich a win in their very first Divison One game. Bone’s goal was the first of 1,089 (to date) to come for Norwich in a top flight fixture, and, as goals go, although it may not have been the best, most spectacular or most important, it will, for those very obvious reasons, remain as one of the most significant.
If all of the footballing world is indeed a stage, then Everton have most definitely been one of the major players in Norwich City’s recent history.
On September 6th 1975 Ted MacDougall scored his second top-flight hat-trick in consecutive home league games against them – an achievement that no Norwich player is ever likely to repeat. Fast forward a little over four years from then to the opening day of the 1979/80 season, Norwich starting it with some style, winning 4-2 at Goodison Park – the Canaries first away win in the league for two years and the first time the club had scored four goals in an away game at the top level – just as our 5-1 win at Goodison in 1993 was the first time the Canaries scored five goals in an away game at the highest level. Efan Ekoku’s four made him our record goalscorer in an away game in the Premier League as well as the first player to score four goals in an away game at that level.
And there’s more.
Who did Norwich beat to win the 1983 FA Youth Cup Final, the only time that trophy has ever been won by the Canaries? Who beat us in the 1989 FA Cup semi-final, the first time we had reached that stage of the competition as a top flight club? Which club were the opposition when Darren Beckford scored a hat-trick for Norwich at Carrow Road?
Everton, Everton, Everton.
And then of course, there is the strange case of Mike Walker.
When Mike was appointed Norwich Manager in the summer of 1992, weeks before we commenced our first ever season of football as Premier League club (and no prizes for guessing who we played in our very first Saturday afternoon kick off in the Premier League? Yep, Everton again), fellow MyFootballWriter columnist Kevin Baldwin astutely commented that, far from being well known, Walker was not even “a household name in his own household”. But he soon put that right.
The opening day of that season saw Walker’s side, two down at half time to Arsenal at Highbury, rally to win 4-2, winning six of their following nine Premier League games – with the first points of that campaign dropped against, yes , Everton – and going onto hold an eight point lead at the top of the Premier League shortly before Christmas.
That’s always worth reading (and writing) more than once, especially if you are a relatively new convert to the frequent agony and rare ecstasy that is being a Canary fan, so take it all in again here: on December 8th 1992, Norwich City FC were eight, yes, EIGHT points clear at the top of the Premier League. The number of goals we’d scored to get that far, 34, was only two short of the number we had managed all season two decades previously, following Bone’s strike against the Toffees on that opening day. On the way to that elevated position we’d won at Arsenal, Chelsea and Aston Villa as well as, before the end of the season seeing off Chelsea again at Stamford Bridge and having two separate players score hat-tricks; Mark Robins against Oldham and Chris Sutton against Leeds United – who were reigning Champions at the time. The following season we beat Leeds again, 4-0 at Elland Road; knocked Everton aside to the tune of 5-1 at Goodison and, after going behind twice, big spending Blackburn at Ewood Park. All of that and the UEFA Cup campaign. Happy, wonderful days.
The architect behind all that? That man Walker. And, after all of that, after guiding Norwich to a record breaking third place finish in the Premier League, a UEFA Cup run that included the first – and only – win for a British side at Bayern Munich’s Olympic Stadium and a run of form and wins that made the whole nation sit up and take notice of Norwich in a whole new light – one we had not felt before nor experienced since – he upped and left us.
Understandably he didn’t want to leave. He’d built something rather special at Norwich. His team featured some good and a few outstanding players – think Ian Crook, Mark Bowen, Ian Culverhouse and Chris Sutton for starters. Throw in David Phillips, Ruel Fox and Jerry Goss to the mix, add two master signings in Mark Robins and Gary Megson – the latter signed despite Robert Chase’s strong opposition to the move (Chase clearly decided he wasn’t going to lose an argument with a Manager over players again as his successful stand-off with Martin O’Neill over Dean Windass three years later showed) and you had the makings of a very good side, a collection of high quality, high calibre players, both individually and collectively.
Walker, like Paul Lambert two decades later, was a master motivator. The old saying about a footballer being prepared to run through a brick wall for their Manager never applied more appropriately than it did for him and the way in which he was regarded by his players. Looking back on his own relationship with Walker at that time, Jerry Goss says that, “…he gave me a chance, he trusted me and he knew my character…when a Manager has that sort of confidence in you, it makes a hell of a difference”. Which it certainly did for Gossy, his first team debut at Norwich had been way back in 1984, a footballing eternity before he sprang to national fame with his goals against the likes of Leeds United. Bayern Munich and Liverpool. Walker had seen the passion in Goss’s eyes, the determination to succeed and had harnessed those qualities together with no little ability, making Goss a fulcrum in his side for that memorable eighteen months. Yet Walker brought more than confidence and self belief to his side, he also brought a new way of playing football, a new way of tactical thinking, one that, once the players got used to it, proved to be the cornerstone of their success. It was a potent mix, charismatic leadership combined with an astute tactical nous-and it worked. Big time.
But why didn’t that same formula work out for him at Goodison?
Everton fans remain united in their belief that he is the worse Manager that their club has ever had. Yet he is rated by many Norwich supporters as the best Manager that the Canaries have ever had. Where did it all go wrong?
Maybe Walker reacted too hastily in departing Norwich? Maybe, given that the writing was already on the wall as regards the tenure of the deeply unpopular Chase, he could have gritted his teeth and hung on in there, knowing that, sooner or later, a new regime would be in charge at Norwich and that, under their auspices, the change of direction that was needed to accommodate his plans might just have been put into place? Maybe – and this is critical in my opinion – he just ‘fitted’ at Norwich, that we were his club and he wouldn’t be able to recreate the magic, the success anywhere else.
It happens in football after all. Players and Managers click with one particular club. “Their” club and a unique chemistry. They may move on but it never really works out for them. Maybe this is why Walker failed at Everton, that is was as simple a reason as that: they were never destined to get along.
The greatest pity of all however, for me, is that no-one looked to give him another chance in the English game following his premature second departure from Carrow Road at the end of the1997/98 season. So many Managers seem to get on the old managerial “merry go round”, going from one club to another, spending astronomical amounts of money but rarely getting any success and, inevitably, regarding the sack as nothing more than a cue to the next job. We’ve seen it this week in football with Paul Ince. Blackpool will be his sixth managerial post in seven years. Gary Megson, that signing of Walker’s who made such an impact on the team that season is now in his ninth managerial job in England at Sheffield Wednesday. How many trophies has he won in those (so far) nine jobs? Zero. One door closes, another one opens-for him and many more. Yet, after Walker left us in 1998 it was a case of one door closing-and all of the other ones staying resolutely locked and barred-despite him applying for a number of other jobs.
We know what he achieved at Norwich. At Everton he kept a poor side in the Premier League and was in the process of rebuilding it – one of his signings at Goodison, Duncan Ferguson cites and praises Walker for making him the player he was – which was a very good one indeed, a target man who, when at his peak, had few peers in the English game. Everton sacked him (two days after a league game against – yes, the pattern goes on – Norwich) fearful of another relegation fight under him-yet his much vaunted successor, Joe Royle, only kept them up that season by a margin of five points. So did sacking Walker really make that much difference that season-and could, should, he have been given more time? I, for one, believe that he should have been and that, given that time, he would have turned them around and had the same sort of impact at Goodison that he did at Carrow Road-and, given that most precious of commodities again at Carrow Road during his “second coming” might yet have got us back into the Premier League long before we eventually achieved it-as well as spared us the tenure of Bryan Hamilton-which wouldn’t have been a bad thing!
Mike now lives in Cyprus. I wish him well.