All in all then, a good days work by the Canaries on Sunday.
And a significant win, especially given the opposition. Because trips to play Stoke City have long been, believe it or not, sheer anathema as far as the massed ranks of yellow and green are concerned.
Because since we made our first ever trip to play them in a league game, a Division Two clash on 27 August 1960 – the first of 24 league games to date – we have played against them on their turf, we’ve come away with both the points and the glory on just four occasions. In other words, our success rate as far as away day trips to the Potteries is concerned is worse than that at, amongst others, Chelsea and Tottenham.
Sunday’s win was our first at Stoke since 21 January 1997. On that day, early goals from Keith O’Neill and Darren Eadie gave us a well deserved victory, one that kept us, then under the watchful managerial eye of Mike Walker (second time around) in 5th place in the table. Thoughts of the play-offs or even an end-of-season promotion were, no doubt, prominent in all of our minds and with a team of such obvious talent as typified by O’Neill and Eadie, such optimism was not at all unreasonable.
Furthermore, Sunday was only the second time, ever, that we have travelled to Stoke for a league game and won whilst keeping a clean sheet into the bargain. The last time we achieved that was back in April 1976 under the management of John Bond when goals from Ted MacDougall and Colin Suggett earnt us a 2-0 win.
Think about it. That was 37 years ago. Since then we have played Stoke City in the league on a further eighteen league times at their ground and, in doing so, managed to stop them from scoring on just one subsequent occasion – and that was on Sunday.
In other words, John Ruddy and Chris Hughton are the first goalkeeping and managerial duo to have played a part in that milestone for us since Kevin Keelan and dear old Bondy back in the day when James Callaghan had just been elected Prime Minister, a pint of beer cost around 30p and the Brotherhood of Man were at number one in the charts with Save Your Kisses For Me.
Let’s hope it isn’t another 37 years before we manage to do it again – though if it is of course, it will at least give whoever is writing for MyFootballWriter in 2050 the chance to churn out a similar statistic. However, stats and nostalgia aside, all of that Stoke City related minutiae did get me thinking.
Norwich City and away games in the top flight of English football to be exact. Just how good are we and have we been? Is our admittedly poor record* at Stoke City a one-off? Or is it endemic of a far wider malaise; that of a team which, when it comes to playing away from home has never, for one reason or another, really got going away from the comfortable confines of Carrow Road?
Time, I felt, for a closer look at our perceived away day blues and whether we really do travel to most league games more in hope than expectation.
This season, the 2013/14 campaign, will be our 24th in the top division of English football since Ron Saunders compelled us to the Second Division Championship in 1972.
Since then – and up to and including Sunday’s game – we’ve played 473 away games in either the old First Division or Premier League and have, to date, won 93 of them. In other words, we’ve won just 19.66 per cent of the away league games we’ve played since we first graced English football’s top flight back in 1972.
On two of those previous occasions we’ve failed to win even a single match on our travels. Few people will forget one of those seasons in question, the ill-fated 2004/05 campaign under Nigel Worthington when we drew seven and lost twelve of the nineteen games played on our travels. One win then, one away win, would have meant us staying up at the end of that season – and never mind the 6-0 at Fulham on the last day, how about that game a few weeks previously at Selhurst Park: 3-2 up and with around five minutes left before Andy Johnson managed, at the third attempt, to con Rob Styles into giving a penalty and three points became one at the death. How things might have changed had we managed to hang on and win that game.
What Canary fans may not be so immediately familiar with however is the 1978/79 season when we also managed to go through the entire campaign without winning an away game – indeed, out of all our 42 league games played that season, we only managed to win seven of them. It was a run of games and form that, at one point, saw us go on a league run of just two wins in seventeen league games, a poor sequence of form which would, I am sure, if it were replicated this season see very loud and vocal protests demanding Chris Hughton’s immediate and unconditional removal from office.
Luckily for John Bond, the man in charge at the time, no such protests were evident at that time or at any part of that season and we all saw it out together; both club and fans faith in Bond’s managerial capabilities being justified when we won our first three games of the following season, the first being an impressive 4-2 victory at Everton – an impressive way to shake that particular burden off our backs once and for all.
Our best ever season in the top flight as regards trips away from home was the 1988/89 campaign when, under the leadership of Dave Stringer and Mike Phelan, we won nine out of the nineteen played – a feat that was only bettered by Arsenal and Liverpool who finished in first and second place respectively. That feat included a run of five successive victories away from home from the start of that season; games won at Middlesbrough, Newcastle United, Derby County, Manchester United and Wimbledon. Stringer’s side that season was, arguably, one of the best in the club’s history, as typified by that run which saw the Canaries remain unbeaten in the league on their travels until a 3-1 defeat at Aston Villa on 3 December.
What odds, I wonder, could you have got on us being undefeated in our first six (game six of that run was a 1-1 draw at Everton) away games of this season?
