It’ll soon be sixty years since the most famous encounter between the Canaries and Manchester United was played.
Despite the intervening years seeing some wonderful memories and matches played involving the club, this one particular match and result probably remains as the most famous and well-beloved in the Canaries history.
I’m talking, of course, between the two clubs meeting at Carrow Road in an FA Cup 3rd round tie on January 10, 1959.
There were certainly no indications prior to the game itself that Norwich were capable of causing an upset. At that time, the FA Cup held almost mythical status in the English game; to triumph in the competition and be handed a coveted winners medal was the dream of any player in the game, the pinnacle of their career.
Only six years earlier, the nation had held its collective breath and willed a win for Blackpool in the 1953 final so that Stanley Matthews, 38, and a gallant loser in his two previous finals, could at last hold the FA Cup aloft at Wembley.
Yet a captive nation did not always get its own way. The previous spring had seen the Red Devils reach the final where Bolton Wanderers awaited them on the day. If the will of the people had been strong for Matthews, then it was a palpable, physical thing as far as support for Manchester United had been that afternoon.
Three months prior to the 1958 final, the BEA flight carrying the United team had crashed at Munich-Riem Airport, resulting in the tragic deaths of 23 people, notably – and after a fight for life that resembled the passionate way he lived it – Duncan Edwards.
Seven of Edwards’ team mates perished in the crash, another two who survived never played football again and another United player, Bobby Charlton, was pulled from the blazing wreckage by team-mate Harry Gregg.
Imagine a similar disaster today, a similar loss of life to players, club staff and members of the media – maybe on a flight home from a Champions League game. It would dominate the news, here and abroad, for weeks afterwards.
Imagine the collective outburst of sorrow and grief back then after the crash, not just in Manchester but all over the world. And, as a much depleted and wounded Manchester United side played out that season, imagine the support they would have had at Wembley with maybe even their opponents wishing that it wasn’t them that had to play them on that day.
As it was, Bolton Wanderers went about their task professionally and with the sort of commitment and endeavour you would have expected from a side led by Nat Lofthouse. They prevailed 2-0, celebrations were muted and, with it, a grey veil was drawn over that season.
Manchester United were therefore the club that everyone wanted to see do well the following season.
Unsurprisingly, given that circumstances had given a whole new meaning to the term of a team being ‘in transition’, they hadn’t started the season very well. By mid-November, and, following a 6-3 league loss to their FA Cup final opponents of six months earlier, they were 15th in the table and struggling.
However, by the time the team travelled to Carrow Road for the cup match, they had won eight consecutive league games and were starting to look, whilst maybe not quite yet contenders for the league title, a very good bet for that much more cherished trophy that had eluded them at the final stage the previous year.
Norwich City, marooned in 16th place in the old Division Three prior to kick-off, were not expected to provide much in terms of opposition and the footballing justice that would be United finally climbing out of their sad abyss by winning the trophy, was fully expected to commence that afternoon in Norfolk.
No-one, of course, expected Norwich City to do anything other than roll over and have their feathery bellies tickled. No-one that is, except for manager Archie Macaulay and his team.
Macaulay could, in modern parlance, “show us your medals”. He won both the Scottish League title and cup with Rangers, and whilst with Arsenal won a First Division Championship medal. So he knew about being a winner and what it needed to be just that.
These qualities were noted by the Norwich City board who appointed him as manager in April 1957. The task in hand for him, undoubtedly, was not going to be an easy one. Norwich had just endured the worst season of their history, one which had included a sequence of 25 games without a win.
Not surprisingly therefore, the team finished at the bottom of the Division Three South table and had to seek re-election to the football league. Norwich had been on the wrong end of an FA Cup shock that season themselves as well, succumbing, at Carrow Road to the tune of 4-2 to non-league Bedford Town.
Quite what the nadir of that season was, the FA Cup exit or finishing place at the foot of the table, is open to debate, however, with re-election gratefully achieved and with the promised support of his board, Macaulay set about his mammoth task.
One of the players who was at Carrow Road when Macaulay took over was Terry Bly. He had endured a stop-start season, scoring twice in just nine appearances during that woeful 1956/57 campaign. A serious knee injury that necessitated surgery saw him miss the entire 1957/58 season, and it wasn’t until the Carrow Road clash with Notts County on November 22nd 1958, over eighteen months since his last City game, that Macaulay saw fit to give Bly the number 9 shirt as a starter.
At this point, and even before he had achieved anything else, the caps of then (and now) should have been duly doffed for him. Knee injuries, despite even the very best attentions of 21st century medicine, can (and have) ended the career of many a professional footballer.
The fact that Bly, playing in the lower divisions and hardly established in the game had the determination and courage to fight his way back to competitive fitness after the savagery of his own injury, speaks volumes of the man.
His comeback did not have an immediate fairytale ending – Norwich drew the game 3-3, with Bly’s strike partner Errol Crossan getting two of the goals. He was then out of the side for a further four games; his replacement in three of them being the now forgotten Peter Cleland, before getting his place back for the home game against Southend United on January 3rd 1959.
