Right, cards on the table.
With the new football season now stood in the wings waiting to make its appearance, the time for small talk and all the myriad distractions of a sporting summer have gone. It’s time for the main event.
Domestic football summers are like a phony war.
Lots of talk, frenzied speculation and planning and no little gossip, tittle-tattle, occasional in-fighting and, for the most, all stretched out over long and sustained periods of boredom. This summer has been no exception.
The speculation started as long ago as April when finally, in an act not unlike that of a loving family finally all agreeing to have a much loved pet taken to the vets for the final time, the much liked and respected – maybe more for his qualities as a human being than as a football coach – Chris Hughton was relieved of his duties as City manager.
Whilst the Norwich support debated the rights and wrongs of the decision, his dismissal was regarded by some sections of the media (and fans of other clubs) as one that bordered on footballing heresy with some critics going as far as to say the decision had been “insane”.
Regardless of the rights, wrongs and timing of his removal, the die had been cast and our collective footballing summer began with all the rumours that you might expect as to who the identity of our new manager might be. Malky Mackay was the early and inevitable favourite for the role; he ticked more than the requisite number of boxes and in-house Canary gossip turned to whether or not he would be a success in the role rather than whether or not he might end up actually being the chosen one.
That was back at the beginning of April and the Carrow Road rumour mill has been turning ever since. We’ve had four months of incessant claims and counter claims in both the national and local media as well as the inevitable exclusives and revelations on the social networks about who might be arriving at, else departing, Carrow Road. Some of it was true, some open to reasonable question but, invariably, nothing more than footballing click bait.
There were tales of the outrageous and unlikely that fuelled passions and responses (such as the one I noted at the time of writing this about Liverpool’s Gary Johnson supposedly attracting some “interest” from Norwich) but which were, in reality, nothing more than space fillers and fantasy. We’ve all seen them, read them and heard them.
So it’ll be good to get the football under way again at the weekend. It’s a pity we haven’t at least got that simple pleasure of a 3pm kick off on a Saturday afternoon to look forward to; the absurdities of televised times for matches being an example of one thing some fans won’t miss about Premier League football.
Indeed, a Sunday afternoon kick off on the first footballing weekend of a new season does seem to have a bit of the ‘after the Lord Mayor’s show’ about it, with all the excitement and anticipation building, nationwide, from late Saturday morning onwards, for everyone that is, except for ourselves and the fans of Wolves.
Such are the consequences for agreeing to those ever more precious thirty pieces of sporting silver. But at least it’s the football, at least it’s the real thing. No more foreplay, time to get serious.
And it’s Wolves. At Molineux. What some might call a ‘proper’ football club at a ‘proper’ football stadium.
It’s one of those fixtures where the game comes first. Two good clubs. No corporate gilding of the approach or the stadium, no stadium-encompassing murals, no excited footballing tourists taking selfies outside the ground at 2pm and no over-choreographed pre-match activities featuring a cast of thousands – each led on and off the pitch in regulation time and on time to the regulation photographers taking regulation shots in front of, else accompanying, the regulation corporate drones with their fixed Premier League smiles.
The air will reek of frying onions and the cries of the programme sellers. The match programme itself will look and read more like a match programme than an edition of GQ Magazine. Songs will be sung, banter will be exchanged, much of it of the ribald variety. And most people’s faces will be covered in the emotions of the day rather than face paint.
The home fans may even cry, and how I’d love to hear this at the football again, even though I don’t support the sentiment: the wonderful verse of “…you’re gonna get your f*****g heads kicked in”. It’s one of football’s national anthems, easy to memorise, easy to sing and as indelible a Saturday afternoon memory for many as whatever is being played over the PA as the teams run out onto the pitch.
In fact, maybe we should do that at Carrow Road, wait for the opposition to trot out on to our sporting field of green and then play, at full volume, that very line over our own PA? It’ll knock Carl Orff into a cocked hat, that’s for sure.
Welcome back football.
The summer used to be a break, a release from all the efforts, the woes, the trials and the tribulations. There’d be a time when, as soon as the final pass of the final game of the season had been played and the teams had disappeared into the tunnel when we’d all go home, hang up the scarf and promptly forget all about the game for a while.
Take, for example, the last time we travelled up to Wolves for the opening game of a league season, back on August 25 1973. Nearly four months had elapsed since the final game of the previous season – a 2-0 defeat at the hands of Stoke City – four months in which football and the Canaries would have been out of both sight and mind for many a Norwich fan.
