Bonnie Tyler once said she was ‘holding out for a hero’.
Was she a Norwich City fan by any chance? Because I do think that, in these days where we all like a hero or two in our lives, we are, or certainly have been for a while, perhaps in need of one or two.
Now ‘heroes’ in a footballing sense are not like those who are in the real world, let’s get that out of the way from the beginning. We all have our ideas and beliefs about who the real heroes in society are-and they probably aren’t professional footballers. So the term is relative.
But we still yearn for one in a footballing sense, never the less.
So what makes a footballing hero?
Well, they probably don’t have to be the best player, nor the most famous. They don’t even need to be the man who scores 20 plus goals every season without fail or the skilful midfielder who doesn’t just have the ability to put a ball on the proverbial sixpence, but also able to chip the sixpence onto the ball.
No, it’s about more than that. He needs to be someone who resonates with the fans, a player whose character mirrors our own, who believes in the fight as we all do and shares the devotion, the cause and the desire. A fan on the pitch almost.
We’ve had a few at Norwich. Big Duncan was one. You could add the likes of Gossy to that list, Iwan Roberts, Hucks certainly. And definitely Grant Holt. The sort of players who rolled up their sleeves, clenched their fists and gave it their all. The type who you would believe, had they not been on the pitch would, instead, be stood beside you on the terrace (when you could do such a thing). Sleeves rolled up and fists clenched. Ready to give it their all. Much like Robert Fleck did.
Fleckie was certainly a footballing hero as far as I was concerned. He played with a smile on his face, gambolling cross even the heaviest of pitches like a new born lamb in spring and full of the same unfettered joy.
He loved to play, he loved to score goals, he loved to wind up the opposition – players or fans alike – he didn’t care. And all that made him seem like he was one of us. Yes, Fleckie would have been in the Barclay, trying to get a song or two going. Or perhaps, now he’s nearly 49, he’d be sat alongside the likes of me in the River End, I don’t know. If he was, he’d probably be the noisiest one there.
When the chance came a little while ago therefore, to meet and interview Fleckie for a book I was writing I was more than a little nervous. The old adage of ‘never meet your heroes’ is born out of those who have done just that and been disappointed with the outcome. And I fervently hoped that I wouldn’t be.
When we did meet up, Robert very much looked like the player I remembered from his on-pitch exploits; a common factor amongst so many ex-professional footballers who seem to be immune to the ravages of time!
Arriving at our meeting place in a very trendy VW Beetle (“it’s my wife’s car!”), we settled down and talked football. Robert’s response to my claim that Norwich fans would be interested to hear what he had to say was a softly spoken, “I don’t know about that” – a modest response from a man whose modesty and gentle manner throughout the interview was completely in contrast to the fiery figure I remember so well!
And, with fire in mind and fiery situations in particular, I opened by asking Robert what it was like coping with the pressures of playing for such a massive club as Rangers – where he started his career-in particular, an ‘Old Firm’ derby?
“It’s frightening! Frightening but terrific to play in, I played in three or four and they were amazing matches to be involved in. It’s every boys dream in Glasgow to play in one of them, you’re either Rangers or Celtic up there, so, to play in one…let’s just say, if you don’t win, you can’t go outside for a few weeks, not until you’ve won another five or six matches on the trot, or played them (Celtic) again and won!
“But you mustn’t think that playing for Norwich against Ipswich doesn’t compare. Every derby match has its own moments, its own uniqueness, the rivalry and the hatred amongst some of the spectators. But Rangers v Celtic, that’s huge in comparison”
I commented that the list of people who had come from Glasgow, at a young age, to settle in Norwich – and to stay put – was, well, let’s put it like this. It wasn’t going to be very long. Did Robert find his situation, then and now, an unusual one?
“I think it is, yes. I blame Chris Woods for that! When I was looking at a move, I first came down to Watford and met up with Dave Bassett, chatted with him and had a look around the club and ground. I didn’t fancy going there at all.
“I’d been playing alongside Chris at Rangers, and he put in a good word about Norwich, good reviews – I’m glad he did, and I’m glad I came. It’s a lovely place, I’m settled, met and married a lovely Norfolk girl. That makes it sound like it was perfect of course, and that I settle quickly, but that wasn’t the case.
“It took time and it was difficult at first, my last game for Rangers was against Dunfermline, there was, I think, about 34,000 people at Ibrox. I went to Norwich, first game against Wimbledon at Plough Lane, there could have been no more than 4,000 there (Robert is spot on, the attendance was 4,026!), my debut, I brought six mates along.
“After the game, it was straight back to Glasgow and I was thinking, ‘what have I done?’ Perhaps it wasn’t the best place for me to make my Norwich debut! But it was all part of the move, the changes. And people helped me to settle. I knew Bryan Gunn very well.
“He was a good mate and after I joined Norwich I moved in with him for a while. It helped me to settle! We used to toss a coin to see who’d cook our meal that evening, I nearly always lost, ninety nine times out of a hundred, it’d be me doing the cooking…”
At this point I interrupted Robert and advised him that he had settled well and could, in this most guarded of counties, now be regarded as a local.
“I’ll never be a yokel!”
A sign of Glaswegian passion, the sort that lit up many a football pitch during Robert’s career. Fearing that he might feel insulted, I hastily repeated myself, insisting that I had said he was now a local, not a yokel!
“Oh, a local (smiles). Well, no. I’ll never be a local and I’ll never be a yokel. I love it here, but I’m a Scot, I’m Scottish, there’s no doubt about that! Glasgow Rangers are still the first result I look for and my family are all still up there, but my life is down here now. I’ve got the best of both worlds. I like it here very much, but I also have Glasgow as well, and Scotland. Like I said, I’m a Scot first”.
How did Robert’s move to Norwich come about?
