In the second of another trilogy of pieces looking back at successful sides from Norwich’s past, Ed is focusing on the 1992/93 season with players who were at the club during that campaign looking back at their time with the Canaries. This week it’s John Polston, one of the four ex-Tottenham players who graced the side with distinction during that season.
I started by reminding John of the incident that everyone at Norwich relates to as far as he is concerned-that winning goal against Aston Villa in 1993 – not least because he scored it on the day his son was born.
People do still ask me about that game, the goal and the fact he was born that same day. It was a weird situation all round, I spoke to my wife after that game and said, ‘we won 1-0, and you’ll never guess…I scored the goal’. I think she must have fallen off the bed when she heard that. So yes, a weird situation and day. A good day mind. There were film crews all about the place and the story made all of the papers; it was a mad couple of weeks, really.
Think of what you’d have to put up with now – you’d have been expected to post it all on Twitter!
It would have been even more mad. I’d have had people camped out on the doorstep. Mind you, I’ve left all that twittering and Facebook stuff to my kids, that’s for them to do!
You were part of a group of young Tottenham players that went on to join Norwich, did you, or they, find it hard to accept that you never really seemed to get a chance to prove yourselves there?
At that time Tottenham had a lot of big names. I was with players like Ian Crook, Mark Bowen, Ian Culverhouse, all a little bit older than me, but, like me, players who’d come through the youth team and into the reserves. And yes, you could tell that they were good players, them and people like David Howells, Vinnie Samways and Danny Maddix, all from my youth team. From that team, I reckon about seven or eight of them must have gone on to play in the Premier League, or, at least, make a good living out of the game, which was – and is – for that time, quite unusual. But we had good Managers and Coaches, people like Keith Burkinshaw and Peter Shreeve, so that helped. I was working my way upwards with them and got into the first team squad for the first time when I was about 17, and alongside people like Taff (Mark Bowen) and Chippy (Ian Crook). And, like I said, they were a little bit older and, as I was making that move towards the first team myself, they were already getting sniffs of playing in the first team and had all played a few games. But it was so tough at Tottenham at that time. You think of all the players who are ahead of you, people like Glenn Hoddle, Richard Gough, Clive Allen, Gary Lineker, Graham Roberts, Tony Galvin…then Gazza came along. To get in that first team, with that sort of quality around you? When I made my debut, you had to play really well and perhaps hope for an injury somewhere to get a chance of staying in.
As a young player, 17, 18 years old, what’s it like going into a dressing room with players of that standard and reputation all sat and established in there?
You are so in awe of them. Not like today, when the youngsters go into the first team dressing room and they’re all so chirpy…it’s a different world now. Back then, you’d go in and… well, you still had your jobs to do, boots to clean. I think I cleaned Clive Allen’s and Paul Miller’s. So yes, you went in, you kept your head down, you didn’t say anything or speak to any of them unless they spoke to you first, you just focused on your job. It was scary. Getting on the training pitch with them for example, the respect you have for them there is unbelievable, they’re on a pedestal. You just want to play alongside them, you’re not thinking of the money, you just want to play. When Tottenham first signed me as a pro, I think they offered me about £10 a week. I said, ‘yes, thankyou very much’. There was no negotiation, you took what was offered. You were just happy to be there and amongst those players, money was never an issue, you played for the love of the game.
When you arrived at Norwich, who do you remember playing alongside?
Actually it was Paul Blades! We made our debut against Sunderland which we won. But I didn’t play particularly well in those first few games. We then went to Southampton and lost 1-0, I scored an own goal – good start there, classy header at the near post! We then had a home game against Palace, and lost again, I didn’t play at all well that day and that was it, I was out, dropped for the next game. But I don’t blame the Manager, I’d have left myself out to be honest. I then had to go through a spell in the Reserves, which was a chance to get myself together, settle into the club and area more. Mike Walker was in charge of the Reserves then, and we had a good side under him. Gossy was playing for them then, so was Mark Walton in goal. I got some games with them and was playing well, eventually getting back into the side in just before Christmas and never really looking back after that. Playing in the Reserves I got to know Mike Walker. I enjoyed playing under him. He told you like it was, if you played well, he told you – if you played badly, he certainly told you! That time in the Reserves and playing for them under Mike was invaluable to me. But I did start to wonder if I’d made the right move. I was scratching my head and thinking, ‘why aren’t I in the first team?’ I eventually got back in because Paul Blades got injured. My second game back was at Sunderland, Roker Park – we won 2-1, a good result that. In the end I think I got an award at the end of the season, something like the ‘Most Improved Player’ or similar!
