In the final part of the trilogy, Ed looks back at the final throes of the Saunders era.
Ron Saunders, the managerial novice with nothing more than a few games and a narrow escape from relegation to Division Three with Oxford United had, against all the odds, taken Norwich to the top flight of English football for the very first time by virtue of the club’s unlikely Division Two Championship success in 1972.
He’d then proceeded to confirm his name and reputation as one of the brightest young managerial talents in the English game by not only ensuring the Canaries survived in their first season in football’s elite but combined that with a first ever appearance in a major final at Wembley. Norwich lost 1-0 to Tottenham in the League Cup Final but emerged from it, and the season as a whole, with a lot of credit to their name and the type of football that Saunders preached.
In truth it wasn’t so very far away from the now regarded as ‘old school’ approach adopted by Leicester City this season. David Cross – City’s powerful, physical and fast striker – was most certainly a prototype Jamie Vardy whilst Graham Paddon, a free spirit often accorded a free role on the pitch to go with it (one granted in defiance of a managers preference for onfield discipline and tactical rigidity) mirrored Leicester’s Riyad Mahrez, as a will o’ the wisp likely to weigh in with more than his fair share of goals for a midfielder.
Mahrez has, at the time of writing, scored 16 goals Leicester this season whist Paddon finished the 1972/73 campaign for Norwich with 12, just four behind leading goalscorer Cross.
Cross and Paddon, Vardy and Mahrez. If you get the players right then the goals and the points will surely come, no matter what the footballing decade or what the games fashionistas declare is, with respect to how the game is played, in or out of fashion.
Norwich ended the 1972/73 season in 20th place. It was, in a way, a unique finishing place for them as that campaign had been the last that saw only two clubs relegated from Division One at the end of the season. Norwich went on to complete a double in that respect, the last club to avoid relegation from Division One by finishing third from bottom as well as the first to enjoy promotion from Division Two after finishing in third place.
One for the quiz books.
Yet, whilst Saunders played a full part in the first part of that double, he was gone, if not quite forgotten, by the time his old club completed the second.
He’d survived Norwich’s narrow escape from relegation but then there was never any question he would be going anywhere at the end of that eventful season. Even if the Canaries had gone down, his experience and knowledge of both the club and the players he had at his disposal would have meant he was almost certainly going to be given the opportunity to look to get the club back at the first time of asking.
But that was not going to be the case. Norwich had escaped, even after enduring a disastrous run of 19 games without a win from November through to April of that season. He and the club stood firm and were repaid for their loyalty and faith.
But he now had to d o it all over again.
Neither he nor the club had the best of starts to the 1973/74 season. And that was before a ball had even been kicked. The Canaries had in their pre-season friendlies flattered and deceived in equal measures. Their first match after the season had drawn to a close had really been more of an end of season wind down; a trip to play SK Brann in Norway had ended in a 1-0 victory.
Three further friendlies were played in the weeks leading up to the first round of league fixtures, a 4-2 win at Colchester on August 11th 1973 being followed, three days later by a 3-1 defeat to Fulham at Craven Cottage; one that would have had Canary Call and assorted Canary related websites fizzing with rage at how Norwich had failed to beat such modest opposition and that a season of struggle surely beckoned?
There was a chance to make amends with a final home friendly, this time against the Irish side Shelbourne in what the club described as a ‘public practice match’. Practice or not, the Canaries struggled to break down their opponents and, far from being the pre-season goal fest that some, even Saunders, might have reckoned, it fizzled out to a disappointing 0-0 draw.
Shortly before the Shelbourne game, Saunders and the club lost their biggest friend and supporter when, after serving nearly seventeen years as chairman, Geoffrey Watling chose to stand down from that position.
But Watling was why Saunders was here. So determined was he to get his man he promised Saunders he would not only be the highest paid manager the club had ever had, he would also be amongst the best paid in the Second Division; this pledge made at a time when the club had nary a pot to do things in. It convinced Saunders that Watling was the man he wanted to work for with his club of almost secondary importance.
Watling was another Saunders – fiercely ambitious, driven, single-minded and determined to have only the best for the club he was in charge of. Saunders would have seen in the glint of Watling’s eye a reflection of himself and that was enough for him.
