“Never go back.” It’s one of those phrases we are all familiar with and one which we’ve probably had reason to say ourselves else pass it onto someone of our acquaintance. It may refer to any one of a myriad of circumstances. Returning to a former employer for a second time around, an ex-partner, a place where you used to live, a holiday destination, a favourite restaurant or hotel. The list is long.
The gist of it is that things are rarely as good second time around as they were the first. It’s not always the case of course. In fact, it’s more likely that we long remember and regret the encore if it turns out not to have been a particularly happy one, than we might if things were merely ‘as you were’.
Yet the phrase still rings true for millions even to the extent that people will happily turn down even the vaguest hint of an opportunity to return to a place, a person, a predicament of one sort or the other on that basis alone, and on the strength and belief behind those three little words
It applies in all walks of life and society in general. Books have been written on the theme, songs have been sung. Mario Puzo, the literary Godfather himself wrote these lines in his book The Last Don:
“What is past is past. Never go back. Not for excuses. Not for justification, not for happiness. You are what you are; the world is what it is.”
Are you going to argue with The Don?
We still do it of course. Go back that is. Revisit the scenes from a past time in our lives, maybe for one of the reasons that Puzo gives. Or to put things right. Attend to unfinished business. Prove ourselves again.
Which may have been any one – or maybe all three – of the reasons that Mike Walker would have been telling himself as he returned to Norwich for his second stint in charge of the Canaries in June 1996.
If that was the case then he certainly had ever reason to think that way. His first spell as Canaries manager had almost come about through default. The club were, back in the summer of 1992, all set to confirm the appointment of ex-Liverpool and England full back Phil Neal as manager. He was seen, following the exit of Dave Stringer, as a conservative choice, a prospect that didn’t sit well with a lot of Norwich fans. Neal had, after all, been recently sacked as manager of Bolton Wanderers. Not good enough for the Third Division but adequate for the Premier League? It seemed that way.
He was seen as a safe, capable and, most of all, respected candidate, one who was seen as being grateful for the chance to manage at the highest level and who wouldn’t rock the boat or expect too much in the way of funds. A ‘yes man’? Maybe – after all, who wouldn’t have come to that conclusion after watching Channel 4’s infamous documentary on the then England manager Graham Taylor, An Impossible Job?
Clips in the film showed Neal, Taylor’s number two, continuously kowtowing to his superior, mirroring his words or saying “yes boss” at every opportunity. A man, it seemed, desperate to please and do whatever it took to keep in with his bosses and, with it, his job.
Perhaps Robert Chase had watched The Impossible Job, maybe he liked the idea of a man like Neal hanging onto his every utterance? Dave Stringer had enjoyed a phenomenal run during his time as Canaries boss – high league finishes, FA Cup semi-finals and a sense of expectancy around the club which maybe exceeded Chase’s own vision of how far the Canaries could go.
Neal’s appointment would not only dampen the expectation of the fans, it would also come with a dose of realism attached. Safe, conservative and bordering on the unimaginative. A sign of things to come at Carrow Road.
So when Neal unexpectedly turned down the offer at the last moment (stories abounded at the time it was to do with his reluctance against the club’s insistence that he relocated to Norfolk) Robert Chase had to turn to his Plan B.
Except there wasn’t one.
Hence the club turning to Walker. It seems curious now, looking back, that he wasn’t considered as the obvious and clear candidate to succeed Stringer in the first place. After all, both Stringer and his predecessor, Ken Brown had been internal appointments with both turning out to be very successful ones.
So why hadn’t Walker initially been considered? He’d even had previous managerial experience in his own right, something which neither Brown nor Stringer had on their CVs. Had his name come up in discussion before swiftly being rejected – if at all? All open to conjecture of course. But the fact remains that once Walker was offered the job, his appointment turned out to be a popular one amongst the players and, as far as the club was concerned, an inspired one – even though there was probably as much a hint of desperation as inspiration about it with regard to the board.
Eighteen months later Walker left for Everton. A brief but unforgettable ride, and a glorious one. We all know what it entailed. Third place in the Premier League, a wonderful UEFA Cup run and flickering evidence that Norwich City could be one of the elite clubs of English football. He did not, as was once widely thought, leave the club because Robert Chase refused to provide the money for the team strengthening he felt was necessary.
That particular issue was one that had dogged managers at Norwich City for decades and Walker went into the role with his eyes wide open on that score. Besides, money had been available when it was really needed. Mark Robins came in for £800,000; Efan Ekoku a further £500,000 plus, not long after Walker left for Everton, £1,000,000 for Jon Newsome.