From then on he didn’t look back and scored as Norwich won 4-0. Maybe, just maybe, if he had not scored against the Shrimpers on that day, he wouldn’t have played the following week and it would have been Cleland, a prolific goalscorer at non-league level with Cheltenham Town, who got his chance. Cleland or, perhaps Derrick Lythgoe would have been the man to catch his manager’s eye.
But no, Bly had scored and played well, so, as far as Macaulay was concerned, he had earnt the right to keep his place in the side for the visit of the Red Devils.
It is worth bearing in mind at this point that Bly, forever etched on the minds of many a Canary fan as one of the clubs all time greats and a player synonymous with the 1959 FA Cup run, went into the fixture against Manchester United as a relative unknown. An unknown amongst many Norwich fans, let alone anyone else.
He’d joined the Canaries from non-league Bury Town in August 1956, so had, in two-and-a-half years with club, much of which was taken up by a debilitating injury made just eleven league appearances, scoring three goals. His one FA Cup appearance to date had been in the previous round, a dour 1-1 draw at Swindon, Cleland taking his place in the replay.
Bly was, without doubt, on trial and expected to prove himself. The circumstances and match which gave him what might have been his last chance to do so, could hardly have been more difficult; a task rendered all the more difficult by the fact that, outside of Norwich, the footballing nation were all willing Matt Busby’s rebuilt side to succeed.
Starting at Carrow Road.
Whatever the footballing fates had in store for Norwich therefore, a crowd of 38,000 were there to see the end result, even if it was only for the chance to see Busby and his new team – one that featured such footballing luminaries as Harry Gregg, Dennis Violett and Bobby Charlton (all survivors from Munich) and Albert Quixall, an England international, to name but four.
Class oozed throughout the United side and it was expected to tell, indeed, that was the denouement that most of the crowd would have been expecting – and no bad thing to see some stars when your usual Saturday fare was clubs like Rochdale, Mansfield Town and Bury.
The day itself was adorned with ice and snow, the temperature frigid. The scenario was one which today would be pronounced as the sort that the bigger teams didn’t like, couldn’t cope with. For “cold, wet night at Barnsley”, read “icy cold afternoon in Norwich”.
But Macaulay wasn’t going to trust that the weather would do the job for him, he had far too much respect for Busby and his team for that. He knew that his Norwich defence, schooled to snap at the heels of United’s attacking trio of Charlton, Violett and Quixall would do admirably; so much so in fact that the United midfield would feel compelled to push up and offer their assistance.
In doing so they would leave gaps; space which Crossan and Brennan, fleet of foot on even that icy surface would exploit. And exploit it they did.
In the middle of all this, an irresistible force began to create a little havoc of his own, marauding from just inside the halfway line to the United penalty area on countless occasions, leaving their defence unsure of who to pick up, to mark and who was the danger.
Crossan and Brennan were playing as wingers with Bly plundering his way through the middle. A new dynamic was therefore introduced to the game because, even as the Norwich back four set about nullifying United’s attack, Busby’s own defence was now being stretched by the Canaries. Little arguments and disagreements were breaking out amidst the red shirted ranks.
Proof of this can be seen in the now famous photograph taken after the first Norwich goal was scored, an image which shows United’s centre half Ron Cope pointing a finger at an unseen team-mate as Bly turns to celebrate that goal.
And what a goal it was.
Allcock found Brennan yet again, with the resultant pull back gave the advancing Bly the opportunity to fire a fierce shot past Gregg in the United goal.
More was to follow. Bly was the creator after an hour; another shot of his was parried by Gregg, this time out to the advancing Crossan who headed it past him and into the goal.
Then, with only a few minutes left on the clock, Bly scored the goal that sealed his place in Canary folklore; cutting in himself from the left, casually brushing aside the tiring Cope before striking a shot of such formidable power past Gregg, it left the dazed United goalkeeper sportingly applauding him as he wheeled away to celebrate goal and convincing victory.
Chaos theory states that the beating of a butterflies wings in one part of the world can, ultimately, lead to a typhoon on the other side of it; that is, the smallest events can, and often do, go on to have the hugest of consequences.
Can we bring chaos theory into the field of play here? What if Bly had not started that game against Southend? What if he had failed to score? Or maybe, weary of his constant injuries, decided to quit the game?
He then may not have taken his place in the Norwich side for this famous game. The Canaries may not have won. Macaulay may not have seen his team gather the momentum that, ultimately, got them promotion to the Second Division and, just over a decade later, under Ron Saunders, find themselves playing in the top flight of English football for the first time in their history.
Fanciful thinking, of course. An indulgence even. But interesting. For, despite the relatively low number of appearances he ended up making for Norwich City – just 67 in four years – perhaps that one game and just those two goals means that Norwich City owes more to Terry Bly than has ever been previously realised?