Mike Walker’s approach sometimes seemed to be ‘however many they score, we’ll score more’.
Well yes – and soon after Mike took over, we played some formation that I don’t think anyone knew, or had ever heard of before. We played three centre halves, with a sweeper – the three at the back would be me, Rob Newman and Ian Butterworth, with Ian Culverhouse sweeping. Mark Bowen would be on the left and, I think, David Phillips on the right, or Ruel Fox – yeah, Foxy probably. And Chippy would be in the middle with Gossy. That was the basis of that formation and we played it in the year that we came third – and we conceded some silly goals, a ridiculous amount, ending up the season with a negative goal difference!
So, opening day, 2-0 down at Arsenal at half time, not so surprising?
I remember when the fixtures came out. We were looking down on them and it was, ‘Oh my God – Arsenal first game, then Chelsea’ – really tough games, what’s going on here? Then, yes, 2-0 down at Arsenal at half time in that first game and we are getting completely outplayed. But, second half, Mark Robins comes on it just got the ball rolling, set the scene for the rest of the season, that one half, just 45 minutes, but, like I said, it set us up. Robbo was on fire, he scored two and we scored some great goals in those opening matches – but, that first game, to come off at half time feeling so low, then to be on such a high at the end. It was unbelievable.
Chelsea clearly held no fears then, come the second game?
I broke my nose in that game. I was on the halfway line, standing alongside Mick Harford. The ball came in and I just tried to nick in front of him and head it away, but, as it bounces up, he’s tried to pivot round and get his boot on it – but I still got there first, so he absolutely smashes me with his right foot! I was out cold. Stretchered off and out of it, I remember waking up at half time in the dressing-room, a few of the lads were looking across at me, I think Colin Woodthorpe was one? Anyway, the looks on all their faces when they saw me, it was like, ‘ooooh, look at his face!’ I’d bust my nose, my teeth – I was in a right old state when I woke up the next morning, I couldn’t open my eyes, they were just two slits. My Mum came up for that game! I had trouble with my teeth for a while afterwards, but I soon got back playing again, in fact, my first game was the return fixture at Chelsea; they had Flecky (Robert Fleck) and Mick up front. Anyway, I’m stood on the halfway line again, first goal kick of the game, Mick just looks across at me and goes, ‘you alright then?’. So I said, ‘Oh yeah, cheers Mick, thanks very much.’ He then says, ‘how’ve you been?’ I said ‘alright’…and that was it, we got on with the game. Bit of a weird situation, but Mick, he was as good as gold.
Do you remember the 7-1 at Blackburn-that was only a few weeks later?
I remember that – I wasn’t playing (laughs). I was on the bench-but, with about twenty minutes to go, Mike Walker turns to me and says, ‘go and have a warm up’. Now, Shearer is on fire, he’s got two and we’re 5-1 down, so I look at him and say, ‘…sorry?’, but no, he says it again, ‘go and have a warm up’. I went off and I’m thinking, ‘Oh, I don’t need to be going on here’, but I start my stretches, still thinking, ‘no, I really don’t want to be going on here.’. Then they score again and its 6-1, and I’m now thinking, ‘Jeez, I do NOT fancy this’. So I make off to one of the corners and I’m there, doing my warm ups, out of the way, not wanting to go on. I looked across once and could see Mike and John Deehan waving at me, they were telling me to come over and get ready to go on; I wasn’t having that, so I ignored them and carried on with my stretching. And I stayed there for the next 20 minutes, just stretching, before, with only a few minutes to go, I went back, thinking, ‘well, they won’t put me on now’. When I got back, they said, ‘what have you been doing, we’ve been calling you to come back, you’re not going on, don’t worry about it’. But I’d been stood there ignoring them, thinking, ‘sod that, I’m not going on now!’.
You didn’t fancy facing Shearer then?
No, no, no. Like I said, he was on fire that day. No, I thought, ‘let the rest of them deal with that’. But it was a freak result, just one of those games and we showed we were a decent side by winning the next game. I was back in the side by then and had a good run, we all did, all peaked at the same time. We had some good players, a good philosophy, and played some really good football – and, when you’re on a roll like that, you think you can beat anyone. We had a little blip at Manchester United, the ball was put across and Sutty got a bad touch and they scored, but we soon picked it up again. But I don’t think we ever felt under any real pressure, even then we were still pinching ourselves a little bit.
Were you disappointed that, at the end of the season, you hadn’t won the Premier League?
