How pleasing was it to see those barren footballing days of the summer eased with the announcement that Norwich had dusted down the chequebook in order to spend big on a new striker. After all, nothing whets the footballing appetite quite like the acquisition of a new number nine. And, as far as that shirt number was concerned, it was a position that all sections of the Canary faithful had agreed on as being the transfer priority over the summer; a man who could shake things up in attack and help improve a goalscoring record that had, the previous season, been somewhat disappointing.
Our new man in attack came with no little pedigree either. He’d already got a handful of international caps and was being spoken of in glowing terms by many as a possible long term presence in his national side, one that could only be reinforced by his place in a Norwich team that had a plethora of skilled and able midfielders who would be able to create and make chances for him on a regular basis.
The preliminaries were done, the pictures were taken and the big money new signing outlined his reasons for signing for Norwich, how he was already settling into the area and had been made to feel welcome “by all the lads”. The footballing die was cast and we sat back and waited for the goals to come.
Yet, after just two wins in our opening seven league games and seven points in all, much talk of a disappointing start to a campaign in which so much more had been expected, inevitably, surrounded the new man whose presence in the side was beginning to be questioned as were his footballing abilities. Yes, he’d scored goals up to now – but he was playing in a different team now and one which played a different type of game.
The manager’s plans for the new season had been made perfectly clear in the opening game when the new man took up an isolated role in attack, backed, admittedly, by a fleet of creative midfield players but, nevertheless, on his own. And, as things were, that opening game of the season saw both the new man and his two fellow Canary debutants thunder stolen by the scene stealing performance of a precocious teenager wearing the shirt of the Canaries opponents on the day.
The player in question of course, was Iwan Roberts, who, alongside Craig Fleming and Victor Segura made his Norwich debut in that 2-0 defeat to Wolves on the opening day of the 1997/98 season. As for the precocious teenager who stole the show? That was Robbie Keane, then just 17 and making his first ever start in senior football.
He hasn’t done so bad since.
But neither has Roberts who is now, rightly, held up as a minor deity amongst Norwich supporters.
And rightly so. He led the Canary line over the course of seven long and often arduous seasons, ending his time here as part of a Championship winning squad and with a medal to show for it, as well as a goalscoring record that speaks for itself; his total of 96 goals scored for Norwich bettered by just two men, Terry Allcock and Johnny Gavin, esteemed company to say the least.
Yet it really didn’t look as if it would have ended anything like as well as it did in those early days. Mike Walker signed Iwan for Norwich in that summer of 1997 and yes, in the Canaries line up for that game against Wolves, Iwan was an isolated figure on his own in attack, playing, for perhaps the first time in his career without a traditional strike partner alongside him.
He’d done so at all his previous clubs – at Wolves it had been either Don Goodman or Steve Bull whilst at Leicester City he’d dovetailed with, amongst others, Mark Robins, Steve Claridge and David Speedie. Prior to that he’d had Phil Starbuck at Huddersfield, whilst, right at the beginning of his career at Watford, Iwan played alongside the likes of Trevor Senior and Luther Blisset.
Admittedly, it was only down to circumstances that he didn’t begin that season with a recognised strike partner playing alongside him. Mike Walker’s intention had been for Roberts to form an attacking spearhead with Robert Fleck in what would have been the classic “one big ‘un, one little ‘un” combination, but, with Fleck injured and having spent much of the previous season misfiring himself (only 4 goals in 36 league appearances in the 1996/96 campaign for Fleckie) it was clear that this was a partnership that was going to take time and some nurturing.
Thus Norwich started the season with Iwan playing as the sole forward, backed by the swift and the youthful and ludicrously talented figures of Craig Bellamy, Darren Eadie and Keith O’Neill. And it didn’t start well.
Those seven opening games saw Norwich score just four goals, one of which was a penalty in a dismal run that saw three consecutive defeats at the start of the season, including a 4-1 capitulation at Nottingham Forest, whose own striking partnership, Kevin Campbell and Pierre van Hooijdonk were everything that Norwich had hoped Roberts would be – physical, fast and aggressive with it, as well as having that timeless value of knowing where the goal was. They both scored in that game, leaving Norwich to limp home to Norfolk, bloodied and bruised, the only bright light on an already dim horizon the prospect of a home fixture against Crewe to come, a chance to lick wounds, a chance for points and a chance for goals.
And another defeat, Mark Rivers opening the scoring for Crewe in their 2-0 win, the attendance of just 11,821 illustrating just how quickly the folk of Norwich were falling out with their football team even at a time when attendances overall were low, averaging out at around 14,000 at the time – indeed, it would get even worse later on in the season when 9,819 hardly souls turned out for the home game with Birmingham; the Canaries lowest league crowd for over a quarter of a century.
Norwich City needed a talisman. In Mike Walker they had one in the dugout but they badly, desperately, needed one on the pitch. Roberts and Fleck endured a season long struggle in front of goal, Iwan’s return for the campaign of just five goals in 31 league appearances a slight improvements on Fleckie’s two from 27 – but then the former had been dispatched to Reading in the spring meaning it was all down to the uber confident Bellamy to take responsibility for the other striking role at Norwich, a responsibility which he seized with relish – and one which, quite possibly, rescued Iwan’s Norwich City career. That and the appointment of Bruce Rioch as Norwich manager in time for the 1998/99 season.
Roberts himself has since admitted that his form during his first season at the club had been partially down to the fact that he had not been quite as fit as he would have liked. By the end of it the potential was, finally, there, three goals in Norwich’s last five games testament to that (Bellamy also scored three in that period) as the Canaries ended the campaign with a sequence of D-W-L-W-W; one that famously included two consecutive 5-0 wins at Carrow Road.
