In 1959, Norwich City captured the hearts and minds of the footballing public when, as a Third Division side, we reached the semi-finals of the FA Cup.
The Canaries certainly achieved this distinction the hard way, needing nine games to reach that stage in a campaign that included three replays, and famous victories over First Division sides Sheffield United, Tottenham Hotspur, and, most notably of all, Manchester United. Those initial trips to Sheffield and London had yielded two of the draws which saw the Canaries triumph in the Carrow Road replays, however, only one game was needed to see off the Red Devils in the 3rd Round, Matt Busby and his side retreating back to Norfolk following a convincing 3-0 walloping on an icy January afternoon in Norfolk.
The Canaries number nine for all but two of the games of their eleven match Cup run (even the semi final, against Luton Town needed a replay) was Terry Bly. His is a name that will evoke fond memories and recollections of not just his footballing ability and goal scoring prowess, but also of a man who was as modest of his efforts as you could ever wish an unassuming hero to be. For fans of Norwich City, as well as those, amongst others, of Peterborough United, his name is as known and revered as any of their more contemporary heroes. Yet, outside of those echelons, Bly remains relatively unknown and un-heralded.
That very humble nature of Bly’s would probably mean that this state of affairs suited him perfectly; the only headlines he would have been interested in would have been those of his more famous contemporaries-the likes of Jimmy Greaves, Bobby Charlton and Nat Lofthouse. However, if a centre forward is defined by the number of goals that he scores over his career, then Bly most certainly merits the sort of recognition, even reverence that is afforded to those better known players, then and now.
Speak to any supporters familiar with Terry Bly and one of the most immediate descriptions of him will be that he was an “old fashioned” centre forward. Perhaps Norwich have had this archetypal number nine in their playing ranks before with players like Ted MacDougall, Iwan Roberts and Grant Holt? Similarities can certainly be drawn; like the aforementioned, Bly had a style that epitomised the player whose job was to score goals, he was not blessed with the delicate skills of a playmaker or winger; neither was he able to adapt and play in any position where he might be deemed capable of filling in, he played in attack and he scored goals.
Wearing that shirt at the time meant that you were the main man, you were instantly recognisable as the centre forward, the number 9 on the back of your shirt was not just a squad number, it was a message, a warning, a statement of intent. And, throughout his playing career, Bly happily, modestly, delivered.
His goalscoring prowess was noted at an early age. In 1947 he was, at just 13, playing for Fincham, his village side and birthplace. Fincham, south of Kings Lynn lies on the very edge of Fen Country, and young Bly must have swiftly got used to playing football in sometimes appalling conditions, with Norfolk’s strong easterly winds bringing driving rain and snow across those agricultural flatlands. It was certainly neither an easy or glamorous introduction to the game for Bly, but he was noted soon enough to be selected for the Norfolk Schoolboys XI, scoring twice in a 5-1 win at Ipswich against their Suffolk counterparts, a game which Bly later admitted was the one that set him on the path towards being a professional footballer.
His first step took him back over the Norfolk border and into Suffolk. Bly signed for non-league Bury Town upon leaving school, having initially been rejected by Norwich City as being “not good enough”. He duly commenced plundering goals for his living at non-league level and became a prominent and locally renowned member of the Bury Town team. His scoring exploits duly raised quizzical eyebrows at Carrow Road enough for the club to take another look at him, Bly eventually signing for Norwich in time for the commencement of the 1956/57 season at the age of 21.
Norwich City were far from being an exceptional side at the time that Bly signed for them. They were about to commence their eleventh consecutive season in Division Three (South), their highest league placing in those previous years being second in 1951. However, only the Champions were promoted at the time, and that season’s side had finished six points adrift of eventual title winners, Nottingham Forest. Indeed, that 1956/57 campaign, Bly’s first for the club, was an absolute disaster for Norwich. Not only did they end it bottom of the league, with only eight victories from 46 league games (this included a run of 25 consecutive league games without a win), they also crashed out of the FA Cup at the 1st round stage, a humiliating 2-4 defeat at home to non-league Bedford Town being far from a sign of the Cup glories to come.
Fortunately for Bly, he hadn’t appeared in that game, but he had started the season in that number nine shirt, Norwich earning one of those eight wins in a 1-0 triumph over Crystal Palace. He only started one of the following twenty-one fixtures however, being restored to the side in a 2-1 home reverse to Southend United on 22nd December.