I don’t think so, no. We were delighted to have finished third, it was a great time, we enjoyed playing – and training under Dixie was good. We were a good group of players, we all got on well, playing good football, good goals, it was a snowball effect. It was more disappointing when Mike left. God knows what the Chairman was thinking. I’ve spoken to Mike since then, and I don’t think it was about money with him, he just wanted a bit of time and security with his contract. Why on earth they wouldn’t give it to him, give him that and the time he needed, I don’t know. Of course, finances were a factor, they always will be, but he wanted security first. Once he left, the dynamism of the team changed, people began to leave the club, players being sold and new ones coming in, it all changed very quickly. The major problem was, we sold all the goalscorers! Ruel Fox, Chris Sutton, Mark Robins, Efan Ekoku. Yes, we conceded less-but we couldn’t score; we didn’t have anyone who could score regularly. They went, other players moved on, that really cost us. But it can’t detract from the fact that we can all look back at these great memories, and time spent with really good players, good mates and an amazing eighteen months that we all had together.
Looking back at the injuries that brought your football career to a halt, it was an injury that kept you out of the Norwich side that played in the San Siro wasn’t it?
I remember it well – I’d played in the home leg and we were at training, midway between the home and away legs, when Ade Akinbiyi tackled and it wasn’t a very good tackle either, to say the least. It did for my ankle – I turned up for the game, knowing I wasn’t fit, knowing I couldn’t play, but still intent on doing a warm up, just in case. I even did a little jog up a corridor before we even got to the San Siro, but I was clutching at straws. I could barely walk, I was limping – but so, so desperate to play. As it was, we had a lot of players missing from the side that day, so I wanted to be in the side. But I had no chance. I look back now and think, ‘what a game to miss’. Mind you, I didn’t play in Munich either! I got a tweak in my groin then, I think I probably could have played, but ended up missing a lot of games afterwards as a result. I was there, of course – but missed out on playing. I did get to play in both games against Vitesse Arnhem though.
What do you remember about those UEFA Cup games?
Vitesse played very well in the first half of that first game, in Norwich. In fact, it was unbelievable, and a real shock to our systems. It was 0—0 at half time and we all came in, sat down, looked at each other and thought, ‘OK, what are we doing here?’ I can’t remember what Mike said to us, but we got it together for the second half, played really well and got to grips with them and how they were playing, stepped it up and deservedly ran out as winners. Efan Ekoku opened the scoring, a really good goal as well-and I got one myself, remember? I scored, come on, do you remember that??! I got the third, a little tap-in.
That’s something that you have that a lot of players can’t show on their CV – you’ve played in and scored, in competitive European football.
At the time you play, you score, think ‘that’s great’ – and you move on. It’s only now when you look back and realise what you’ve done and that it’s all part of the history of Norwich City Football Club, it’ll always be there. I scored against Ipswich as well, a little glancing header, we won that game 3-1. It was always nice to get one over them, We had a mixed record against Ipswich under Mike though, they had a good team at the time and it was always tight against them. But they were really good games to play in. I remember that goal, cross from Keith O’Neill, glancing header. We had some good players then as well; Keith, Darren Eadie, Andy Johnson-he was a good attacking midfielder, and Craig Bellamy as well.
Was Craig Bellamy really the person everyone says he is – uber-confident and cocky?
Oh yes. He was a good player. A pain in then arse on the training pitch, mind, a little pest. He was always trying to nutmeg you, that and shouting “nut!!” Yes, he was a pest – but a top player then, and a top player now. When I was selling my house in Norwich, I had a phone call, this chap spoke to me, ‘I’m the agent of Craig Bellamy, he is interested in buying your house’. I was thinking, ‘Craig, if you want to buy my house, you ring me up, you speak to me’. But that’s Craig all over, he’s a good lad, and, like I said, a good player.
You had a real up and down time at the club, but, on the whole, your memories are good ones?
I love going back to Norfolk and Norwich. Whenever I do, people talk and reminisce, and I enjoy it. It’s great to be part of the club’s history. Whenever we do all meet up, and we don’t all keep in touch all the time, but, when we do, it’s just like old times straight away, the stories, the laughter, the banter, it all comes out again, and really quickly and easily. They were great times.
Great times indeed, of which John played a large – and somewhat underrated-part. He now lives and works near Reading, combining his personal fitness business with coaching duties at a local school. A giant on the pitch and a total gent off it. My thanks to John for his time and recollections.
‘Fantasy Football’, Ed’s book about the club’s 1992/93 season which features interviews with many of the players and people involved at the club during that time is available at Jarrold, Waterstones (Castle Street, Norwich branch) and online at www.legendspublishing.net/ncfc.
Are there any ex-Norwich players, managers, incidents or eras that you would like Ed to reflect upon in a future column, something to get a discussion going? Let us know…