Father’s Day: That evening in 1993 when a Polston goal led Norwich City to dream the impossible dreamWed 5 Mar 14 by Edward Couzens-Lake
Has everyone forgotten Sunday yet?
I haven’t. And it’ll take a while.
I posted on Twitter shortly after the end of the match, musing that slowly – based on our good form and result against Tottenham a week earlier – there was evidence that we were starting to play well and look like a half decent team. Thus, the real anguish and annoyance in such a resounding defeat came from the fact that every time those damned Canaries build you up they then do their damndest to knock you down again.
“It isn’t the despair that kills you….” I tweeted, “…it’s the hope.”
Judging by the number of retweets that sad little message got, quite a few people agreed with me.
But we go again. What was it that a band from Burnley observed in the lyrics of one of their most popular and well known tracks?
I get knocked, down but I get up again
You’re never gonna keep me down
And so it is with us Norwich fans. Knock us down as much as you like. Whoever you are, wherever you come from and whatever your motive. Bring it on. Because we’ll just keep on getting up again and coming back for more. And that includes you, Danny Mills.
Whilst watching the build-up to the game on Sunday on Sky, the channel looked back at the 1992/93 season. It’s one we hold close to our yellow and green hearts as it was the one that saw us finish 3rd in the Premier League; something which, with the best will and most ardent hope to the contrary possible, we’ll never do again.
We did the double over Villa that season; one which didn’t see them as a team we were fighting alongside in order to preserve our precious top flight status but one in which we had locked the proverbial horns with in a fight for the first ever Premier League title.
Our first real test of that season had come in the game at Villa Park on 28 November. We were top of the table going into that game, four points ahead of Arsenal and with a decent away record of four wins from eight; Arsenal and Chelsea being two of the away trips from which we’d emerged victorious.
Villa weren’t doing so bad themselves under Ron Atkinson, sat in 4th place and knowing that a win against us would leave them just two points behind us. It was, without any shadow of doubt, the match of the weekend and, quite probably, one of the biggest of that season so far. Two pace setting sides who played good football, got amongst the goals and who, between them, had been two of the talking points of that early Premier League campaign.
Which is probably why the game kicked off at 3pm on the Saturday afternoon; Sky choosing, in their wisdom, to give Sunday star billing to the game between Chelsea and Leeds.
And you can’t blame them. Leeds were the reigning Champions whilst Chelsea, then the eternal underachievers, had spent heavily during the summer in an attempt to rival them and the likes of Liverpool and Arsenal at the top; our very own Robert Fleck being one of their marquee signings.
It was, at the time the televised fixtures were selected, the proverbial ‘no brainer. Aston Villa versus Norwich, on the other hand, would have been regarded as the stuff of a mediocre Saturday afternoon; a run-of-the-mill fixture for the fans only.
Which would have been, nine times out of ten, the absolute truth. Except on this occasion, it wasn’t. In a thrilling game at Villa Park, Norwich went 2-0 up thanks to goals from David Phillips (surely one of the most underrated Norwich players in the clubs history?) and Darren Beckford before strikes from Ray Houghton and Scott Parker brought Villa level.
Would Norwich capitulate under increasing pressure and a noise intensity around the ground which increased by the second? Maybe they would have once and maybe they would in the future. But not this Norwich. Mike Walker, ever the silver-haired footballing cavalier only knew one way of playing and that was to push forward, to attack, to create chances and put the other team on the back foot. Which we did to great effect when, barely two minutes after Parker’s equaliser, Daryl Sutch, of all people, finished off a fast counter attacking move with a shot that squeezed in past Nigel Spink in the Villa goal.
Goal, game and match – and with it a victory that left, post-match, the Canaries a somewhat ludicrous, but nevertheless wonderful five points clear at the top of the Premier League table.
“It’ll never last” said the critics, something which they were still, albeit rather more nervously saying when the time came for the return fixture at Carrow Road on 24 March.
