And so, as we ready ourselves for our first game back in the top flight, the thoughts of City fans of a certain age (OK, me) inevitably turn to… Wayne Biggins.
For the benefit of younger supporters – and to refresh the memory of his old striking partner Kevin Drinkell, who grants him only two passing mentions in his autobiography – ‘Bertie’ played a big part in getting us promoted to the old Division One in 1986.
He was a strong, hard-working player; the years he spent working as a hod carrier evidently gave him a real hunger to make the most of his opportunity in professional football. Paul Lambert would have loved him.
And his straight-backed, almost military posture when he ran gave him a confident, almost arrogant air.
The way he dominated opposing defenders in the second half of that promotion season made you (OK, me again) think that he could go on to great things at the top level of the game.
But… once he reached Division One, something seemed to happen. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say it didn’t happen. The confidence and goals seemed to dry up.
It certainly wasn’t a lack of ability that prevented him from shining for us. I’d seen him play often enough to know that. But it was as if he looked around at all the big-name players on the pitch and wondered whether he should really be there.
He scored just four goals in the league that season before he lost his regular starting place in the new year. Thereafter he was largely replaced by Robert Rosario (who was only 18 at the time, I think) and later Robert Fleck.
There are two morals to this apparently irrelevant story.
The first is that players shouldn’t think too much about the reputations of their opponents when stepping up to a higher league. (Dangerous business, thinking.) If they just continue what they’ve been doing to reach that level – as Kevin Drinkell did – the chances are they’ll be fine.
The second is that you often can’t tell which players are going to sink or swim in the deep end until they’re in the deep end. You could take two lower-league players of similar ability and apparently similar levels of confidence and find that one rises to the challenge and one struggles.
Which, at last, brings us to Paul Lambert’s signing policy this summer.
I thoroughly support his approach in buying young, hungry players, most of whom have come from the lower leagues. Signing established Premier League players would run the risk of damaging the collective spirit of the squad, and as we know, it’s that spirit which has got us where we are today.
Of course, there is a danger that it could be diluted by bringing in seven new players during the summer; that’s quite a chunk of a 25-man squad. The brilliance of Lambert’s overhaul of the team last season lay in the gradual way he did it. By introducing new players one or two at a time, he changed the side almost imperceptibly – yet by the end of the season the transformation was almost total.
I wonder whether the size of the new influx is partly down to the awareness that it’s hard to tell who’s going to flourish at the top level until they play there. Some of our squad might struggle – but the law of averages should mean that we have more than enough Drinkells in there to do well.
Overall, I’m very hopeful about our prospects. If nothing else, the last two seasons indicate that Lambert will get the maximum out of the players. One of the great frustrations of our last season in the Premiership was that the team punched below its weight for most of it; I don’t think that will happen this time.
And all we need to do this season is to find three teams in the league to finish below us. I can think of at least three likely candidates, though I’m not going to jinx it by naming them.
If I have any misgivings about the forthcoming season, they concern the away trips. Supporters are supposed to relish visits to places like Old Trafford and Anfield, but I found the 2004-05 season pretty dispiriting, and not just because we didn’t win away once. The atmosphere was often flat, and the superior attitude of many opposing fans tiresome.
As I remarked to a couple of West Ham supporters the other week, I actually prefer the Championship in many ways. One of them thought I was taking the proverbial and the other reckoned I was being patronising, but I wasn’t and I wasn’t (though the thought that we have now reached the level where we can be accused of being patronising towards Hammers fans was rather pleasing). The Championship is a far more even league, and the atmosphere in the grounds is usually better.
Regular readers will both recall that I wrote a column after we dropped down to League One in which I argued that the Premier League was far from being the Promised Land. I described life there as being a grim struggle against relegation, with the blueprint for survival being the assembly of a dour, efficient points-gathering machine.
But perhaps life at the top doesn’t have to be like this. The current level of our away support means that we can bring the atmosphere with us. And as Blackpool have shown, there may be another way to survive. True, they didn’t manage it in the end – but their entertaining, go-for-it attitude almost pulled it off, and in another season their points total would have kept them up.
I think there’s a real opportunity for us here. The number of friends Blackpool won last season shows that the Premier League is crying out for a vibrant, positive team of unfamiliar names to come in and really make its mark.
Why couldn’t it be us?
And finally… I’m on holiday in France as I write this, and today we had a tiring but enjoyable time showing the kids around Paris. It’s very useful when you’ve visited before, as you know what’s worth spending your money on and what isn’t.
Prayer candles in the Sacré-Coeur, for example. What a waste of euros they are. I lit a candle there on the day of the Barnsley-Ipswich play-off final in 2000, and did that work?
Agree Kev, good piece.
Bertie was never a natural goalscorer-16 league goals in 66 league starts-but the amount he must have made for Drinkell in terms of assists (knock downs, flicks, headers) must be legion. A very much under appreciated member of NCFC history.
When we won 5-1 at Sheff Utd in that 85/86 promotion season, he stick the 5th away in the manner of someone at the top of his game and confidence. On that day, he looked as if he fitted right in-its a shame that he might not ahve thought that himself.
Matt Riches says
Think I may be the only Norwich fan with Biggins on my current (last season’s) shirt, above my current age (40). Lost on most younger fans who know that its not my surname, but he was a superb partner for the fondly-remembered Drinkell. Its also something to do with life, it ‘Biggins’ at 40 I’m told!
My first away trip, to Brighton as a 15 year old, saw Bertie score Norwich’s only goal that day, and he’ll be held up in lights in my little corner of Norfolk for a few more years to come hopefully!