It’s a footballing fact of life that, every now and again, a young footballing prodigy leaps to the attention of those in the know who immediately, in a flurry of excitement and feverish hyper-ventilating, announce him to be the “next <insert name of footballing legend here>”.
The subsequent acres of newspaper space that are allocated to him are testament to the desperate state that English football is in, one that is yearning and craving a new hero, someone to build up, to idolise, to venerate and to worship… at least until the time comes to castigate and condemn them.
It happens. Ask Wayne Rooney.
One golden generation has followed another, each promising so much – in people’s minds – but, in reality, offering little. As soon as the glitter is tarnished by the dark shadow of disappointment, we move onto the next one, hanging all of our hopes and dreams onto one or two players in particular, and, more often than not, identifying that young prodigy as the player who will unquestionably lead us to World Cup success in 2022 and beyond. Despite the fact that he has barely started shaving and is not yet old enough to drive the Baby Bentley his first full-time professional contract will get him.
Back in 1963, that sort of pressure was exactly what was being shovelled onto the scrawny adolescent shoulders of a 15-year-old Colin Suggett.
He made his initial mark on the game as a wiry left winger for Washington Grammar School, burning up and down the touchline in that part of the world where talented footballers seem to come naturally as if it’s something in the air that brings them out to play and conquer.
Suggett was, unquestionably a talent – and not one who was waiting to happen, but one that was, right then and right now, happening and in a big way. He soon progressed beyond his school side, finding himself playing for the Chester-Le-Street Schools Football Association before being fast-tracked into the England U-15’s side for whom he played six times before moving up yet another level, representing the England U-18’s and Youth XI.
For every box that demanded a tick, the young Suggett filled it in and moved on to the next challenge. Even then his peers would have started to fall away, leaving him and his childhood friend, Colin Todd, to progress, via their childhood sides, to an apprenticeship with Sunderland in 1964.
He had, at just 16 years of age, the footballing world at his feet – although the difference with Suggett at that time is that he just wanted the football at his feet because all he wanted to do was play.
Sunderland probably couldn’t quite believe their luck at signing two such promising youngsters at the same time. Todd, the centre-half who had a whiff of the Bobby Moore about him in the way he played the game – laid back, calm, collected and with that innate ability to remain unflustered no matter what the situation he found himself in, while Suggett was a joyous mix of everything you would want in a winger; the pace of a Cheetah combined with close control and an unerring ability to put the ball where it would always produce the maximum amount of inconvenience, bordering on panic, for opposing defenders.
All that and that pace, oh that pace, never mind the banalities of Top Gun, here was a player who felt the need, the need for speed. He even owned a greyhound – and you wouldn’t have bet against him beating it in a sprint. He was the Usain Bolt of his time, a fleet of foot winger with trickery and not a little bedevilment to go with it.
Sunderland manager Ian McColl, a Rangers debutant at just 18 liked what he saw in Suggett and gave him his debut in a league match against Stoke City on March 18th, 1967, a baptism of disappointment for Suggett, Sunderland going down 3-0. He had, however, done more than enough to merit his place, and, by the end of the following season, was Sunderland’s top scorer in the league with fourteen goals.
The club had struggled, however, ending that season in 15th place, five points clear of the relegations places-too close and no cigar for McColl who had been dismissed that February, the Wearsiders then, as now, desperate for success at any cost.
The more things change, the more they stay the same.
His prominence in a struggling side – they were relegated two years later – had not gone unnoticed by a posse of other Division One clubs, with West Bromwich Albion signing him for around £100,000 the following summer, making Suggett, at just 20, their record signing.
He duly revelled in Alan Ashman’s exciting side, combining well with Asa Hartford in the Baggies’ midfield, his searing pace and quality of delivery providing plenty of goals for the likes of Tony Brown and Jeff Astle, two players who thrived on quality service provided by a good winger. They took the plaudits, but the hard work had been done by Suggett and there were plenty in the game who rated him as important a player to the side, if not more so, than the two well-known goalscorers who took the goals and glory for him – and maybe, just maybe, his chance of playing for England.
Ashman’s buccaneering side followed up FA Cup success in 1968 by reaching the final of the League Cup two years later where, despite Suggett making the very most of Wembley’s slick pitch and wide-open spaces, they lost 2-1 to Manchester City. He had, however, had a taste of the big time and the national stage and seemed set for future success for the club, success that, for all the talents at the manager’s disposal, never came with the Baggies ultimately suffering relegation from Division One at the end of the 1972/73 season.
But by then Suggett was long gone. Gone that is, to another struggling side, our very own Norwich City, with Ron Saunders paying £70,000 for him in February 1973. Saunders reasons for doing so were obvious, the loss of Jimmy Bone at the same time meant a whole lot more responsibility for scoring the goals to keep Norwich up was, inevitably, being placed upon David Cross. Cross, like Astle and Brown thrived on crosses, the quick, decisive ball into the box, and, for the money spent, Saunders had got someone as good as anyone in the country at the time to do just that.