Despite Villa and Norwich sitting first and third respectively in the Premier League prior to kick off, the disdain and disinterest that most people outside of Norwich and Birmingham felt for both club’s chances had, by then, been replaced by almost complete disregard. It was becoming very clear that, with the advent of spring, there was a very real chance that Manchester United – the media-proclaimed “people’s team” – were in with a chance of winning their first top flight Championship since 1967; a prospect that had whipped the footballing population of England into a frenzy of hope and expectation.
It’s hard to believe now but following their capitulation the previous season when a total of just two wins from ten league games enabled their then close rivals Leeds United to steal the title from them, a national love-in for Alex Ferguson and his team was born.
Long lingering shots of a forlorn Sir Matt Busby sat in his regular place at Old Trafford heightened the sense of outrage at the Red Devils implosion to their Yorkshire foes. How could Leeds do this to them, how dare they? Them and their arrogant little Frenchman, it defied belief. Manchester United would never entertain having a player like him in their side. Planet Football mourned an injustice.
From that moment on, there was only ever going to be one winner in the very first season of Premier League football in England. And everyone seemed to be in on it. United’s 2-1 win over Sheffield Wednesday on 10 April 1993 only seemed to come about because the referee was under strict instructions not to end the match until the Red Devils were in a winning position – the decisive goal scored in what seemed like the fifteenth minute of stoppage time immediately being followed by the final whistle.
Job done. Manchester United were back at the top of the table (they had been bottom of the league after just two games) where they would now be destined to stay until the end of that landmark campaign, ultimately winning the trophy and accolade that everyone had been wishing for them.
The fact that it was an ex-Norwich player in Steve Bruce who had scored that near Sunday morning winner against Sheffield Wednesday (and, in Chris Woods, beating another ex-Norwich player and one time teammate) rubbed salt into the wounds of many Norwich fans. They had seen their side jostle for position with United’s superstars throughout the season; title rivals and unlikely challengers themselves, at least in their minds, even if that challenge was never really taken seriously by anyone else in the game.
Which is a shame. Because Norwich really had been serious contenders for the Premier League title throughout the 1992/93 season. The Canaries had only been out of the top three positions in the league once during the entire season and had gone into, through and beyond the busy Christmas period of games as clear leaders. Indeed, a win at Old Trafford in the clubs first meeting of the season on 12 December could have put Walker’s side ten points clear of second-placed Chelsea but, more crucially, twelve ahead of Ferguson’s United; a lead that would only have needed Norwich to more or less maintain their form to end the season as Champions.
As it happened, United won that game 1-0 to reduce Norwich’s lead to just five points ahead of the side who they would be meeting in that potential title showdown come March – Atkinson’s Villa.
The three clubs had a recent history together. Back in 1975, they had been three of the four League Cup semi-finalists. That same season, all three teams – then in Division Two – had won promotion to Division One; United eventually emerging victorious with Villa second and Norwich third. Canary fans could only hope that, eighteen years on, that same sequence was not to be repeated in the final Premier League table of the season.
If the game at Villa Park had been good – and it had, five goals, numerous chances and positive attacking play from both teams – then the return game at Carrow Road was even better. Prior to kick off, the two sides were still nip and tuck with Manchester United at the top of the table, with the Canaries looking to boost their confidence ahead of the key clash with United a week and a half later. Villa were on the summit with 64 points with the Red Devils in second and Norwich third; both sides on 62 points with United’s far superior goal difference (+24 as compared to Norwich’s 0) proving key.
A win for Norwich therefore would put them back on top of the table but, not only that, give them an enormous fillip prior to the United game. Two home games. A chance for two wins and the opportunity to put a bit of light back between them and their nearest challengers. The stakes couldn’t have been higher.
Win and the dream remained alive. Lose and it was all over. A City held its breath and prayed for a win for the team in yellow and green. The City of Manchester that is. A five point lead for Villa at this stage might have been too much, even for them. However, a Villa defeat and, especially with that “arrogant little Frenchman” now starring for them, they would have fancied their chances of retaining the lead and going on to win the title. A Canary win therefore have suited them.