Ron Saunders had hardly ravished the transfer market that summer either. Fans of most clubs tend to go into meltdown and start preparing the flaming pitchforks and banners these days if there are not at least half a dozen new signings every summer, with, ideally, most of them brought in before the end of May. But that wasn’t the way of things back in the summer of 1973.
Remember it? Liverpool were the reigning league Champions, Sunderland the FA Cup holders and Tottenham, who beat us in a final best described as ‘uneventful’, had the League Cup locked away in the White Hart Lane boardroom. As far as the game itself was concerned, former Wolves favourite Derek Dougan had suggested the formation of a group composed of players, managers, referees and footballing administrators; one that met regularly throughout the season in order to discuss and attempt to resolve “the games problems.”
The more they try to change things, the more they stay the same.
Whilst, up at Carrow Road, Ron Saunders had lit the yellow and green touch paper with the signing of Colin Prophett from Sheffield Wednesday for £40,000.
I wonder how that signing might have been greeted at the time had we access to the same digital world then that we do now? How would the good folk on WoTB have greeted his arrival? Hit or miss? A sign of ambition or not? Good player or bad? We’d have all had our say, that’s for certain-not to say Canary fans wouldn’t have back then;
“We’ve signed Cor-lin Prophett”
“Oh. Is ‘e any good?”
“Are your spuds up yet?”
Prophett was 26 and at the peak of his game when Saunders lured him away from Hillsborough where he’d played in 117 games, scoring 7 goals in the process. The right back position had been a problematic one for Saunders the previous season, with the duties shared between Clive Payne and Geoff Butler – the latter also being able to play on the left side of the defence.
However, at the end of the 1972/73 season, the Canaries first ever in the top flight, 63 goals had been conceded in the clubs 42 league games – the worse in the league – including that of the Crystal Palace and West Brom, the two relegated sides. Someone had to be accountable for that disappointing figure, especially a defensive disciplinarian like Saunders and for him, the weaknesses along that back four were obvious: both full backs.
Butler and Payne had played in 62 games between them during the 1972/73 season. Yet, in the sixteen league games that saw Saunders at the helm of the club from the beginning of the following season, Payne appeared in just four; two of which came from the bench. Butler didn’t get a look in.
Prophett started in all but one of them. The one game (at Sheffield United on September 22) that saw him ruled out through injury saw Saunders play Alan Black in the left back position whilst, at the same time, totally snubbing Payne and Butler for the vacant right back position. Instead he gave Les Wilson his debut a fortnight after he had joined the club from Bristol City. Wilson was another versatile full back who could operate on either the right or the left side of the defence and if Butler and Payne hadn’t felt wanted prior to his arrival, then they sure as hell would have been getting the hint by now.
Prophett made his Norwich debut at Wolves on the opening day in a largely unfamiliar Canary back four that comprised of himself, Black, Dave Stringer and Steve Govier. And they didn’t have the best of starts when football’s would-be saviour, the aforementioned Derek Dougan, put Wolves one up after just eight minutes. He repeated the feat on the hour mark to put Wolves 2-1 ahead, Colin Suggett having since equalised for the Canaries.
That second goal for Dougan – and Kevin Keelan’s heroics in attempting to keep it out – resulted in the keeper getting so tangled up with the netting at the back of his goal that his resultant struggles ended up knocking the entire frame of the goal over. The crossbar made a tidy connection with Keelan’s head as it tumbled towards the ground but he was unperturbed by this however, and, in much the same way that the Monty Python Knight dismissed the loss of all of his limbs in combat by declaring, “…tis’ but a scratch”, returned, post-Germolene and sticking plaster, to the game; one that saw Wolves add a late third to win 3-1.
Defeat for the Canaries then but hardly a surprise.
Taking our first ever season in the top flight as a starting point, Norwich have played 42 opening fixtures; an old league’s worth since that 1-1 draw against Everton in August 1972.
Of those 42, 14 opening day fixtures have been won – although the last was way back in August 2002 (a 4-0 win over Grimsby) – 12 have been drawn and 16 have ended in defeat.
It’s time to put that right. And what better place than at the club and ground that saw us start a season that ended in relegation; the Canaries dropping into the bottom three of the Division One table at the end of September and pretty much staying there from then until the end of the season.
Opening day defeat at Wolves followed by relegation to be followed, four decades on, by an opening day victory at Wolves followed by promotion?
It would have a nice symmetry to it.