His first goal came in the following match, a 1-1 draw at Colchester United. Five further appearances and one goal followed, and Bly ended that first season with nine league appearances and two goals to his name.
The beginnings of a series of injury worries, one which necessitated a cartilage operation meant that he didn’t feature at all during the following season, the Canaries finishing in a more respectable 8th position. Their final tally of league goals scored however, just 75, was only twelve more than relegated Millwall with 33 of those goals coming from the reliable duo of Johnny Gavin (17) and Ralph Hunt (16).
However, with the Canaries now deeply entangled in one of their regular financially austere periods, both players left the club in the summer of 1958 meaning that Bly would, by default, be given another chance to establish himself as a first-team player. That opportunity initially came in November 1958 in an entertaining 3-3 home draw with Notts County. He missed out on the following four games, but found himself back in the side to play Southend United on 3rd January, scoring in the process as Norwich won 4-0. Confidence and self belief thus ignited, he played in all of the Canaries remaining league games, scoring a further 21 goals in the process. It was in that season’s FA Cup however, where he and his side, were to write their names in English football folklore.
Norwich navigated their way through the first two rounds with victories over non-league Ilford (in shadows of that shock defeat against Bedford T own two years earlier, the Canaries had been 1-0 down at half time) and, after the first of those four replays, Swindon Town. Matt Busby’s Manchester United duly awaited in the 3rd round, and Bly, already a local hero, was ninety minutes away from national fame.
Norwich’s 3-0 destruction of Busby’s side on that snow strewn Saturday afternoon would have surprised even the Canary supporters amongst the 38,000 present, many of whom attending for the opportunity to see Busby’s star laden side in person. United came into the match on the back of eight consecutive First Division victories. They were the glamour team of the day still, rebuilding and rediscovering their place in the national psyche after the Munich tragedy, which was still uppermost in many people’s minds, having happened less than a year before this tie. The result was a formality, the rare chance to see the likes of Bobby Charlton and co on Norfolk soil affording a much more compelling argument to attend.
The whole manner of the game, the result, and Bly’s performance on the day was summed up with just two minutes left. Norwich, 2-0 up, and, astonishingly, cruising to victory, broke again on the opposition goal. On receiving the ball, Bly cut in from the left, disregarding the attentions of Ronnie Cope as he did so, before delivering a howitzer of a shot that had Manchester United and Northern Ireland international goalkeeper Harry Gregg applauding for its audacity and power as it nestled in the net behind him.
From serial non-entities, Norwich had become the talk of football, with Bly sowing the seeds of national celebrity as he and the team progressed to that seasons semi-finals, disposing of Cardiff City, Tottenham Hotspur and Sheffield United as they did so; Bly scoring a further five goals, making it seven in total for him in that seasons competition.
He added a further 22 in just 23 league starts. Not enough however (maybe the Cup run saw to that?) to gain Norwich promotion to the Second Division at the end of the season; the Canaries finishing in fourth place, four points behind Hull City, second place now earning a promotion.
In order to fulfil their league fixtures, Norwich ended up playing eleven games in just 27 days in April 1959, managing 15 points out of a possible 22; a respectable return for any side, but, agonisingly, not enough.
Terry Bly finished that season at Norwich with 29 goals from 32 league and cup appearances – not far short of a goal per game. The team had reached the FA Cup semi-finals and just missed out on promotion to the Second Division. They would start the 1959/60 season as clear favourites for the Division Three Championship, and, with Bly looking more than capable of repeating his goalscoring feats from the previous season, and, at just under 25 years of age, he would have been approaching his peak.
He certainly started the 1959/60 season as if he meant business; scoring three goals in Norwich’s first five league games. However, those niggling injury problems soon flared up again and, after playing in the club’s opening fifteen league fixtures, he only appeared in another ten games that season, making his final appearance of that campaign – and for the club – in a 0-0 draw at Bournemouth that February. Sadly those ongoing injuries cut short both his season and his Norwich career the game at Dean Court turning out to be his Canary swansong.
Despite the premature end to his season however, Norwich still finished second in the league, with Jimmy Hill (no, not that one!) and Terry Allcock scoring 16 goals apiece.