“Well, when Dave Stringer took the job as manager, he wanted to sign me not long afterwards. So he flew up to Glasgow with Robert Chase, I met with them both. I ended up taking the 7am plane back to Norwich, another meeting, this time in a portakabin – things were different then! And I signed. Bryan (Gunn) soon came over to welcome me; he brought some of the other lads, so I was looked after straight away.”
Robert had been treated to what was, and remains, a real Norwich City tradition – helping new players settle in and feel part of the club as soon as possible. It would have been important for him to have felt ‘at home’ straight away.
Not all high-profile Scottish players who headed south at that time settled so well, the prime example of the time being Ally McCoist, who had departed for Sunderland from St Johnstone in 1981 in the proverbial blaze of glory. Charlie Nicholas was another, as was Kris Boyd, a freely scoring striker at Rangers who struggled following another big money move, this time to Middlesbrough.
“No, Ally didn’t settle at all (at Sunderland) which turned out to be a good thing for Rangers! But I was made to feel very welcome, and, what with knowing Bryan really well, it wasn’t too bad at all. It was just as well – Norwich paid a lot of money for me! I actually think Norwich had tried to sign me before, when Ken Brown was manager.
“There was talk and I knew about it. I think Dave (Stringer) was just following up on Ken’s interest. But it was a fair bit of money for them. I have to admit, I don’t remember too many of the first few games I played-unless I’m prompted, if I see a game or a goal on TV for example, else someone mentions one to me.
“The goal at Millwall? Yes, that’s one that everyone does keep going on about! It’s one of my more memorable ones, but I’m sure I have scored better ones and scored more important ones than that particular goal. I just enjoyed playing the game, the goals were part of it of course, but I loved to play football”
I mentioned that, in many ways, the way that Robert played and so obviously enjoyed himself whilst out on the pitch reminded me of Gazza.
“I’ve always looked at it like this. I always wanted to be a footballer – coming from Glasgow, if I hadn’t have been a footballer, what would I have been? I don’t know, working on the shipyards or something. Playing, to me, was a pleasure, a privilege, it was a hobby you were paid well for.
“Even then, it was expensive for people to come to games, and I wanted the fans who made the effort to feel part of it all and part of the team. They’d paid for their tickets and I think that, if you pay for your ticket, you can say what you want, call me what you want if you’re playing badly – but, after the game has finished, that’s it, over.
“A footballer is essentially an entertainer with the pitch as his stage. I’m sure that the people here had never seen anything like me down here, the way I played and got the fans involved. But I loved it! I loved the banter, the way it took my mind off things, helped me forget the pressures and worries.
“Yes, you go out to entertain. But as for Gazza? Well, I don’t think I could lace his boots up, he was fantastic. A character and a great player, there was no-one to touch him. But I liked to try to entertain as well”.
With Robert seeing himself as an entertainer, I wondered if he had played a big part in the inner sanctum of the dressing room, where banter was, and remains, king – and did he miss it as much as he missed playing?
“Well, I have played in some of the charity games. You turn up, get in the changing room, old faces come along, you might not have seen them for two or three years but, once they’re there, it’s like you’ve never been away – you’re straight back into it.
“The banter, dressing room banter, it’s one of the very best things about football. Yes, you do miss that. It’s a tough place the dressing room at a football club. For new or young players, when they first come to a club, it’s a case of ‘sink or swim’ when they come in there.
“It must be very hard for all the foreign players in the game today, they must find that part of the game very difficult to understand. It wasn’t like that when I joined Norwich, the foreigners then came from Scotland!
“We had a couple of Spanish lads at Norwich when I was there – Victor Segura was one. Another came over on trial but never signed – Bakero? Yes, Jose Bakero. But it didn’t matter who you were at Norwich, everyone was always made to feel very welcome. They must have found it very strange.
“But, regardless of who you were, or where you came from, there were no cliques at Norwich. Falling out – yes; fights – yes. But you sort that out in-house, in the dressing room. Done. By Monday, back at training, everything is OK again, back to work as normal, friends again.
“But it’s like that at all workplaces, in football, however, it just gets reported and blown up all over the place. But why on earth is it thought of as newsworthy in the first place – look at what you have got, a big group of young, healthy, competitive men, that’s what is going to happen!
“And like I said, we all stuck together, we may not have all got on well, all have been friends with everyone, but we all stuck together, especially when we were all out on that pitch! I got on well with everyone at Norwich mind. Everyone! (I didn’t find that surprising!). Bryan, Mark Bowen, Ian Crook, Ian Culverhouse, Ian Butterworth, Robert Rosario. I played a few games in attack with Robert, taking the knocks whilst he scored the goals.
“He (Rosario) was an underrated player. When he left Norwich and went onto play for Coventry and Nottingham Forest, people began to realise what a good player he was. He was a pretty boy!! But he’d put his head in where it hurts. Great player, great character to have in the dressing room.
“But we had lots of characters , lots of funny guys in that dressing room. And a good manager in Dave Stringer. He was one of the most gentle men I have ever met. Gentle, that is, until you got him into the changing room. He then became a changed man! If you then crossed the line with him, you knew all about it, and he’d let you know in no uncertain terms if he wasn’t happy with you, and in front of everyone else if necessary.
“David Williams did much of the training and the tactical plays, whilst Dave did the man management side of things. You did not cross him! But, otherwise, he was so very quiet! I just missed out on playing with Dave Williams, he was coming to the end of his playing career when I joined and had teamed up with Dave.
“But I played alongside him for the reserves, and what a great player he was. A great passer, good technique, strike of the ball and a good communicator. He’d have a bit of a sulk now and again – but he was a great tactician.”
The second part of Ed’s fascinating interview with Flecky will be posted tomorrow.