All in all that 1988/89 season was a remarkable one for the club. For we not only stayed in the top four of the then Division One for its entirety, leading it unchallenged from early October until Christmas, but we also reached the semi-finals of the FA Cup; form and results that, at one point, had all the leading bookies giving serious and realistic odds on the chances of Norwich City doing the League and FA Cup double at the beginning of 1989.
Quite something when you consider the only odds we hear about now are connected with our chances of being relegated – last season, this season and next season probably. We finished that memorable season in 4th place, having won more league games away from home than we had at Carrow Road (nine away, eight at home) meaning that it was ultimately our form at Carrow Road that ultimately cost us the chance of winning the League Championship that season.
Who knows, had those home defeats against Charlton, Coventry, Newcastle United and Liverpool been wins and those home draws against Millwall, Southampton and Luton seen just one more goal in our favour then that would have meant fifteen more points one and…
…well, we can all dream, can’t we?
We didn’t do that badly on our travels when the Premier League burst into gaudy existence either. In both the 1992/93 and 1993/94 campaigns, we won eight out of our 21 league games played away from Carrow Road; a figure that only the top five clubs managed to eclipse last season, with only three beating it the season before that. But then we didn’t do so badly ourselves on our travels under Paul Lambert that season, managing to win five; the second best in our Premier League history and a better record away from home that time around, than those of eight of our peers including the much beloved Swansea City, who won only four on their travels.
The full breakdown of our away record in top flight football is as follows (not counting this season).
Away Games Won In Season Number of Occasions
Does anyone think we’ll win ten or more games away from home at this level? Or is that a yellow and green glass ceiling that we will be forever unable to break? And how many away games do people reasonably hope or expect us to win before the end of this season? Was that result at Stoke a one off? Or are we going to repeat what we did in both the 1973/74 and 1977/78 seasons and win just one game away from home throughout?
And if we are no longer seen as capable, or, perish the thought, good enough to repeat what we did in those 1986/87, 1988/89, 1992/93 and 1993/94 campaigns and win a more than decent number of our away games, why is that? Is the opposition so much better now than it was then? That Liverpool team we beat in 1994 for example – it contained the likes of Redknapp, Rush, Barnes and Fowler – are they really a much worse team than the Liverpool of today?
And yes, you could reasonably say that the Reds at that point were not only a team in decline but one, given that said game was played near the end of that season had little or nothing to play for, just like Manchester City on the final day of last season. And fair enough. But we also won at Anfield in 1988 – and that was a Liverpool near the peak of their powers, a team that had, at that time, players like Steve Nichol, Ronnie Whelan, Peter Beardsley, Ray Houghton, Ian Rush and John Barnes at their pomp. They were the reigning League Champions, having won it by the margin of nine points at the end of the previous season – and without losing a game at home. They also reached the FA Cup Final. Yet we went there and won the following campaign and no-one batted an eyelid.
So what’s the difference between the Liverpool of Whelan, Beardsley, Rush and Barnes and that of today, of Henderson, Lucas, Moses and Suarez? Is the current Liverpool team THAT much superior to that of the late 80s? I don’t think so. Indeed, I rather think that if that team we beat from 1988 played the one that saw us off to the tune of 5-0 last season, then the Dalglish vintage would come out on top as many as six, maybe even seven times out of ten. Alternately, are we that much worse a team now than we were under Dave Stringer then?
The spine of the team that we might field at Anfield, possibly with damage limitation first and foremost in mind could be Ruddy-Bassong-Fer-Hooper. Was that of Gunn-Bruce-Phelan and Drinkell so much better than we have at present? And even if they are – isn’t the gap somewhat narrow and closing all the time? Three of our current four are internationals with the other not being that far off himself. Only Gunny was an international player from that 1988 quartet.
The argument goes that you can’t expect to win too many games away from home these days because that gap is so wide and near enough impossible for a side such as ours to bridge. Is it the money? Well, perhaps – but there was a financial gulf then, just as there is now. At the time of that fixture, our record transfer fee paid for a player was £300,000. Liverpool’s, on the other hand stood at nearly £3,000,000 – ten times as much as ours. There’s no player in today’s Liverpool side worth ten times the amount our best player is.
So that financial gulf, that massive disparity in the respective spending power of teams like us and Liverpool has always been there.
So has the game really changed that much in the last quarter of a century or so? Or are we all being fed the fact that it has so much we have all started to believe it?
And, with that – is there really any reason why we shouldn’t head off to Anfield later this season and regard the possibility of a win as just that, rather than the whole damned exercise being a nice day out for us and an academic stroll to three points for Suarez and co?
Because I sometimes think that some of these away games that are perceived as mission impossible are only that in people’s and players’ minds and that, with the right attitude and approach they can be won. Just as we proved, time and time again in some of those seasons that are not, after all, that long gone.
And just as, refreshingly, West Brom showed as recently as a few days ago when they turned up at Old Trafford and won – but not only that, played well and deserved it. Credit to Steve Clark and his players for that because it showed what can be done – just as we showed ourselves on more than one occasion.
And we can again. ‘Never mind the Danger’?