Suggett made his debut, playing alongside fellow new boy Trevor Hockey (who would, undoubtedly, have promised to “look after” his new teammate during the game) against Newcastle at Carrow Road, the Canaries losing 1-0 but their two new signings impressing from the start with Suggett, in particular, looking as if he would soon establish a good understanding with Cross.
His first goal for the Canaries came, just like the delivery of his passes, at the most opportune time and at the right moment. Norwich were hosting Crystal Palace in their penultimate league game of that season. Both sides were struggling – a vital win would all but guarantee survival whereas a loss, certainly for Palace, would doom them to relegation.
It was the proverbial four-pointer and Norwich had to win. Things hadn’t looked too good after half an hour when Palace got a penalty, the result of a typically robust challenge on the diminutive Derek Posse by Duncan Forbes. Don Rogers swept the penalty home, and, for a while, things seemed bleak for the Canaries and the crowd of nearly 37,000 who were at the game.
It was Suggett who took that pressure off barely five minutes later, his equaliser bringing the house down and setting the scene for Dave Stringer’s last-minute winner; the goal that kept, against all the odds, City in the top flight.
For Saunders, it was the denouement of his Norwich career. The Division Two title, a Wembley Cup final and last-minute survival in Division One took it out on the tough man from Birkenhead who resigned the following February. By then, Norwich were already, worryingly, in 20th place in the league and, although Suggett was continuing to impress, ending the season playing in all but one of the Canaries league games, the overall depth and quality in the squad played its hand, ultimately condemning Norwich to relegation, despite the injection of flair that John Bond had given them.
Bond was, despite his cigar smoking, loud-shirted and very outgoing personality, an extremely canny footballing man. He immediately recognised Suggett as a player who would be an integral member of his side, but, in recognising his ball skills and ability to play the killer pass, brought him infield, playing him in a central midfield position. There, aided, abetted and protected by the more fundamental qualities of players like Tony Powell and Peter Morris, he became the archetypal midfield general, the, in modern parlance, trequartista, the wearer of the number 10 shirt, whose job was to sit in that free role between midfield and attack – briefed to make the passes that mattered, whether five yards or fifty, but passes that caused damage.
Suggett, once shackled as a winger with a simple brief – get the ball and run like hell-revelled in the new role, donning the yellow number 10 shirt that had never really been filled since Graham Paddon’s departure, setting up goals on a plate for the predatory McDougall and Boyer. He also contributed a few himself, not least a stunning 30-yard effort past Aston Villa keeper Jim Cumbes early on in Norwich’s subsequent promotion winning season.
In Suggett, Bond had not really fashioned footballing silk from a sow’s ear – Suggett was quality before that move into midfield – but he had given a Canary diamond an extra polish and how it was showing!
One particular Suggett moment stands out. Liverpool, again, are the opponents at Carrow Road in a Division One game on December 10th 1977. Prodigal son Paddon has returned to claim back the number 10 shirt by now, but Suggett, ever capable, has been asked by Bond to play in a more central attacking role alongside Roger Gibbins.
A little over fifteen minutes have gone and Norwich, acting true to Bond’s beliefs, are showing little fear, taking the game to their illustrious opponents, reigning Champions, European Cup holders and packed with players of the talent and footballing virtues like Dalglish, Ray Kennedy and McDermott.
Bond respected his opponents – but never feared them and never talked them up. He preferred his sides to worry their opponents rather than worry about the calibre of the team facing them and this attitude was well rewarded with an impressive Norwich win.
The opener came from a through ball played by the peerless Peters, which was flicked on by Kevin Bond before finding Gibbins, back to Bond with, quite remarkably, Liverpool now back peddling and looking unsettled. Peters, imperious as ever, seized on this, a quick pass to Paddon, whose clever flick found Suggett in space and able to lift the ball past the lofty clawing hand of Ray Clemence, bewitching the challenges from both Neal and Case as he scored.
Typical Suggett. A little flair, flamboyance and skill all combined into the one package. But job done and in that casual and understated way that is the mark of genius.
He had joined the club as an out and out winger. Yet, and this is without being detrimental to the exponents of that art, he was a far, far better footballer than that, one who, I am sure, could seamlessly fit into the City side today and play a full part in the pending game at Sheffield Wednesday – even though he is 70 later this year!
Saunders had entrusted him to run with the ball at his feet whilst John Bond had gone a step further, allowing him to stop and think in the process. Why run, Bond would have said, if you can deliver a telling pass or find space for a teammate that no-one else can see.
Colin Suggett did all of that, finding space, moving into it, controlling the rhythm of the game and proving himself all over the pitch, a quality footballer who lit up the 70s at Carrow Road with his precision passing and overall presence.