An otherwise unremarkable 1991/92 season for Norwich City had been given some rather unexpected late excitement by the club’s progress in the FA Cup from New Year onwards.
It had, admittedly, been a trio of undemanding home games in the preceding rounds that had been the launch-pad to a second quarter-final appearance in four years rather than a purposeful drive for Wembley that saw the odd giant slayed en-route.
An FA Cup quarter-final though is, well, an FA Cup quarter-final and none of the eight teams that remained in the competition at that stage would have been able to banish visions of the Twin Towers, new suits and Abide With Me from the moment their progress in the fifth round had been secured.
The lure of Wembley Way would have been especially strong at Carrow Road. Six of the twelve players who had taken part in the semi-final defeat against Everton in 1989 remained at the club and, with that disappointment still in their minds, would have welcomed the chance to put things right and have another opportunity to reach the final with Norwich for the first time in the club’s history.
That run had been part of an epic 1988/89 season that had also seen the club finish in a then best-ever position of fourth in Division One, amidst much praise and admiration but, the crux of the footballing matter was that, however well the team had played that time around – and some of the football was exhilarating- there was nothing to show for it. No glory, no medals, no epitaph to the game, no memories to bore the grandkids with.
Clearly, as unexpected as it was, the opportunity to go one step further in the 1992 tournament was a compelling one.
Norwich’s trip to the last eight had been a relatively peaceful one. The Canaries dominated their third-round tie at home to Barnsley with only Tykes’ keeper Lee Butler preventing the eventual scoreline in City’s favour of 1-0; Robert Fleck scoring, being a lot higher.
The fourth-round saw Millwall visit Carrow Road and end up on the receiving end of a 2-1 defeat, Mark Bowen and Fleck the scorers in a game that saw Bryan Gunn’s goalkeeping shadow, Mark Walton, endear himself to team-mates and fans alike by not only saving Paul Kerr’s first-half penalty but the follow up from Alex Rae.
The fifth-round tie against fellow Division One stragglers Notts County saw an ever more convincing win, 3-0 this time, with Chris Sutton again illustrating his growing reputation at the club and in the game with two of the three goals in one of the Canaries’ best performances of the season.
The call of the Dell beckoned the Canaries south for their first away trip in the competition that season, the minds of both players and fans sharpened (or perhaps not) with the memories of a somewhat dour 0-0 draw played out there earlier that season in the league game; a match notable (or perhaps not) for the fact that only 12,516 bothered to attend, that figure being boosted by the usual high phalanx of travelling support from Norfolk. An extra 7,500 would somehow find their way from in and around Southampton for the cup game – part-time supporters in red and white stirred from their torpor by dreams of Wembley in May. Sadly, an even smaller attendance greeted the Carrow Road game between the two clubs – just 10,660 braving the chill February air to see Norwich win 2-1, Ullathorne and Fleck (who else?) the scorers; that figure easily doubled (and then some) for the Cup replay.
Attending games was like visiting Woolworths. Pick and mix football, leaving out the ones you didn’t like.
Norwich’s gate figures had been disappointing for some time. Writing in the Canaries Official Handbook for the 1990/91 season, David Stringer shared his concerns, saying: “…the one thing we have never seemed to do is increase the number of people coming through the turnstiles”. And he was right – City’s average attendance for the 1989/90 season was 16,737.
A year later it had dropped to 15,468, dropping again during the final campaign before the launch of the Premier League and that of the club’s run to the FA Cup semi-finals to just 13,858.
Looking at those figures it is easy to appreciate how Stringer might have become disillusioned with the task at hand, thoughts that might have precipitated his decision to resign as manager at the end of the season.
Under his understated but authoritative leadership, the club was enjoying the best years of its life – two FA Cup semi-finals and a 4th place finish in Division One within a three year period is the sort of sustained (if relative) success that any of the Canaries footballing contemporaries would have craved at that time, and yet, when it came to pushing on a bit further from there and looking to take the next step, Stringer, like so many Norwich managers before him, found himself up against an unyielding brick wall.
Football then, as it is today, was dictated by one thing – money. And Norwich simply didn’t have any; a parlous state of affairs that was hardly helped by the small crowds at Carrow Road at a time when the ‘bread and butter’ income for most clubs was what came through the turnstiles on a match day.
The bigger the club, the bigger the ground, the bigger the crowds, the more expensive the tickets. QED. Norwich might well pull in 11,000 against the likes of QPR whereas Manchester United would be more likely to see 45,000 attending to see the same opponents – and at near enough twice the ticket price. Do, as they say, the maths.
