There is an old footballing adage that says something along the lines of “its lucky for Spurs when the year ends in one” –reason being that they, despite their prominence, wealth and history are only able to win trophies during those years.
It’s not about football ability in this instance, it’s about numerology.
Easy to mock. However, as far as Norwich City are concerned, it isn’t so much that we have a particularly lucky number with regard to years gone past. But we do have a fairly significant one. And that number is, as far as ‘…when the year ends in’, is concerned, is two.
The club was founded in 1902. We won our first major trophy, the League Cup, in 1962. In 1972, under the fiery and no-nonsense leadership of Ron Saunders, we won promotion to the top flight of English football for the first time. Another vintage season in 1982, this time under Ken Brown as ten wins from our last twelve league fixtures secure an immediate return to the First Division following relegation the previous year.
Fast forward to 1992 and the dawn of the Premier League. One of the greatest seasons in the clubs history commenced with a 4-2 win at Arsenal and a finishing position of third. This after struggling to avoid relegation towards the end of the previous season-but all was not lost, even then. For we reached the 1992 FA Cup Semi Final. We went one better in 2002 and reached a final-the Division One play-off final that is. Even this year has seen Premier League progress that has defied the ‘experts’, with some memorable victories already.
Six consecutive decades when the year has ended with a two have been, in one way or another, a happily significant one for Norwich City.
But , numerical coincidence aside, think how much the game has changed in the five decades since we won that first major trophy.
The relative glory of that League Cup success over Rochdale was subdued by a finishing place in Division Two of seventeenth. Our league rivals that season included Liverpool and Newcastle United. A team called Ipswich Town won the First Division Championship whilst the record domestic transfer fee was the £34,500 that Sheffield Wednesday had paid Notts County for Jackie Sewell eleven years earlier. The average weekly wage for a professional footballer was £25; the average everyone else was a little under £16.
Life was different. As was football and the way it and the players were perceived. Many really did catch the same bus as the supporters in order to get to the game-as some still would a decade later, that of our first ever promotion to Division One. Even then, the average weekly player wage was £85. Change beyond all known recognition. Today’s multi-millionaires are perceived as being bigger, better, faster, fitter and far more valuable. The popular and smugly held belief is that none of the stars of yesteryears more modest age could hope to survive in today’s game.
But I disagree. Evolution takes place over millions of years not decades. And one player from Norwich’s not so distant past who would have excelled in all aspects of the game today was Kevin Keelan.
Kevin Keelan in the year 2012 would have been a footballing superstar. Ability-unquestionable. And personality? In an age where players have evolved into a stooped walk, eyes down, ridiculously oversized headphones attached to their ears, Keelan would have stood out by more than a country mile. He would still have been amongst the first to give his time to anyone. Eyes front, big smile. That seemingly permanent smile and his good looks would have deflected a certain Spice Girl’s attention long before David came along. A media personality and footballing giant. In short, the marketing man’s ultimate wet dream.
Crucially, he was also a superb footballer. Upon signing for Norwich in 1961, Canaries Manager Ron Ashman said the £6500 paid for his services was the “bargain of the century”. That remains the case, his signing, arguably, remains the best piece of transfer business the club has ever conducted.
That £6500 bought a man who, in just over seventeen years at the club, made an astonishing 673 senior appearances. Managers and players came and went; the club yo-yoed between divisions and from one financial crisis to another in that time, yet he remained a constant, the sign that, whatever else might be happening, he was still here and that all, by definition, must be good.
Of course, had he played today, it is likely that he might never have seen out his career with Norwich and that, sooner or later, one of the mightier forces in English football would have lured him away. Even back then, the story goes of how Manchester United Manager Tommy Docherty contacted John Bond, asking of Keelan’s availability and if he’d like to discuss a move to Old Trafford? Naturally reluctant to part with a prime asset, Bond advised Docherty he would, reluctantly, speak with Keelan about the possibility. Then, after a few days, he got back in touch with Docherty, advising him that Keelan was not for sale, and, in any case, “…the lad says he’s not interested.”
Their loss was our continued gain-except, of course, Bond never mentioned United’s interest to Keelan or the Board, keeping their enquiry, very firmly, to himself. Not something he would have been able to do today.
Would he have gone? You wouldn’t want to bet against it. Keelan may well have fancied sharing the same dressing room as someone like George Best, and, quite probably, stealing a little bit of the glamour and glory away from him-as he surely would have done.
A true vintage remains timeless and a classic no matter what the age. Keelan was just that. He excelled as Norwich goalkeeper back then, and, such was his prowess, athleticism and sheer ability, he would have done so today. Times change and the game has changed inextricably but he would defy that perceived belief that the players of yesteryear could not have coped with the modern game.
He was an exception then and would remain one today.