In the second of his two-part look at City relegation scraps of days gone by, Ed takes us back to the Ron Saunders era of the early 1970s
It was perhaps the Norwich City that entered the top flight for the very first time in 1972 that engineered our best ever season in terms of fighting – and winning – a relegation battle. For much of this season, the mantra amongst the Canary faithful has been “we’d better get out of this mess” whereas, back then, it was more of a case of, “can we get out of this mess?”. More hope of survival rather than expectation.
The Norwich that won promotion in 1972 were proof positive that a successful side did not need stand out individuals to shine. There were no stars in the Norwich squad – characters yes, but pampered stars with egos and demands to match? No. Norwich City’s path to success and recognition had come about via the qualities that their Manager had demanded of the players from day one.
Prior to the start of that inaugural top flight season, manager Ron Saunders had been asked what he had thought of the club and the players he had inherited when he had arrived a few years earlier. True to form, his answer was as uncompromising as the man himself as he admitted that he had inherited, “…a mixed bunch. Some good players, some not so good. Some talented players – and some not so talented. The problem was, to sort them out”. And, when pushed by the interviewer to expand on what exactly he had done with them, Saunders fixed him with a baleful eye and said, simply, “…sorted them out” – it was his way or the highway.
And that was the Saunders mantra to a tee. Hard work, application, team work – and then some more hard work. Running up the infamous slopes of Mousehold Heath became a feature of training. If Saunders tired of watching them run – well, then the players hopped up it. And, if a player wasn’t good enough – then he was shipped out. If he didn’t subscribe to the Saunders method. Shipped out. It had been, and was, tough. But he had, as he put it, ‘sorted’ them out.
Of the nineteen first team players that Saunders inherited from Lol Morgan, he had, in the three seasons it took him to lead the team to promotion, lost the services of eight of those players, including five who he had named in his first Norwich side, including Ken Mallender, Albert Bennett, Tommy Bryceland, Bryan Conlon and Charlie Crickmore. All natural causes – or had, in some cases, Saunders ‘sorted them out?’
Regardless of quite what he had done, the summer of 1972 was a markedly different one to the one that now awaits us at Carrow Road. The arrival of a club record signing is being keenly awaited whilst speculation as to who else will arrive – and who will be heading for pastures new – is already being discussed, said conversations will be ramped up in volume and intensity over the coming weeks and you can be sure that, if no-one has signed on the dotted line by the time the players return for pre-season training, questions will be asked of the board and management.
Not so for the Norwich of the Saunders era. He retained faith in the players that had worked so hard to get promotion and, as a consequence of that, there were few shocks in store for Norwich fans as the Canaries took to the pitch for the opening game against Everton on August 12th 1972. It showed just two changes from the one that had clinched the Championship at Watford a little under three and a half months later, with Geoff Butler in at right back for Alan Black whilst the unfortunate Ken Foggo found himself replaced on the right wing by Terry Anderson. Other than that, it was ‘as you were’, with Forbes and Stringer breathing fire in the centre of defence as usual, leaving Cross and Bone to further develop their promising partnership in attack.
Imagine the furore if Chris Hughton’s first team selection of the 2013/14 season was similar to that which he had ended this season with? Questions would be asked.
But for Saunders it was a case of it they’re good enough to get us here, then they deserve their chance to keep us here. Football today seems to be all about revolution with every team spending a frantic summer rebuilding their squads, players that were once deemed to be the answer are subsequently regarded as part of the problem and are unceremoniously dumped – first and foremost by the supporters who might once have been lauding their signing for the club in the first place.
Wish lists of players that are regarded as now being surplus are doing the rounds, I’ve counted some that have up to ten names on them, some quite, in my eyes, hard to fathom – should we really, for example, be looking to ship someone of the quality of Andrew Surman out this summer?
I would imagine that, if the internet had existed back then, people would have been doing just the same however. There would have been postings on messageboards advocating the quiet disposal of the likes of players like Clive Payne, Geoff Butler and Max Briggs whilst others would have declared, else predicted that we were going to sign a Stuart Pearson, Len Badger or Ally Robertson – proven players at the top level and the sort you would need if you wanted to stay put.
Yet Saunders went against all that and retained faith in the modest but honest players that had got him promotion in the first place.
Thus the heroes of perhaps Norwich’s bravest and most improbable fight against relegation from the top flight, and one that ultimately ended in success must be those like Kevin Keelan, Doug Livermore, Dave Stringer and Duncan Forbes. They had not only got us there but, in an unforgettable season, kept us there – some getting us back again a second time around following that first relegation back in 1974.
So yes, it is absolutely right and proper that, whilst we celebrate our eventual survival this season, a struggle that, as we have seen, has ended in heartbreak on five separate occasions – we also look back to the team that set the benchmark for ending potential campaigns of crisis with eventual celebration, just as Chris Hughton and his team did last weekend. But it was Saunders’ class of 1972/73 who were the first to do so at this level and, if collectively they may not have been the best we’ve ever had, they had the sort of fighting spirit and camaraderie that you would want in any Norwich team, at any time – qualities that no amount of money can, or will, ever buy.
And the game that ultimately gave City control over their own destiny that season? A priceless win and only the second in twenty one league games. It came against West Bromwich Albion at Carrow Road. What wonderful footballing symmetry.