First a little story.
About four years ago I was jointly commissioned by Norwich City Football Club and Jarrolds Publishing to conduct 12, big sit-down interviews with various Canary legends for a book entitled '12 Canary Greats'.
It was, pretty much by and large, a total pleasure. There was, however, one moment that ranks as one of the more sickening in my 20-odd years as a sports journalist.
Given my short-hand would last, at best, about three minutes before descending into a wholly illegible scrawl, I decided that the only way forward was to conduct the interviews on tape. And then transcribe every word onto screen. Or rather pay someone else to transcribe every word onto screen.
Mini tape recorder bought, it lasted about two outings before being dropped; the tape door, to this day, is fixed in place with a rubber band. I also make a point of clipping on the microphone to the tie, shirt or jumper of each and every new 'victim'.
Because I didn't do that for a two-hour interview with ex-City boss Dave Stringer. Instead, having checked that the red 'Recording' light was on and the tiny mini-wheels were dutifully turning, I left it sat there, on the glass coffee table that seperated us, at Dave's Bradwell home.
And basically just listened. And watched in blissful ignorance as that little tape recorder sat there on the glass-topped table and vibrated to such an extent on that shiny surface that it rendered every word that was spoken that soft, summer afternoon completely unintelligible.
Something I discovered about 500-yards from his front door when I pulled in to the first lay-by, re-wound the tape and checked that everything was fine…
I even tried to see if anyone within the confines of Radio Norfolk had the kind of ferensic ability you see on the TV cop shows to cut out the over-powering, foreground hum and somehow bring that distant, background conversation to within ear-shot. 'Sorry, Rick… it's useless…'
So, in the end, I had to make the call. And three weeks later we did it all again. To my mind, it remains one of the most insightful and stimulating chapters in the whole book. And Dave Stringer said it all twice.
Which is why it was a pleasure to share a Radio Norfolk studio with him last week and discover that in the intervening years, he had lost none of his ability to shed thought-provoking light on a game – and a football club – to which he has devoted almost his entire adult life.
And to whose efforts in either his playing, coaching or managing capacities, Norwich City Football Club owe so much.
Of the half a dozen topics that you suddenly started to view in a different light, two – if not three – have a very particular relevance to the way the next fortnight or so may unfold.
One area of conversation was injuries. Why is it that, nine times out of ten, Peter Grant's best-laid plans appear to be sunk by injury? And, more topically, why is it that the creative egde and defensive heart of his 2007-2008 side are – in the case of Messrs Smith, Fotheringham and Shackell – all sat on the sidelines with ankle ligament injuries?
Part of the debate centred on the new, light-weight boots today's players wear; to which came the counter that, come the early 70s, and Stringer's generation were already switching to the new 'continental' type of boot; the 'fashion' for boots of the almost hob-nailed variety had long gone.
There was a suggestion that tendons weren't keeping pace with gym-enhanced muscles; and, more intriguingly, the way that he and his contemporaries used to strap their ankles with the kind of tight, supporting binding that boxers apply to their wrists and knuckles.
Just as, to this day, Darren Huckerby does. Because if all the increase in power, the tendon weakness and the light-weight boot argument was to carry any weight, then – in theory – Huckerby should spend half a season sat on the sidelines given the treatment that is meted out to his ankles by every passing Championship full-back.
But he doesn't. The only reason that Huckerby doesn't play games is due to issues of the groin-stroke-hip variety; therefore, you wonder whether the City star's affection for the kind of religiously-applied ankle strapping common to an earlier generation might not be at least part of the answer.
But then the conversation took an even more interesting turn – a subject that can become very dear to everyone's hearts, subsitutions.
Turn the clock back 30 years and there was just one face sat on a City subs bench. One option; one alternative.
And, by and large, that would be of the striking variety – that if you were a goal down with 20 minutes to go, you'd throw an extra striker on and chase the game.
And that was about as subtle and as complicated as it got. Pick up a knock or a niggle in mid-game and you got on with it; the manager didn't have five substitutes and three changes up his sleeve – unless it was a dire emergency, you stayed on; you got on with it.
Brave was the player that suggested to Ron Saunders that: 'Gaffer, I really think I ought to come off – I've got this little tweak…'
But that one substitute rule had other knock-on effects – teams would tend to stick to one system of playing because they didn't have the two extra bodies you need to switch from 4-4-2 to, say, 4-3-1-2. And back to 3-4-3 when the third sub arrived.
There was a Plan A. And if that didn't work, a Plan B. And nothing in between. Or either side.
And because, there wasn't this constant turnover in players – that you played on when injured; that you stuck to the same system; that it was always the same 12, 13 or 14 faces involved every week – that from there, from that kind of consistency individually, so consistent performances and results would follow.
It was simple – you had no choice but to keep it simple, because you only had one substitute. How complicated can it get with only one lad on the bench?
It was an interesting train of thought – and one that clearly wasn't specific to Norwich. This is the way that it is in 2007 – managers now have the opportunity to over-complicate and over-dilute what ought to remain a simple game.
There was another point that could yet pertain to how the cookie crumbles over the forthcoming autumn – that in Stringer's experience it takes three years to build a side; three season of tweaking and twiddling and ironing out all the flaws before any manager gets near to the finished product.
He cited Saunders and the length of time it took him to get that famous, Canary promotion side to the peak of their powers – and that, of course, is all with the kind of consistency selection-wise that comes with strapped-up ankles and one substitute on the bench.
You could, just about, apply the same time-frame to the team that Nigel Worthington built in the run-up to City's 2004 title triumph; Stringer made another valid point that in the case of himself, Mike Walker and again Worthington, they all enjoyed the kind of head-start an insider gets – that being on the coaching staff already means that from day one you know where the problems are, on and off the pitch.
It was a luxury that Grant clearly doesn't enjoy; he has started, effectively, from scratch and – in theory – his new-built team should be expected to hit the peak of their powers in the early spring of 2010, not in the late autumn of 2007.
Whether any manager – from Sir Alex Ferguson downwards – has that kind of time on his side is a thought for another day.
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