That end of season promise displayed by the team and its main protagonists makes the subsequent dismissal of Walker just five days after Swindon had been on the end of that second big win as puzzling now as it was then. What is rather more apparent is how Rioch swiftly turned an underperforming side into a winning one – and with remarkable speed.
Any issues that Iwan may have had over fitness and general physical condition would soon have been laid to rest in the summer of 1998. Rioch had been a hard taskmaster at his previous clubs, preferring, it seemed substance over style, yet he briefly managed to marry those two quantities during his time at Carrow Road.
Iwan was certainly a beneficiary of the new broom at the club. He’d reported for pre-season training weighing in at around 213lbs, around 25lbs heavier than he should have been.
This admission of an ongoing problem with his weight and the steps that Rioch took to turn it around is candidly explained by Iwan in his book All I Want For Christmas, in which he admitted that he had a sweet tooth and had, throughout his playing career, been partial to the more than occasional Mars bar or can of Coke.
This habit had affected his fitness to such an extent at that time that Iwan admitted that his first season at Carrow Road had been “a nightmare”, adding that, “I was overweight…sluggish and slow. I only scored seven goals and I got loads of stick from the fans…I had to sort myself out. So I did a lot of weights…and got down to 13 stone 10 lbs…if I hadn’t taken the hint I would have been finished…”
It paid dividends. Iwan ended the 1998/99 season with 23 goals to his name, four more than Bellamy as the two of them took to sorting out Division One defences with a vengeance. People talk today about the great Norwich City strike partnerships. Crossan and Bly. Cross and Bone. MacDougall and Boyer. Fashanu and Reeves. Deehan and Bertschin. And so on and so on, the names, the goals, the memories, they sail off the tongue like a Clipper skimming a clear blue ocean. But to that list the names of Roberts and Bellamy should always be included. Because for much of that season they were unplayable.
It is, for me, one of those “what if?” times in the clubs history. Rioch’s time as Norwich manager is largely forgotten these days. Yet look at what he had and where he might have taken us, had he been able to keep the team he was nurturing together. Norwich opened the 1998/99 season in a manner that was in complete contrast to their dire form of a year earlier. Four wins in their opening five games with eleven goals scored, including a memorable 4-2 Carrow Road romp over QPR that saw the Canaries score three times in the opening eight minutes of the game, two of the goals coming from Bellamy.
Rioch’s side for that game was packed to the gunnels with products from the clubs youth set up – seven to be exact* and they played with the sort of Joie de vivre that comes with youth. By Christmas, Norwich were, by virtue of a 2-1 win over Bristol City at Carrow Road in fifth place in the Division One table, their goals scored total of 39 in 23 games the sixth highest in the division and in stark contrast to where the previous seasons goal shy Canaries had been at exactly the same time – they’d managed just 23 goals in the same number of games.
Quite how and why the Canaries form slipped away following that victory is uncertain. The win over the Robins preceded a 2-0 defeat at QPR on Boxing Day, the beginning of a run of just one win in sixteen games with a 1-0 win at Grimsby on 3 April finally breaking that poor record, one of the clubs worse runs of winless games in its recent history.
The reasons why Rioch’s brave new Norwich City world didn’t live up to its obvious and very clear promise is a debate for another day. Maybe too much emphasis was placed on youth that season – in total, Norwich fielded thirty players during the campaign, from whom fourteen had come through the schoolboy and youth ranks else made their debuts whilst they were still teenagers.
Many went onto make the grade in the game, as well as their name – Craig Bellamy being the obvious stand out talent. But many more flickered brightly but were then lost, a legacy perhaps of too much being expected of them too soon. Shaun Carey, Adrian Coote and Che Wilson just three examples of those and a cautionary tale and example to those of us who wish for players from the current youth side to be elevated to the first team before they might be ready.
But that’s another story.
The ultimate disappointment at the end of that season in finishing in ninth place, fourteen points short of a play-off place was, as well as the rise to prominence of Bellamy, the form and leadership that was being offered by Roberts, both to the team as a whole, as well as that veritable squadron of younger players, Bellamy included.
Roberts was the typical ‘old fashioned’ number nine; he led the line, took the kicks, offered up the knock-downs and generally put himself about as much as he could. His efforts and undying commitment to the yellow and green cause meant many of those who played alongside him prospered from those efforts – and never mind Craig Bellamy, just ask Darren Huckerby what he thought of Iwan as a strike partner.
Rioch departed the club the following season, citing, in his wake, a frustration at the club’s perceived lack of ambition in providing him with next to no funds for team strengthening during his time at Norwich. Maybe if he had the money to spend then less pressure would have been put on those younger players and Norwich, buoyed by rather more calm experience than exuberant youth might have made a more concerted and realistic run for promotion during the 1998/99 season.
Again, another story, another day.
But, with Rioch gone and the parlous state of the clubs finances beginning to come to light, so did many of the young talents that had come into the side at that time. Craig Bellamy, Darren Eadie, Keith O’Neill all left the club for perceived bigger and better things as the Canaries entered their own version of the dark ages; a time that was, eventually, assuaged by the arrival of Nigel Worthington and, in the first instance, a run to the play off final in 2002.
It was a time when, briefly, gloriously, and in some disbelief, nearly 33,000 Canary fans sat in the Millenium Stadium daring to dream that a team that was – if we are completely honest – nowhere near ready for the rigours and demands of Premier League football, was just ten short minutes away from achieving just that. The goal that day came from the man who many had once seen as not even being good enough for the Norwich team, never mind the Premier League, the man who got his head down, worked hard, stayed put and who ultimately saw a team built around him rather than without him.
*Andy Marshall, Daryl Sutch, Darren Kenton, Craig Bellamy, Chris Llewellyn, Darren Eadie and Keith O’Neill. That team also included 19 year old Lee Marshall, signed from non-league Enfield