Further to Mark Walton’s well received and much lauded stint as Radio Norfolk co-commentator last weekend, now feels like an appropriate time to revisit Ed’s interview with him, undertaken when researching his book ‘Fantasy Football’.
Merthyr Tydfil born Mark Walton had the unenviable job of understudying Bryan Gunn at a time when Gunny was at the peak of his goalkeeping powers at Norwich – culminating in that memorable 1992/93 season that saw the Canaries finish 3rd in the Premier League.
It was a campaign that saw Mark make the last of his 28 league and cup appearances for the Canaries – one of which was an FA Cup semi-final.
“I remember my first day at Norwich very clearly. The first team squad were away in Scandinavia, so I was at training with the young professionals and apprentices. I was shy, nervous, and not really sure if I was good enough. I quietly slipped into one of the apprentices changing rooms and got changed, not really certain of my status, or where I stood in the squad pecking order – keeping myself to myself.
“A week later the first-team squad returned and I was surrounded by big names and big players in my estimation, people like Andy Townsend, Robert Fleck, Dale Gordon, Andy Linighan and Bryan Gunn – with more outstanding players to back them up.
“During this early time, one of them, Jerry Goss, changed next to me; he was recovering from a hernia operation at the time – we struck up a rapport and this has endured, we were roommates on away trips and are now life-long friends.
“The training was a different world to what I had been used to at Colchester and I found it a very steep learning curve. Having said that, David Williams was the best coach I ever had the pleasure to work for, or with, and his impact on Norwich City should never be underestimated, as in my eyes, he was the man who should have taken more plaudits for the clubs success than anyone.”
The man who had recommended Mark to the club, then reserve team boss Mike Walker was an ex-goalkeeper himself – same initials, same country of birth. How did he influence Mark’s game?
“I owe Mike Walker a debt of gratitude to this day, as he basically taught me from scratch and helped develop me into a solid keeper with a sound technique. We used to put in a tremendous amount of time after training, just focusing on getting fitter and better. I loved training in a sandpit which was constructed for the keepers, and enjoyed some very gruelling sessions which were stimulating and challenging.
“In truth, Mike treated me very well – very hard but very fair. I worked hard and I lived hard, but he never judged me, and, I think, deep down, he knew that I would not overstep the mark in any way towards him or football. Gunny was the same and he was very good to me. He was an established keeper and on the verge of the Scotland side which put him in a very strong position within the club.
“Gunny was always very generous, offering gloves or kit that he had no use for, or didn’t want – which was always greatly received. But we were total opposites! I needed to train hard daily to keep up to the demands and standards; Bryan had this knack of doing enough to get by, and produced performances which were bloody frustrating for me, as a young upstart!
“But I always found him good company. I think there is genuine warmth towards fellow goalkeepers as they are the only ones who really understand the demons you go through and how solitary it can be at times. Saying that, I always wanted to replace him and wanted him to struggle in games – hypocritical maybe, as I wanted Norwich to win, but then football is a strange life!”
Mark’s best run of games for the club came in the 1991/92 season when he played 17 league and 5 FA Cup games – including the semi-final against Sunderland. Good memories?
“I was ready to play. I was experienced enough and had enthusiasm and commitment to the club and my fellow players. Like many at the club at that time, I ate, drunk and slept football, nothing else was important apart from knocking the froth off a few beers and enjoying life.
“Bryan had a serious back injury, so my first game was against Southampton, and then a midweek FA Cup game against Millwall – and we won both. In the Millwall game I saved a penalty just before half time and we actually won that one quite comfortably. That sent me on my way, my confidence grew and the confidence of others in me grew with that.
“Looking back, there were some fine players in that side, and you only tend to appreciate those players when you are in the heat of battle. There were no big stars at the club and everyone respected each other. Obviously there are going to be personality clashes, as at any workplace but these seemed to be few and far between.
“The spirit at the club during training, trips to games and on tours was fantastic, and there was always a willing partner to go out and have a beer with. These usually developed into almighty piss ups which never saw any bad behaviour, just the boys enjoying each other’s company and letting off steam, together with some healthy banter.
“The humour in a dressing room is very black, very sarcastic, and very personal and funny, which I miss with great fondness.”
How about that FA Cup run. Losing to Sunderland – then a division below Norwich-in the semi-final must have hurt?
“The build-up to the semi-final was almost unimaginable for me – the lad from the council estate in Merthyr Tydfil having the chance to walk out at Wembley. I remember my dad telling me he couldn’t make the semi-final because of work commitments, but he would be at Wembley. No pressure then!
“I don’t remember much about that Sunderland game apart from thinking we didn’t play as well as we had been in the lead up. There was despondency in the dressing room afterwards, I remember people crying – I’d been fairly good post-game but had a little breakdown and remember crying in a church yard when we stopped for a beer in a pub.