Of course, three points would have suited Norwich even more. And the Canaries started the game on the offensive, looking for weaknesses and openings in a Villa defence that was being superbly marshalled by the elegant Paul McGrath – a player admired through the game by his peers – whose clash against the pace and guile of Robins was a tasty prospect.
McGrath didn’t have to wait long to be tested. A typically measured Goss through-ball gave Fox the chance to shoot but Bosnich did well to save. Shortly afterwards Goss himself shot from distance. The swerve on the flight of the ball caused Bosnich to save and then fumble under pressure from Robins – with McGrath made to look mortal and Barrett adding to the defensive confusion – the resultant loose ball nearly finding the Villa goal.
Villa were having chances of their own. A Staunton free kick was played onto Yorke by Regis, necessitating a quick reaction from Gunn. Then, from the Norwich right another Staunton free kick met with the tiniest of contacts from Saunders – small but enough to deviate the ball’s path, Gunn having to adjust before saving again.
A game of two goalkeepers. Bosnich claimed the honours back when he rushed out to meet an advancing Megson; Norwich’s experienced midfielder hurling himself at the ball and making the sweetest of contact. Bosnich’s only option was to throw himself into its path and maybe take one for the team in doing so. He is fortunate. The shot is blocked, a certain goal is prevented and he is able to get up and continue into the bargain; not a certainty when both Megson and his goal bound shot had cannoned into him.
It was thrilling stuff. An open game with two teams not so much as searching each other out with rapiers as running full on to one another with broadswords raised – and to hell with the shields. Such reckless advancement can of course mean defences being caught out, and caught out the Norwich defence most certainly was when Houghton’s pass from just inside his own half found Parker, leaving the impish midfielder a run on goal. He does all of the hard work, rounding Gunn and leaving a Norwich defender floundering on the wet turf before calmly slotting the ball wide, goal agape. A glorious chance gone begging and one that, in truth, appeared easier to score than miss.
Parker jogs back to the Villa half, a picture of nonchalance – but how the cries of both sets of fans would have been stinging his ears at that moment.
Was it a defining one? On so many occasions a match has swung on a pivotal incident; more often than not a missed opportunity, such as the one Parker had just spurned. Had he scored Villa could have sat back, a defence more than capable of seeing the game out, an attack that could well have nicked another as Norwich pressed forward. Maybe, just maybe, in a distant parallel Universe he scored and became the man who helped win the Premier League title for Villa.
Instead in this cold, wet and unforgiving one he is the man who missed and the claret and blue shoulders that drop in despair are leapt upon by the yellow and green. Pardoned and off death row, the Canaries pour forward again and again and again but, with less than ten minutes left, the score remains at 0-0 and character and fitness seep into the game along with the rain. Who wants it more?
Norwich corner: again, Megson did his impression of a battering ram, launching himself at the ball, his header ricocheting away from Bosnich. The Villa defenders – weary, sodden, grass stained and heavy with fatigue – fail to deal with the loose ball, leaving Norwich centre half John Polston to pounce; his venomous shot striking the net as a chorus of simultaneous ecstasy erupts from all over the ground.
It is Polston’s first goal of the season and on the day he became a father for the first time. Fatherhood plus the winning goal. Can it get any better?
At that precise moment in time it is doubtful it can for either the popular goalscorer, now being mobbed by his joyful team mates, or for Norwich City. With just six games left to play, they have regained their place at the top of the table; the next home game, against Manchester United if not the title decider, then certainly as close to being one as has ever been seen at Carrow Road.
The momentum that was sparked in the Highbury sunshine back in August had been maintained right to the end of the season against not only the odds, but the expectations of those in the broadcasting and printed media, as well as sceptical football supporters around the country.
And that in itself, despite the ultimate disappointment of missing out on the Premier League title, really rather satisfying!