One of the great pleasures of writing is that you get to meet, through your work, a wide variety of people, many of whom you would normally share a couple of hours or so of your life with.
I enjoy that part of my work enormously. It doesn’t really matter who they are or what they are doing or have done. People are, by their very nature, fascinating. Their lives, memories, philosophies. It’s that proverbial rich tapestry that you can never get enough of. A few weeks ago I spent some time chatting to a gentleman who served in the Royal Navy during the war. He happily retold stories relating to a time and work that was so dangerous in such a casual manner – the possibility of impending and violent death was regarded in pretty much the same accepting way that we go from day to day expecting our lunch – that I couldn’t help but feel rather humbled, ashamed even at my own definition of the word ‘bravery’ which, for me, can be defined by walking down the Prince of Wales road late on a Friday night.
Yet for all that, his astonishing life and those like him, the people I most enjoy meeting remain ex-professional footballers. I’m like a little boy at Christmas when it comes to an appointment with one, the chance to talk the game to someone who lived and played it, so much do I love the game and wish, wish so much, that my own ‘career’ had been somewhat more prestigious than playing on the right wing for Brancaster in the NW Norfolk league had been. But there you go. I couldn’t play that well so I did what so many frustrated ex, no, make that non-footballers do. I decided to write about it.
Which is how, in a long and very roundabout way, I spent a couple of hours talking football and Norwich City with Kevin Bond on Monday morning.
For those of you graciously blessed into being too young to remember Kevin, he was our regular choice right back cum occasional central defender from 1976 to 1981. He was a good player, there is no doubt about. Neat and tidy in possession, a tendency to play the ball out of defence rather than kick it and, no mean feat for a defender, pitched in with his fair share of goals – 11 in the 1979/80 season, 9 of which were scored in the league which made him our second highest league goalscorer that season, a mere two strikes behind the formidable Justin Fashanu. He eventually became team Captain, won the clubs Player of the Year award in 1979 and even got himself an England ‘B’ cap before moving to Manchester City for £350,000 – then a not inconsiderable sum – and, eventually Southampton for £400,000. Decent career, decent player.
Yet for all of that and his subsequent coaching and managerial career – which has seen him take the helm at Stafford Rangers where he and another ex-Canary, Ian Butterworth formed a short lived, creaky but extremely able central defensive partnership – and Bournemouth, as well as coaching stints at Manchester City, Portsmouth, Southampton, Newcastle, Tottenham and, at present, QPR, he remains best known and most likely to be either introduced or described as “John Bond’s son”. Which I suspect might rankle with some – how can you ever be your own man when everyone constantly, even today, identifies you as being the son of somebody else – much like a married woman who, in the eyes of many, becomes a simple appendage to her husband once the ceremony is over and done with. Hence Miss or Ms Helen Brown for example suddenly becomes Mrs John Smith, her identity lost – and it wasn’t even her fault. Thus it was with Kevin. John Bond’s son. Was, is, and will probably always remain thus.
But Kevin seemed delighted to chat about his Dad and their time together at Norwich. And talk he did, story after story being related, always with a smile on his face, as he recalled little details and moments he remembered from his time at the club playing under his Dad.
“Never once” said Kevin a huge smile on his face, “during all the time I was at Norwich with him, did we work on defending in training. Today it’s all about the back four working as a unit, they get specialised coaching, to know their jobs and those of their defensive teammates. We did none of that. Not even one day. It was all about going forward, scoring goals and entertaining the fans. Even for the back four”.
His Dad, he admits, would have found the tendency today for teams to play with just the one striker an almost abhorrent one. He cited Ted MacDougall as an example.
“Can you imagine Ted playing as the lone striker with a five man midfield behind him? He wouldn’t have scored anything near the number of goals he got for Norwich. Dad was all about having two in attack wherever he managed. Ted and Phil Boyer at Norwich, Kevin Reeves and David Cross at Manchester City (both ex-Norwich players) then Reeves and Trevor Francis. Ted has Phil Boyer playing alongside him. Charlie (Boyer) was a magnificent footballer, he did all of Ted’s running for him – Ted tended to be a bit lazy at times – but the two of them worked so well together and got loads of goals wherever they played”.
“Football has changed. Teams are scared to go out and play. Towards the end of last season, I went to a Championship game. One of the clubs had one striker up front, alone. He’s a good player. But he never got a touch. His team was so cautious about going forward. And I’m thinking, wait a moment, what have the opposition got that they are so frightened of? Nothing. It was a terrible game, terrible. Two teams frightened to play, to take a chance.”