Bly’s contribution had been just seven goals from 27 league games and, maybe, with promotion assured and the issues with his injuries now more to the fore in the hearts and minds of the Canaries management, the club saw it as a logical step to cut their losses and sell the player. In their minds Bly was now so seriously affected by injury worries that he would never play at the same high standard again, and certainly not in the (to Norwich!) rarefied climes of Division Two.
And in any case, hadn’t Norwich just achieved promotion without him for much of that successful campaign? The die was cast and when Peterborough United made a speculative offer for him that June the Canaries board were only too quick to accept the money in return for a player who they, with the best will in the world, thought was finished as a professional footballer.
Norwich fans of course, will argue, to this day, that the decision to sell Bly was made in error, and, to be fair, the man himself did go on to show that it just might have been an unwise decision – and how!
Admittedly, when he left Norwich, he dropped down two divisions – though it could be argued that any perceived physical frailties would soon be ‘found out’ playing in what would have been a far more robust level of English football.
He joined Peterborough United, under the stewardship of ex-Sheffield United stalwart Jimmy Hagen. Hagan had guided the Posh to the football league during the previous season, and, with Bly on board, Peterborough won the Fourth Division title at the proverbial canter, scoring 134 goals in the process.
This total remains a record in English football. Bly opened his Peterborough account in their first match, a 3-0 victory over Wrexham, going onto score four in their next three games. He went onto score seven hat-tricks for Peterborough that season, and scored four against Darlington on Christmas Eve 1960, before settling for a more modest brace two days later in the return fixture.
Interestingly, Norwich, the side that felt they could do without him, lost both of their festive games against Ipswich, 0-3 and 4-1. Bly ended the season – and remember, Norwich had sold him because he was thought “injury prone” – having appeared in all 46 of Peterborough’s league games, scoring a club record 52 goals in the process.
The comparison with Norwich must be made again, whilst Bly scored 52 league goals, Norwich had managed just 70 all season; Bly’s one time team mate, Terry Allcock their top scorer with 16.
With such a phenomenal scoring record, it seems inconceivable that no clubs at a higher level had attempted to sign Bly. Ever modest, Bly would never have queried or bemoaned his professional circumstances, however, he did claim, in a 2008 interview with Peterborough United club historian Peter Lane, that the prominence of good players at that level was often neglected by the giants of football. He cited teammates Billy Hails and Denis Emery, saying, “…why they didn’t play in a higher class of football I don’t know, because they were both very skilful”.
He went onto – in typical fashion – play down his own contribution to the side’s success, adding: “I always think the team that you played with was so important. They created the chances that you had. When I came to Posh, Emery had a good saying, ‘if we scored four, we might get a draw’….if you’re in a good team and they are creating chances, and, as a centre-forward, you should score if you have a good team around you”.
Yet this endearing modesty was as much a part of his game as the goalscoring feats were.
Always eager to praise his team-mates at Peterborough for their part in his goal scoring success, he did exactly the same at Norwich, readily crediting Errol Crossan as the architect and supplier in chief of both his goals and glory.
You might, bearing in mind his goalscoring feats for the club, at least have thought he might have said something when Norwich accepted Peterborough’s offer for him that June. He had, after all, been part of what was then Norwich’s greatest side as well as a member of the squad that had gained promotion; surely he deserved a chance at the higher level? He was fit, ready, and raring to go.
But no, the offer came in and was accepted, so, without a cross word or even a backward glance, Bly took himself off to Peterborough, happy just to be playing the game and scoring the goals again. For him it didn’t really matter where. As long as he was with good mates and able to make people happy on a Saturday afternoon, little else mattered; least of all his ego.
He was a symbol of the old “jumpers for goalposts” era, a man who played for the joy of the game and for the fans-and they certainly appreciated him at Posh where he scored 81 league goals in 88 appearances, a goalscoring achievement and statistic that would do more than raise eyebrows today if it were repeated at any level of the senior game.
Indeed, more likely than not, it would result in a big money move to a Premier League side, as has been the case with Dwight Gayle’s remarkable rise to prominence, his reported £6 million move to Crystal Palace from Peterborough coming little more than two years after he had been playing non-league football with Stansted.
£6 million for a player whose record at Posh was 13 goals in 29 league appearances. It’s good. But it’s not Terry Bly, a man and player who deserves as much respect and admiration as any of the great centre forwards that have worn the number 9 shirt for Norwich over the years.
Yet the first person to say that he didn’t deserve such recognition would probably have been Bly himself. Centre forward. And gentleman.