So maybe it wasn’t a case of Stringer thinking he had taken the club as far as they could go but more one of his sharp footballing mind realising that, as the game changed and shifted to cause of the elite minority, the Canaries could never go any further, no matter what the club did in order to progress.
In other words, it was now out of the hands of him, his players and the Board – and that he’d had enough, enough of the game rather than Norwich City? Speculative of course – but no-one would have blamed him.
The FA Cup run therefore, unexpected as it was, did provide a welcome financial extra for the Canaries – even if gate receipts for these games were shared between both clubs; it was still an ‘extra’ to what would have been budgeted for at the start of the season. There was also income to be made from TV and prize money, as well as the obvious benefits of reaching even the semi-finals (IE. Exposure and sudden visibility worldwide, such was the interest in the competition at the time).
After a turgid 0-0 draw at The Dell, Stringer made one change for the replay, drafting in Mark Bowen to replace the injured David Phillips in left midfield. Bowen was a crucial player to Norwich, equally at home as a left-back or left-sided midfield; he might not have had pace to spare, but he could ping a football to the feet of a distant team-mate easily and at will, as well as having a very good eye for the game, reading situations and moves way in advance of many opposing players.
Phillips’ crossing ability would be missed, but Norwich were not exactly bereft of options on the flanks, with Ruel Fox a tricky and often unplayable option on the right.
Together with Fleck and Sutton in attack, Norwich had pace and power in abundance, and, with Jeremy Goss beginning to make his committed and energetic involvement in midfield another critical part of the teams game plan, Norwich looked to have more than enough to see off their doughty opponents at the second time of asking – despite the ominous presence of Matt Le Tissier and Alan Shearer in the Saints ranks.
Night matches at Carrow Road produce an atmosphere completely different to that of a Saturday afternoon game and this was no exception. A clear, crisp evening with a touch of frost in the air that, at pitch level, would soon have melted away, such was the heat being generated between the two teams.
Industrial tackles and fractious tempers an immediate early feature, the Norwich crowd a seething, noisy excited mass who were made ever more so by the early aggressive intent of their side as Sutton goes close in the first attack, followed by Newman with a first time shot; that move created by Sutton and Fox. Norwich were dominating and a goal seemed inevitable.
Appropriately therefore, Southampton opened the scoring just before half-time. A lazy Le Tissier corner’s languid trajectory invited the Norwich defence to clear their lines; however, delay led to indecision, ultimately costing the thin yellow line dear. The procrastination left the muscular Ruddock time and space to head home at the near post, much to the anger of goalkeeper Walton.
The goal had been scored against the run of play and, temporarily, silenced the home fans.
Stringer’s words at half-time would have been short, monosyllabic and to the point – this was not the time, not the game for an arm around drooping shoulders. His side responded in some style, Polston and Newman combining to set up a chance, a swift one, which Newman accepted on the half volley, hitting the target with all the aplomb and confidence you would have expected from the opposition’s Shearer.
Luckily for the Canaries he is having a quiet game and remains a passenger as the temperature at pitch level increases – Le Tissier has already been dismissed for, quite unaccountably, aiming a kick at Fleck (you can only wonder at the skill that must have been displayed by Flecky in winding his usually laid-back opponent up) before Barry Horne, who seemed to have been on a short fuse since kick off, followed Le Tiss’s example by kicking out at the inoffensive Woodthorpe.
Down to nine men, Southampton made base camp in their own penalty area and looked to see the game out.
Norwich were able to swarm forward as a result. Unchecked and unfettered, Beckford went close, as did Sutton and Newman. Goss then saw a shot cleared off the line by Shearer – the first contribution the Saints’ striker, a one-time target of Stringers, had made all evening.
The yellow and green carnage was unrelenting. Beckford again, Goss, his infinite supplies of energy making him a more and more prominent figure as fitness levels drop in others then compelled himself forward for an umpteenth time and it was his miscued shot minutes before the end that rebounded off the turf before hitting Sutton on the head; the result being a lucky but, never-the-less accurate (shades of Ricky against Everton) header over Flowers and into the goal.
Sutton was momentarily confused before becoming delighted at his good fortune, celebrating with all the unselfconscious of youth in front of the River End with his team-mates as the Saints’ players, finally permitted themselves to be exhausted, slumping to the ground, sweat-soaked, pale and dejected. For them it was a long and miserable trip back to Hampshire; for Norwich an FA Cup semi-final and a totally unexpected treat in what had been a mediocre season.
(Adapted from Greatest Games: Norwich City, Pitch Publishing, 2012)