“When we were playing, if we got the ball into a good situation, if Jimmy Neighbour was running at the opposition penalty area and chose to retain possession, maybe knock it back forty yards or so, over taking a chance, trying to create something, there’d be hell to pay – not least from the fans. Run at the opposition, get the ball into the box and have a go. So what if you lose possession, get it back again.”
It was a philosophy that Kevin took into management and coaching. When he was at Portsmouth he and Harry Redknapp played two in attack, Svetoslav Todorov and Vincent Pericard with Paul Merson tucked in just behind them, a variation of the 4-1-2-1-2 formation that had worked so well at Norwich during Paul Lambert’s first two seasons at the club. It certainly did for Pompey during the 2002/03 season, ending it with 97 goals, 98 points and winners of the Championship.
But the stakes in the Premier League are so high that you simply can’t – or, more likely, won’t risk such an open approach at that level.
“Everything” admitted Kevin, “is done to ensure that you stay there. Whatever the means. We tried to play in an attacking way (at QPR) last season – but if you don’t get it right, you’ll be heavily beaten. So if you try to reduce the chances of that happening and tighten things up, you’re accused of being negative and the fans have a go at you”.
I pointed out to Kevin that he, Harry and everyone at the club would be doing everything in their power next season to get QPR back into the ‘promised land’ only for, if they did make it, their overriding priority, again, to be nothing more than staying there. Wasn’t that frustrating?
“Yes. You prefer to be winning games and doing it fairly regularly. And we may be doing that next season again, though a good start is essential. But in the Premier League it’s not so likely you’re going to be doing that if you’re a club like us. So it isn’t that enjoyable. But it’s where you want to be and where the club wants to be.”
That great footballing dilemma. Yes, we all want our club to be in the Premier League. For the kudos, the games, the quality of the opposition players and, most of all, and, for me, sadly, for the money.
When it didn’t matter quite so much, when the competition (and the money) was slightly more evenly spread, Norwich were not far off, at times, from being contenders. Ken Brown guided Norwich to a 5th place finish in 1986/87 – six places and twelve points, yes, twelve points ahead of Manchester United. Manchester City were relegated! Two years later, under Dave Stringer, Norwich finished in fourth place as well as making the FA Cup semi finals.
TV footage of the club’s games that season sees commentators repeatedly and with no trace of mockery at all referring to Norwich’s “Championship chances”. Then, most famously of all, Mike Walker led Norwich to a third place finish in the Premier League’s inaugural season, one that had seen, at one point, the club sat at the top of the table, EIGHT points ahead of their nearest rivals. Yet, whilst it was thought unusual, it wasn’t considered particularly earth shattering and, again, we were – reluctantly in some places – talked about as possible Premier League Champions.
Can you imagine the reaction if, at any point next season, we were eight points clear at the top of the Premier League?
Kevin and I mused over the sides that had, briefly, threatened to break the monopoly of English football and win themselves an unexpected Division One title. QPR in 1976. Ipswich a few times when Kevin was playing. Watford in 1983, Southampton the following year. Crystal Palace came third in 1991. Then Norwich and their own third place finish in 1993. Derby County and Nottingham Forest managed to win three between them whilst Aston Villa and Blackburn have also, briefly, gone against the grain and won the title. Blackburn’s of course, was the tipping point, another ‘lightening in a jar’ moment – it was the first real and very evident case of a Premier League title having been ‘bought’ – which seems to have been the pattern ever since, one that Norwich and all of our peers in the top league can never emulate.
I do wonder if John Bond would have enjoyed preparing for any season at Norwich knowing that all he and the club was expected to do for the following ten months was stay put – whatever the means – and even if one of them was playing just the one striker. I somehow don’t think he would have done. Not one little bit. He’d have gone into the season wanting, maybe expecting, to have a good chance of winning it.
Which is one of the reasons why the game, as well as Norwich City, so deeply misses him and some of his peers – Dave Sexton, Gordon Milne, Bobby Robson, and, woefully under employed these days, Terry Venables.
Pressure in the game then was, as one time Ipswich Chairman John Cobbold said, all relative, stating, “There is no crisis at Ipswich until the white wine runs out in the boardroom”. Would that club owners would have the same attitude today. They all, including John Bond, did their time in the game when it was, above all a game, something to be enjoyed and where goals and entertainment came first and second. Kevin Bond has experienced the joie de vivre of playing in era and the pressure and expectancy of coaching in another. No wonder he always breaks into a huge smile when he talks about his days as a Canary.
Because football was fun then. And, under John Bond, never more so than it was at Carrow Road.
Ed’s book “Norwich City: The 1970’s” is due to be published by Amberley Publishing in the Autumn with a launch and ex-players signing event in Norwich. Full details will appear on this site nearer the time.