On second thoughts, don’t. I might wake up. And I’m in such a nice place at the moment.
We’re all in dreamland at the moment, aren’t we? A well-deserved promotion back to the Premier League, our eighth to the top flight of English football since Ron Saunders and his band of craggy and hirsute warriors achieved it for the first time back in 1972.
That, in itself, was something of a miracle. Saunders was appointed in 1969 with a simple three-year brief to accompany the drying ink on his contract. It was succinct and to the point: get us promoted within three years or you might just have to rethink your career plans.
He was hardly a managerial big noise at the time. Yeovil Town and Oxford United were the only other names on his coaching CV at the time, a level of relative obscurity that matched that of one Paul Lambert with his Livingstone, Wycombe Wanderers and Colchester United.
He and Saunders hardly had a managerial background to set the pulse racing. But then at least Lambert had a Champions League winners medal to his name. Saunders had been a decent enough player in his time; a prolific centre-forward who scored over 200 goals in his career as a gnarly, all elbows and knees centre forward with Everton, Gillingham, Portsmouth, Watford and Charlton.
Of all those clubs, Saunders was perhaps best-known down on the south coast with Pompey where he was leading goalscorer for six consecutive seasons and an integral part of their Division Three title winning side in 1962.
Despite all that however, it’s fair to say that most Norwich fans would have been wondering quite who the new man in charge was when he took over. But, even if they hadn’t, they’d have seriously been questioning his credentials for the job at the end of his first campaign in charge (1969/70), one that saw Norwich stutter to a 11th place finish in the old Division Two, a season that had seen us score only 49 league goals in our 42 league fixtures.
We were, in truth, not only continuing with the recent pattern of mid-table mediocrity but were just a little bit dull with it. Fourteen of our games that season ended in 1-0 score lines whilst there were four no-score draws and just six separate occasions where we scored three or more goals in a game – the last of which was a 6-0 mauling of Birmingham City in front of just over 12,000 shell-shocked spectators at Carrow Road in the penultimate game of the season.
Things didn’t improve much the following season. We finished it in 10th place, with, perhaps, the low point of both that campaign and Saunders’ early years at Norwich being a 5-0 capitulation at Middlesbrough on February 6th.
That would have hurt.
It might also have led to the Norwich board beginning to wonder if they had the right man in charge.
Nothing seemed to have changed at Carrow Road. Saunders was supposedly the highest paid manager outside of the top flight but for all the investment the club were making in him, things seemed no different to how they had been under his predecessors, Lol Morgan and Ron Ashman who was, at about that time, busy discovering and nurturing a young Kevin Keegan at Scunthorpe United.
It wasn’t as if there were no alternatives available. Jimmy Sirrel was beginning to make a name for himself at Notts County whilst, up in Scotland, Willie Ormond was in the process of leading St Johnstone to a third-place finish, ahead of Rangers, in their top flight.
Stick or twist?
The Norwich board chose to stick. But Saunders knew that it was going to be a case of now or never in the 1971/72 season.
City didn’t have the best of starts. Three draws and a win in their opening four fixtures, not bad of course, but hardly eyebrow raising either. A run of five consecutive victories from September 4th did, however, make a few people sit up and take note, as did the fact that, taking that run into a wider context, the Canaries went onto put a run together that saw them lose just two of their league fixtures before Christmas – a run that had taken them to the top of the table and made them part of a thrilling promotion race with Millwall.
What had changed? Not a great deal. Norwich had, up until then, never been a side that was particularly rich in flair. Hard work and training sessions that involved medicine balls, bunny hopping up and down the slopes of Mousehold Heath and long cross-country runs had made Norwich into, arguably, the fittest team in the division, if not the country. But it was more about grit and honest endeavour than flair and finesse.
There was, fortunately, one exception to the rule. And that came in the shape of Graham Paddon.
Visually, Paddon would have been footballing anathema to Saunders. His shirt was permanently flapping over his shorts, he wore his hair long and had cultivated a beard that made him look a forerunner of the hipsters of today. He was, to coin a tired old phrase, a bit of a free spirit, both on and off the pitch.
And, like the manager who signed him, he came to Norwich as a relative unknown. He’d been signed from Coventry City in October 1969 for £25,000 – not a small amount, certainly for the Canaries at the time. He’d made just five league appearances for the Sky Blues but had scored one goal in that time and was considered to be a proverbial hot prospect; a midfield talent who would go a long way in the game.
Paddon was naturally gifted, there is no doubt about that. His left foot would not have looked out of place on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, while the ferocity of his shot made many a goalkeeper reluctant to face him in training. He was keen in the tackle, could see a pass three days before anyone else and covered so much of the pitch in every game that Sky Sports would think something was wrong with their stats machine.
Paddon hadn’t, initially, been that keen on a move to Norwich, reasoning that, with Coventry an established First Division club and with him starting to get some games in the first team, his fledgling career would be rather more hindered than helped by dropping down a division in order to join a club that had never played there.
But he hadn’t met Ron Saunders.
“Sign for us and you’ll be playing in the First Division within three years”, was Saunders pledge to the then 19-year-old Paddon.
That had sounded quite a desperate claim as the 1970/71 season came to an end. Yet Saunders was, ultimately, as good as his word. He’d told the Norwich board he’d get the club promoted and he’d told Paddon the same thing.
And people began to believe him. No more so than after the now mostly forgotten game that preceded those ones at Orient and Watford at the end of that season that have now, rightly, gone down into Canary folklore.
It was a home match against Swindon Town on April 22nd, Norwich’s sixth of that month and one witnessed by nearly 32,000 tense and somewhat nervous Canary fans. With Norwich’s final two games of the season due to be played away from home, victory in this match was beyond essential and everyone knew it.
Yet with Paddon pulling the strings in midfield, Norwich prevailed, 1-0 with Duncan Forbes scoring the winner – a captain’s performance by him, as was always the case – but Paddon was the conductor leading his orchestra yet again with, watching on the sidelines, an impassioned Saunders willing his side to victory.
It was a win that perfectly set up confirmation of promotion at Orient two days later with, on the following Saturday, a 1-1 draw at Watford sealing the Division Two Championship for the Canaries and the first of, to date, eight separate elevations to the top flight for our club.
Saunders and his players had, against all the odds, achieved a footballing miracle. Promotion from a league in which the dominant forces were expected to be Burnley, Blackpool, Sunderland and Sheffield Wednesday.
Big clubs with big budgets.
It was, in footballing terms, something of a miracle. And, nearly five decades later, it’s good to see that we’re still capable of doing it, of achieving the supposedly impossible and defying not only the odds but every single person out there who thinks, in the manner that a certain team in the Midlands are now called ‘Frank Lampard’s Derby County’, our full name is ‘Little Old Norwich’.
We may be diminutive in many ways, but we continue to pack one hell of a punch.