“I remember Gossy, and, I think, Gerry Peyton (a keeper who was on loan at Norwich from Everton at that time) coming to console me, along with John Polston. When I got home, I rang Dad and broke down again, sat at the top of my stairs talking to him, sobbing – and the fans think players have no passion for the game!”
How was the build up towards the season that followed, the first of Premier League football, under Mike Walker?
“We had the usual pre-season tour that included a frenzy of games and some major bonding sessions! These always started out with a ‘quiet beer’ that ended up with beer by the bucket load – for a time we were, I think, in Finland. Our hotel was by a river with a nightclub and a casino downstairs – hence some wayward behaviour!
“Two of our more prominent players were caught riding bakers’ bicycles back to the hotel at 5am, another one climbing down a drainpipe to get back into the casino!
“As far as the season was concerned, I do remember thinking I had a chance of starting, however Mike opted for Bryan and I was disappointed about that. In pre-season, I’d played against Colchester whilst Bryan played against Southend. Mike said that Gunny looked better on crosses and that’s why he got the shirt ahead of me.
“Disappointment was an understatement! However, there are two ways in which you can deal with that sort of thing-move on or sulk. I moved on. I had three friends coming down from South Wales for that opening game at Arsenal, which we won 4-2, with Mark Robins doing the damage. Hence some celebrations in the Arsenal bar – which was free – and three lads from South Wales heading home somewhat inebriated as a result!
“The way we played and won that game was crucial, it set us up for the season. It might only have been the first game, but there was this slightly fearless way in which we went about games, plus everyone seemed happy with the way we were playing. There were no disruptive influences in the changing room, or at the club, which was a great help, and so the atmosphere was always buoyant. We all hung out together.
“Most of the players went to Strikers, the pub on the Carrow Road complex for lunch. There was a chap there, I think his name was Sandy, who, whatever you bought, charged you £2. Gary Megson came in and suggested an ‘eat to win’ mentality, and was extolling the virtues of tuna… whilst the lads tucked into their sausage sandwiches!”
I mentioned to Mark that stories of some of the antics and adventures that the squad at the time had enjoyed were legion. Were there any that he dared share?
“Those stories, that camaraderie, it all helped contribute to our success! And it involved everyone-first team players and the kids. I recall Gossy, Rob Newman and I in a bar called Hector’s House in the city – we’d seen two apprentices walk by, Derryn Brace and Andy Marshall. We ushered them in and offered Marsh £90 if he would drink half a pint of fiery salsa laced with tobacco – hence a tense minute whist Marsh did the deed and picked up three times his weekly wage.
“Home or away, we all had a great time. I’ll never forget a trip to Istanbul – an overnight stay and one almighty piss up to be honest, with around twenty to thirty dignitaries! We flew to Romania before having a three-hour boat trip to play a game where we got completely stuffed, 4-1, 5-1, something like that.
“I remember Lee Power ordering 40 vodka and oranges and bringing them to the tables; Robert Chase’s face was a picture! On some of the away trips, that bus resembled a disco on wheels at times. So yes, we enjoyed ourselves. But we were professional and we kept fit, trained hard to get the excess out of our systems.
“We got weighed every Monday and Friday, which was the bane of my life as I was one of the larger ones! One way round it was to stand next to a fellow fat boy who you could then lean on to help adjust the weight shown. There was also the dehydration trick, a favourite of Rob Newman, Gunny and I.
“I would have lunch on the Thursday, followed by a long sauna in the evening, then go ‘nil by mouth’ until I weighed in, in the morning. Then I’d order sausage rolls and pies from the Trowse bakery, which my apprentice would get for me. As a result, the changing rooms at Trowse smelt like a baker’s oven. We also celebrated birthdays with cream cakes after training – always nice if you had a sweet tooth.
“If I was playing for the reserves, that meant turning out on a Friday night – and if some of us were needed for the first-team squad the next day, we’d have to make our way to wherever they were staying after the game. Can you imagine that now? The club would provide a car and we’d have to get to the hotel as soon as possible – depending on the departing party, it might have been later!
“The ‘three Amigos’ (Mark, Rob Newman and Gossy) had to get to Crystal Palace one evening, but we stopped the Old Ram on the A140 outside Norwich and had a beer or two, before getting to the hotel at about 3am! Charmer (Rob) was sub, got on after about fifteen minutes, got a ball in the face and promptly hit the deck. The subs absolutely pissing themselves in the dugout.”
Playing ‘away from home’ sometimes meant it quite literally then?
