Who remembers the name of the goalkeeper initially charged with the onerous responsibility of replacing Chris Woods as Norwich City goalkeeper?
Woods has always had his admirers in the debate about the greatest of all Norwich City goalkeepers. I was praise and recognition extremely well met when you consider his chief rival for that accolade is the imperious Kevin Keelan.
Keelan is a man who remains a genuine footballing hero to a legion of Canary followers, not all of them old enough to even remember having seen him play ‘live’, reliant instead on the memories and exhortations of others – which, incidentally, will probably not include this appearance in a US television ad!
Advocates of Woods can point to a long and distinguished career as the Canaries number one. Appearance wise, of course, he comes nowhere near to Keelan’s total of 659 league and cup games (will anyone?) but his own Canary figures of 261 appearances in league and cup included a Second Division Championship and a League Cup winners medal as well as international recognition for England. It also included that hugely impressive run of 170 consecutive appearances for the club from 1981 through to 1984 (one that, if John Ruddy hoped to equal, would mean that, assuming game one of that run was our 1-0 win over Hull City on January 18, he’d reach that total, given some good cup runs, at some point during the 2017/18 season).
All of which meant that filling his shirt and overall presence at Carrow Road following his departure to Rangers in the summer of 1986 was going to be as hard as filling the void left by Keelan some years earlier – a role that both Roger Hansbury and Clive Baker had found beyond them.
Would the same happen again with Woods’ departure? Would his replacement thrive on the pressure and responsibility? Or would he come and go in the same way as Keelan’s one time deputies had done?
A lot for anyone to live up to – but at least the omens were initially good for the first man to be given the chance of succeeding Woods as he had, like the England man, been signed from QPR – the club that Woods had played for prior to joining Norwich.
Graham Benstead signed for the Canaries on March 28 – 1985, two days before a home league win against Coventry City (one I remember well because Mark Barham had, on the day, as good an individual game as I have seen any Norwich player have) and four days after the club had won the League Cup at Wembley.
A good time to join Norwich City then?
You’d think so. Except that Woods was, at the time, going through one of his nearly immovable stages at the club, featuring in all but five of the Canaries 56 league and cup games that season. Former Manchester City keeper Joe Corrigan had come in on loan to play in four of them but he was never going to be a long term solution as either cover or a potential replacement for Woods.
The then QPR loanee Benstead was seen as a long-term solution, his debut for the Canaries coming in the 2-0 defeat at Arsenal on April 6, 1985. Two days later however, Woods was back and remained in place for the rest of that season as well as all of the following campaign; the 1985/86 season seeing him win a Second Division Championship winners medal as part of one of the best and most exciting Norwich teams in recent memory.
One that got him his move to Rangers.
And which saw Benstead start the 1986/87 season as Norwich City’s first choice goalkeeper. He started well, keeping a clean sheet in a 0-0 draw at Chelsea on the opening day before letting in three in a 4-3 win over Southampton, one of those three coming from the unlikely foot of Mark Dennis (the even more unlikely part of that equation being that Dennis was 30 yards distant from Benstead’s goal when he struck the shot).
Did doubts begin to appear in Ken Brown’s mind even then? Or was Benstead merely keeping number one shirt warm for Bryan Gunn?
Gunn had, after all, been sounded out by Norwich that summer with a view to him signing for the club in time to start the season as the Canaries first choice goalkeeper. That move was delayed and almost lost altogether when Jim Leighton – who Gunn had been understudying at Aberdeen – picked up an injury meaning the deal was off.
Gunny proceeded to get a run of games for the Dons; his non-appearance meaning Benstead starting the season in possession of that number one shirt. It was unexpected perhaps for both him, the club and Gunn, but a chance he would look to take and, in doing so, perhaps see the club stick with him rather than signing Gunn.
Gunn played in four games for Aberdeen at the start of that season but, just as Jim Leighton proved his fitness and got back into the side, the club’s third choice keeper, David Lawrie was injured meaning Gunn had to prolong his stay at Pittodrie. Again, the deal was cancelled, eventually going through on October 15 1986, two months and, for Benstead, twelve first team games after it had originally meant to happen.
As it turned out, Gunny had to wait three weeks for his debut but, following an emphatic 6-2 defeat at Liverpool, the footballing die was cast with Benstead the sole fall guy to be dropped after that defeat – Gunn going into an otherwise unchanged starting XI for the game against Tottenham at Carrow Road just over a week later.
For Gunn it was the start of a long and glorious playing career at Carrow Road, the beginnings of a club legend. For Benstead, it was the beginning of the end of his Norwich career.
He didn’t feature at all for the Canaries during the remainder of that season, going onto have a three month spell on loan at Colchester United (playing under future Norwich manager and ex-goalkeeper Mike Walker in the process) at the beginning of the following campaign. He then made two more appearance for Norwich in early 1988 (keeping a clean sheet in both games) before, on March 23, 1988 joining Sheffield United on loan before signing for the Blades on a permanent basis.
He made 47 league appearances for them before, in 1990, signing for Brentford where he won a Division Three Championship winners medal in 1992.
Graham Benstead made a total of 19 league and cup appearances for Norwich, keeping that all important clean sheet in eight of them, including in five consecutive games from September 24 to October 11, 1986 – an enviable record that many Norwich keepers have not been able to match, let alone beat.
Yet, for all that and for a playing CV as a youngster that included youth honours for England, his time at Carrow Road always seemed to be transitory, as if he was a player marking out time, waiting for someone to take his place.
Such is football. The potential and the talent can be there but, for whatever reasons, there are times when, despite all that, players just don’t seem to fit in or belong. And, for Norwich City, the maybe unfortunate Graham Benstead was one of them.
There are doubtless plenty of others-does anyone in particular come to mind for you?
Time and space constraints have meant I haven’t included those goalkeepers who I mentioned in passing at the end of my column a week ago. They, and some of their more obscure contemporaries, will feature here next week.