Now his greatest ally had gone, Saunders would have to work alongside the straight talking and rather more blunt Arthur South, Watling’s successor. South would have hardly endeared himself to the manager when, soon after his appointment, he said that there would have to be some very “sharp talking” between the two of them as they were both men who exhibited a “hard streak” in both life and work.
Was he calling Saunders out? Perhaps. Regardless of that, if the two of them ever came to blows in the way that South had predicted, there could only ever be one winner. And both men knew it.
Football players and supporters are notoriously superstitious and there would have been some who saw the portents of doom during Norwich’s first match of the season; a 3-1 defeat at Wolves, one that saw Colin Prophett, the first of eleven first-team debutants that campaign make his senior debut.
During the game, in an effort to stop a goal bound shot from Derek Dougan, Kevin Keelan became entangled in the net, the impact and his weight on the goal sending the crossbar crashing down on top of him. Keelan was stretchered off as a result and the game delayed for fifteen minutes whilst hasty repairs were made but the damage had been done. Keelan, still groggy, but smiling as usual, returned to the fray but Norwich were distinctly second best and the end result reflected Wolves superiority.
Norwich won only one of their following twelve league games, a 2-0 victory over Southampton on September 12th. It should, it could, have signalled a renaissance in form but, sadly, that was not to be the case. Arsenal were the visitors at Carrow Road three days later and emerged with a convincing 4-0 win.
It may not be regarded as too much of a disgrace or even a surprise today but do bear in mind that this was an Arsenal side that featured the prosaic likes of Bob McNab and Jeff Blockley, one that, at the end of the season, finished only six points shy of a relegation place. They were not an outstanding side by any means, yet Norwich had been swatted aside with consummate ease with even McNab getting on the score sheet in the process; one of just four goals he scored in nearly 300 league appearances for the Gunners.
Two more defeats followed, both 1-0, at Sheffield United and at home to Leeds, the latter destined to end the season as champions. They were not at their best at Carrow Road but still had more than enough about them to see off the Canaries; their goal, a shot from 35 yards from Johnny Giles, only being half saved by Keelan, who, following the crossbar incident was not enjoying the best of starts to a season. There would inevitably have been those wondering if it might have been time to give Mervyn Cawston – the Declan Rudd of his day (both were born in Diss, both were understudying a long established goalkeeper whose form was being questioned by some) – a few games.
Saunders persisted with the system that had served him so well the previous season although he had reshuffled his pack, giving chances to the likes of Clive Payne, recalled in place of the dropped Prophett, Les Wilson – a signing from Bristol City – and Ian Mellor, but, other than a narrow 1-0 win over Leicester City at Carrow Road on November 3rd.
City continued to struggle. By the time Everton arrived in Norwich for a league game a fortnight later, Norwich were one place outside of the bottom three and in urgent need of resuscitation, having won just two of their opening league fixtures; this in stark contrast to seven wins from their first fifteen games the previous season.
Everton won an otherwise forgettable match 3-1, their third goal; one that went in off Duncan Forbes leading to many Norwich supporters throwing their blue seat cushions onto the pitch in protest, an act of dissent that had, in all likelihood, never been witnessed at Carrow Road before.
It was one that enraged South and, in its act, gave him the perfect excuse to initiate some of those “sharp words” he had promised his manager at the start of the season. He sought out Saunders at the final whistle and eventually confronted him in the club’s boardroom. Whatever was said remains a mystery but it is known that their exchange was loud, angry and brutal in its nature. It was also inevitable that only one man would come out of it on top and that man wasn’t Ron Saunders. He resigned on the spot.
Five days later he was appointed manager of Manchester City.
He had been at the Norwich helm for around four and a half years, during which time he won 84 and drew 61 of the 221 competitive matches played under his management. He dragged an underachieving club up and out of mediocrity, won it promotion to the top flight, survived that against all the odds and, in addition, took the club to a major cup final and Wembley for the first time in its history.
Yet, whenever the great and good who have led the Canaries are discussed, it is inevitably names like Bond, Brown, Stringer, Walker, and, increasingly, Lambert who get so many of the plaudits today. Yet, for all he achieved, it is right that Saunders should remain a name and legend that is spoken about and remembered in the same way as some of his more illustrious successors, maybe even more so.
Was he Norwich’s greatest ever manager? That’s another question for another day.
But he most definitely remains one of the most significant and important managers in the club’s history. Of that there can be no question.
Ron Saunders. Canary man of steel.