The real problem between Walker and Chase had not been funds for players, but a little bit of security for Walker himself. He had, on his appointment as Norwich manager, signed a contract that was, even for the time, a modest one and, in all likelihood, made him one of the poorest paid managers in the top two divisions, never mind just the Premier League.
However, with both the club and his profile considerably heightened by their mutual success, Walker had felt – not unreasonably – that his achievements merited a little more security and acknowledgement from the club in terms of his own contract. When, for whatever reasons, that was not forthcoming, the spell betwixt Norwich and Mike Walker was broken and his departure was as sudden, if not quite as unexpected, as his appointment had been in the first place.
Things were never quite the same after that. Even Martin O’Neill couldn’t put things right, his return to Carrow Road (for a third stint after two previous ones as a player) proving that old maxim of “never go back” to be as relevant as ever. Even today however, O’Neill is believed to have said that he still considers himself to have ‘unfinished business’ at Norwich – what odds therefore, that, one day, he might return to try to attend to just that? They’ll be lengthening considerably now of course but an intriguing thought nonetheless.
The one downside, if you can call it that, of Walker’s first spell at Norwich was that it had raised expectations in and around the club – especially amongst the fans. Far from bouncing around between the First and Second Divisions as we had done in the two decades since first winning promotion to the top flight, people now expected more.
Walker had topped the achievements of previous managers and the progression could clearly be seen. We finished 10th under John Bond in 1976. Then, in 1985 under Ken Brown, the Canaries won the League Cup at Wembley before topping Bond’s best league placing by finishing in fifth two years later. Two FA Cup semi-finals and a final top place finish of fourth followed under Stringer.
Now Norwich had gone one better again under Walker, finishing third in the Premier League (an achievement that would see Norwich in the Champions League now) as well as reaching the last sixteen of the UEFA Cup. Progress had been steady, inexorable and very clear to see. The problem was, post-Walker, the demand for that progress to continue never wavered, the expectancy never dulled.
A succession of managers came and failed to deliver, Gary Megson’s parting gift to the club before his own exit at the end of the 1995/96 season being a 16th place finish in Division Two as well as an FA Cup exit at the hands of Brentford. Norwich had, in the space of a little over two years, gone from the Premier League and San Siro to home defeats to Luton and Southend – progress not so much checked as placed in a sack, pummelled with a baseball bat and tossed, forgotten and unloved, into the River Wensum.
Megson subsequently left the club to be followed by Chase, two abiding symbols of the clubs remarkable eighteen month run of success, praise and recognition who would now forever be associated with its subsequent failure. A tad harsh on Megson maybe who had undoubtedly tried his best under very trying circumstances, not least the noose that had dangled from the hands of his now former chairman. Megson had always been aware that the infrastructure at the club could never support anything more than mediocrity – yet knowing that mediocrity would never been accepted and would ultimately result in his demise as manager.
It must have been a massive relief for Megson when the time did come for him to leave Carrow Road for the third and final time, but it was one nowhere remotely near the relief and joy felt amongst the supporters when the unpopular chairman also took his leave, his resignation welcomed by many, his departure lamented by no-one.
New start, new regime, new era at Carrow Road. And another new manager. Did Mike Walker take any heed of the belief that you should “never go back” when he got the invitation to do just that? Megson and O’Neill had both done so – and lived to regret it, their prodigal son type returns to the fold ending in infamy and with previously highly shone reputations seriously tarnished. Walker was on a hiding to nothing if he accepted. The club was £5million in debt and had ended the previous season only five points shy of relegation to the Third Division.
In addition to that, the backroom staff that had survived Megson were made redundant, together with eleven of the clubs players. If Walker had seemed courageous in taking the Norwich job four years earlier, it was nothing compared to that which he showed in accepting the clubs offer to return as manager for a second time.
Yet how could he resist?
Indeed, maybe, in Walker’s eyes, the attraction of the job this time around might even have been greater than it had the first time. Then he had the pressure and expectation of the Premier League to deal with, as well as upholding the legacy and panache of the side that Dave Stringer had built – plus all of its achievements and the special place that Stringer held in the hearts of all Norwich fans.
Not only that, but his star player, his best player and talisman, Robert Fleck, very clearly and vociferously wanted out. And, on top of that, he had a chairman who not only demanded results on a shoestring but expected him to manage on a budget of those proportions. Plus Norwich were the overwhelming favourites at the start of that season to go down. Welcome to management.
