The fact that it all kicked off with that 7-1 win for Colchester has merely made Norwich’s season the stuff of Canary legend and coach Ian Culverhouse revealed that the momentous day in August was “surreal”, when he was, of course, in the Us dugout.
“It was an extraordinary week,” recalled Ian, as their stunning success on the day triggered – in part – the downfall of two of his ex-UEFA Cup team-mates, Bryan Gunn and Ian Butterworth.
“When we were at Colchester we had done a lot of work and we assembled a group of players that we thought could do well here. But to come here on the first day and to get that result….
“It was a one-off. We know that. But to actually be here was a surreal moment; you just couldn’t believe what was going on.
“But I just remember on the day; coming here; being in front of that crowd and thinking: ‘Oh my God! What a stadium! What a fan-base this is!’
“So, it was nice to be on that side of it [the 7-1 scoreline] but not if you’re a Norwich fan. And then – two weeks down the line – we were actually standing on the side of the pitch and revelling in it,” said ‘Cully’, speaking to the NCFC Matchday programme.
What he clearly equally revels in is having the chance to ply his trade on the playing fields of Colney; they were little more than a glint in Robert Chase’s eye when City’s European sweeper star moved on to pastures new.
“I was never fortunate enough to train here as a player; I used to come up here and have a look round, but it was something that you looked forward to – [you knew] that there were some exciting times coming.
“But to actually come back now and be in charge of it is great.”
From day one, Lambert and Co set their own stamp on the place; kicking off with a new training regime. It was when certain pennies dropped – in particular over the course of that ill-deserved away defeat at Leeds United in mid-October – that a title-winning team started to emerge.
Something ‘clicked’ at Elland Road. That Norwich could more than give anyone a game; even the then runaway leaders.
“The first priority when we came here was to change the intensity that we trained at. I think that was really important – that the workload came down. We work for short, sharp periods and after a couple of results, you saw that the players actually bought into it.
“And it is a pleasure now to come in and work with this group of players because the work ethic that they’ve got now is tremendous – and it makes your job easier.
“But I think when we went to Leeds and we found the diamond – the formation suited the players that we’ve got here at this football club and we went there and we played Leeds off the park that day. And that’s when I think the belief came in; that [the boys] started to think: ‘We’ve not got a bad side here…”
The diamond. No longer solely a girl’s best friend, it proved a big pal for Lambert and Culverhouse as Wes Hoolahan sparkled at the tip of that midfield diamond whilst Darel Russell sat imperiously at its base.
Norwich had the players to make it work; just as Ossie Ardiles had at Swindon with Alan McLoughlin playing the part of Wesley; Ross McLaren that of Rusty.
Put Culverhouse’s own playing apprenticeship at White Hart Lane with Ardiles in his playing pomp and the four years he spent at The County Ground following the end of his 297-game Canary career and two, big influences begin to emerge.
“You can’t fit other players into that system; but we have the players here – and I think that the players believe in the system,” he said, with Hoolahan’s twinkling toes being one of the keys to making that system work.
“When Wes has been out, we’ve tinkered a little bit with other players playing in there and it hasn’t worked. But Wes is a phenomenal player when he gets on the ball; he wants the ball wherever he is.
“And at this level – and, hopefully, higher up – he creates things. And we need a creative player in the side. And to be fair to Rusty, he’s gone in there in the sitting role and taken to it like a duck to water, really. He’s revelled in it.”
Was there a debt to Ardiles somewhere in this mix?
“Yes – I think you can go back to Spurs and the whole Ossie thing. If you have the right players that suits the system, then you can play it.
“And, obviously, Ossie wants to play football; this manager wants to play football. And this crowd here demands that you play football. So it was good that we found it.”
He also found two players ‘up top’ that chose this season to score goals for fun in skipper Grant Holt and the born-again Chrissy Martin, fresh from his season ‘in exile’ with Luton Town.
“Chrissy’s first full season here has been tremendous – and we always knew what Grant could do,” said Ian, with the U’s firmly in the chase for his signature last summer.
“We’d seen him play a few times, but giving him that captain’s armband and the extra responsibility, he’s really revelled in that as well.
“But Chrissy has been phenomenal. He’s a fantastic finisher. And that front three – with Wes in just behind – have created a lot of havoc in this league.
“But some players are just too good in this league. I remember when I went down to Swindon, they got relegated and we came up again into the old Second Division, the team were too good. There were too good players there – and I think the same is true of this group of players here.”
Can they repeat the feat next season? If it ain’t bust, why try to fix it?
“I’ve heard the saying before, but it is ‘a work in progress’. I think we’ve got to add to the squad – there’s no doubt about it.
“We’ve got to get the right players in to fit with this bunch – and that work is already going ahead. But it’s a great platform now and we’ve just got to build on it. And with that fan base behind us, anything could happen really.
“If we can get the right players in to gel into this side, we aren’t far away from being a very substantial Championship side.”
Stepping up to the next level will also find Ian testing himself as a coach.
“I’m looking forward to challenging myself – bigger teams; better coaches. It’s going to be a great challenge – but one that everyone around this place is looking forward to.”
He is, of course, not alone in emerging as a coach of fast-growing repute from the team that Dave Stringer and Mike Walker built. Mark Bowen, Rob Newman, Mark Robins, Gary Megson and most recently Chris Sutton – all have stepped over onto the other side of the line.
“He was the last person you’d have thought to ever get into coaching,” said Ian. “But that group grew up together and Mike’s greatest quality was letting us get on with it, to a certain extent. He was always the Gaffer. And his word was final.
“But he let us make decisions on our own. And you look at that now and think: ‘Hold on, we made decisions on the pitch as a group… ‘ So we had an insight into football and how to change things as it was going on.
“Again, he got people around him that probably fitted the way that he managed. He had Max [Faulkner] and Dixie [Deehan] who was more hands on with us, but he was ‘The Gaffer’.
“And I think that works. You’ve got to find the right balance, but it works. It really does.”