“We were at Sheffield United for the last fixture of the 1990/91 season. We used to travel up from the Post House hotel in Norwich. I was parked up and ready – a bit tense as it was a big game for me. Not everyone was as tense! Flecky was sat on the mini-roundabout just outside the hotel, eating a Chinese takeaway. He then debagged and showed off a tattoo he’d just had engraved on his backside, a little devil I believe!
“After a nice communal dinner at the hotel in Sheffield, I went for a walk with Gossy – a usual thing to do as it killed the boredom. We were joined by Flecky, David Phillips and Ian Butterworth and as we walked we passed a little, nondescript pub – well, we asked, should we walk past? We went in for a few and were joined by Peter Elliott the Olympic middle distance runner, which was very unexpected but most enjoyable.”
Both the football and the team spirit within the club had been great for a few years, an unparalleled time of success and recognition for both the players and the club. Did Mark and his teammates take it hard when, as it sadly did, began to fall apart and he, like so many others, found themselves leaving the club for pastures new?
“My time at Norwich, sadly, ended in pain, frustration and anger. The first year of the Premier League had been incredible, with some great games and, more importantly, fantastic results. It was an achievement which will never be emulated due to the financial make up of the football industry now – but at the time I thought nothing of it. I was young and had no perspective of success or appreciation of it.
“I remember being offered an extension to my contract by Mike Walker and turning it down – I believed, at the time, that mine was not on the same scale as that of two other young players who were also offered extensions. I was, as a result, dropped from the squad to play Middlesbrough in the last game of that first Premier League season.
“But, typical of my life and career, that wasn’t the end of the drama. I was scheduled to play in the reserves the following day at Spurs. I’d arranged with John Faulkner, the reserve coach, to be picked up on the A12 at Marks Tey, near to Colchester at a specified time. No bus arrived, as it had gone down the A14 to London instead!
“I had a mobile phone with me, so managed to get in touch with John Deehan at the first-team hotel to inform him of the situation. He asked me to get a taxi there and, luckily, I was absolved of the blame – however, even if I had left immediately, I would only have got there at half time!
“So I left and went home. The reserves went on to lose 10-0! I think Lee Power played in goal. No further contract negotiations took place, but I returned for pre-season training and went on tour to Denver, Colorado, which was a privilege. The club, meantime, were looking to sign another keeper; this turned out to be Scott Howie. So I knew my time at the club was over.
“I ended up training with the youth team and was with them until March. It’s the harsh reality of being a professional footballer – here today, gone tomorrow. It wasn’t a good time. I’d been amongst a great team of blokes, involved in some great games, playing at some great stadiums. Now I was training on the third field at Trowse, which was a slope and full of mole hills, and with the 16-17 year olds.
“Then Mike Walker left for Everton and John Deehan took over. He gave me a free transfer – in effect, sacked me – within a couple of weeks. I’d enjoyed incredible highs and lows, but this was an ignominious end. Those last six months were a blur, a downward spiral of anger, frustration, drinking and loneliness. Players left, the club drifted, and, in my opinion, it lost its soul. The rest is history!”
Two decades on, how did Mark look back on that time at Norwich now?
“People enjoyed themselves and gave everything that they had for the club and for their team mates. Looking back, yes, some of the behaviour was extreme, but no-one got hurt and there was always the serious business of playing.
“Personally, I enjoyed having a few pints – it was my escape from football’s engrossing nature and maybe a way of dealing with insecurities and pressure. I’ll always be indebted to Norwich as I travelled the world for free. Scandinavia, China, Hong Kong, Russia, America, the Cayman Islands, Europe, Romania and Kuwait. A great club with great lads at the centre of it which, to me, is what it is all about: to have camaraderie and to share in the success we had – very simplistic but very powerful.
“And to be successful at the highest level is an ingredient that is searched for – but very seldom found. The overall feel for me, in all of my time at Norwich, was that it was a happy club with great team-mates who were totally relaxed in each other’s company. I guess there must have been a few tensions, but I was blissfully unaware of any! I loved my football and I loved Norwich, and, for me, it is still ‘my club’.
“The camaraderie of the dressing room was fantastic – indeed, whilst I don’t miss playing one bit, I do miss the changing room banter, all the characters, bad and good, and those shared triumphs, disasters and the shared sense of humour.”
Mark typifies that old adage about football being a squad game, rather than a team game. His input, playing wise, during the 1992/93 season was minimal, yet his place as a valued squad member, team mate and friend cannot be over-emphasised. He was unlucky to have been at Norwich during a time when Bryan Gunn was at the very pinnacle of his game – yet in many other ways, Norwich City were certainly lucky to have him.
‘Fantasy Football’, Ed’s book about the club’s 1992/93 season which features interviews with many of the players and people involved at the club during that time is available at Jarrold, Waterstones (Castle Street, Norwich branch) and online at Legends Publishing.