Compared to all of that, the opportunity to return to Carrow Road that summer and deliver nothing more than consolidation in the Second Division, the first part of a rebuilding process which everyone knew would take time and considerable patience, time and patience that would have to be given to the new manager – to Walker, that must have been almost irresistible. How could he, given all of these new parameters, not succeed?
Walker’s return to the club, his Second Coming as fellow My Football Writer scribe Kevin Baldwin observed with the title of his book detailing the chronicles of that season, is now regarded as a disappointment and an extension of the mediocrity and disappointment that preceded it. In other words, in looking to repeat the achievements of Mike Walker and bring back a little bit of the glory and success that he had brought to the club, even that very Mike Walker himself was unable to deliver – and if he couldn’t, as fans wearily reflected, then who could?
Yet I disagree. There was progress on the pitch, considerable at that for all of that 1996/97 season. Walker successfully married the tried and tested older players that he still had at his disposal together with some of the hugely promising younger players who were coming to the fore at the time – a roll of honour that included Darren Eadie, Andy Johnson, Danny Mills and Keith O’Neill; youthful talent that was guided and protected by the proven pros, the ones with Premier League experience and nous – Gunn, Newman, Polston, Crook and Fleck.
Put those two elements together and you have the makings of a very good side indeed, one that proved itself hugely capable with wins against Grimsby (4-1); Ipswich Town (3-1); Stoke (1-2); Sheffield United (2-3) and Swindon (0-3). Walkers new Norwich were good enough to top the table at the beginning of October; nine wins and three draws coming in their opening league fixtures, the most prominent of the young tyros, Eadie and Johnson contributing nine goals between them. It was already becoming quite clear that Walker was, again, putting a good side together and, slowly, steadily, we all began to wonder if he wasn’t going to lead us back into the Premier League at the first time of asking.
As it turned out of course, that was a step too far. A poor run over Christmas and the New Year, one that saw consecutive defeats of 5-1 and 6-1 dented the confidence of such a young squad. Despite that however, and, remarkably, they still rallied, a 1-0 win against Portsmouth on New Year’s Day lifting Norwich back into the top six where the Canaries remained until mid-March; a run of only two wins in their final eight games being their ultimate undoing.
Walker’s all new Canaries eventually finished in 13th position, just eight points shy of a play off place. If only their form in the last quarter of the season had matched that at its beginning.
It certainly augured well for the 1997/98 season where Norwich would have been one of the contenders for at least a play off place at its denouement. Walker added the notable names of Iwan Roberts and Craig Fleming to his squad, nous and further experience to a team that was now, as well as having the continuing presence of Eadie and O’Neill to excite, also had the emerging talent of Craig Bellamy coming through.
City had, in place, everything they needed for a concerted and realistic tilt at promotion – yet finished it in a disappointing 15th place and the need to find yet another new manager following Walker’s departure by May; his dismissal a surprising one, especially in view of the problems he had contended with that season as far as injuries were concerned.
Robert Fleck’s omission from the side for the game against Stockport in February for example, was reckoned to be the Canaries 37th injury-related absence of the season with Eadie, O’Neill and Fleming, in particular, all missing for long periods.
Signs of what could have been came in two consecutive home games that April. With Eadie, Fleming and Bellamy all available along with other on-off injury victims Roberts and Adams, Norwich won 5-0 against Huddersfield and Swindon Town, illustrating – again – the very real potential of Walker’s side and what they might have been able to achieve had the squad not been ravaged so dramatically by injuries.
Ravaged? Yes. Of the 30 players Norwich used over the campaign, only four played in over 30 league games, one of which was goalkeeper Andy Marshall. Had injuries not been such an overwhelming obstacle to progress that season the club may well have successfully built on the promise of the previous campaign – and made the play offs. Or better.
Which makes, for me, the dismissal of Walker before the end of that season such a surprising decision for the club to take. He certainly hadn’t seen it coming nor had any idea that his position was under threat. Prior to that final home match of the season, the 5-0 romp over Swindon, he had signed off his column in the programme with a cheerful “See you in August”. Yet, five days later he was gone, the club going onto describe his sacking as a matter of ‘mutual consent’ – something which, with the best will in the world, I didn’t believe then and I don’t today.
Moreover, I am certain that, given a third season under Walker, he would have led the club to promotion. His final campaign at the club is now tainted as a failed one as, indeed, is his overall tenure the second time around. This is a perception that sullies the reputation of a man who achieved a great deal over those two seasons and who would, had he have been given a little more time, have delivered promotion back to the Premier League for the Canaries, a success for the club that would, despite all that had gone before, been perhaps his greatest achievement as Norwich manager?