Duncan Forbes, a warrior captain of Norwich City, has been robbed of his memory by Alzheimer’s. But we won’t forget him.
Everyone who cares about the club will grieve at the heartbreakingly cruel news, because nobody cared more than “Big Dunc”.
He was the rock on which the modern Norwich City was built. He led the team as they strode into the top division for the very first time, then led them out for their first Wembley final. And he straddled two distinct eras: the direct, no-nonsense style with which they reached the top tier, and then the creation of a tradition for passing which survives to this day.
He seemed indestructible, so the news that his brain has been dying, one cell at a time, is crushingly sad. But I have a personal recollection which has made me smile down the years and which is help at this most mournful of times.
He used to write a weekly article for the Pink Un. He would arrive at the office, reduce the receptionists to hysterics with his banter, turn heads as he walked with vigour from the lift to the sports department and then bellow a greeting.
He bounded in each week with his thoughts roughed out in handwriting on a sheet of lined paper from an exercise book. My role was to talk through it with him, tease out a few more stories and type it up.
I looked forward to this regular Thursday afternoon task because it was no task at all. And, to impress my then fiancée, I introduced him to her. She was a reporter on the weekly Norwich Mercury and a Carrow Road season ticket holder.
In the summer of 1976, worried that his place in John Bond’s slick, passing side might be under threat for the new season, Forbes trained on his own each day on Mousehold Heath – which, in those days, was frequented by professional ladies at night. My fiancée drove up there one morning and he readily agreed to be interviewed about his solo fitness routine.
Fast forward to December. Thursday afternoon. Forbes arrived with his familiar, irrepressible pizzazz. But he announced in that rich, bass Scots accent, that he didn’t want me to play any part in producing his column.
I was devastated. What had I done? How had I managed to upset this great hero? Nobody fell out with Big Dunc! What would the impact be on my job?
He had a private conversation with Peter Ware, the sports editor, who then told me that he agreed with Forbes. Someone else would have to liaise with the footballer.
Two days afterwards, my fiancée and I married and went on honeymoon (to the Canaries, naturally). Just over a fortnight later, back at my desk, I looked up “The Captain’s Column” in the Pink Un which Forbes had written without me. There, under his grinning by-line picture, was the usual stuff about his thoughts and hopes – plus this pay-off sentence:
“Finally, congratulations to Norwich City reporter Mick Dennis who gets married today to a nice girl I met up Mousehold Heath in the summer.”
I can’t think about that without chuckling. But then nobody could spend any time in Forbesy’s company without laughing – unless you were an opposition centre-forward, of course.
It might be a paradox and a cliché to say that he gave and took whacks without complaint – that there was an honesty about his skulduggery – but that was how it was. So, usually, there was a handshake and a joke as soon as the combat was over.
He laughed at himself as well. He had several catch-phrases, all of them dryly self-deprecating. One was: “Keep your voice down to a roar”. That was advice he seldom heeded.
His other, self-mocking mottos all referenced his rudimentary approach to the beautiful game. “Keep the ball in the air so that nobody can get it,” he used to say. “Get your retaliation in first,” was another of his favourites. So was: “If it moves, kick it. If it doesn’t move, kick it till it does.”
So City fans sang: “Six feet two, eyes of blue, Duncan Forbes is after you!”
In fact, he was a little under six feet, but he held himself very upright and gave no ground to any opponent without a real scrap. He began his career with Scottish non-league side Musselburgh, moved to Colchester at 20 and spent seven years there as they twice went up from the old Fourth Division to the Third and twice slid back down.
Lol Morgan signed him for Norwich in 1969 for just £10,000, but it was Ron Saunders, who took over as manager a year later, who forged the Forbes legend. Saunders, a martinet, demanded football without frills. That suited Forbes, who was a superb foil for the more thoughtful Dave Stringer, with whom he formed a resolute centre-back pairing which helped carry the club to history.
Norwich were famed cup fighters, and often solid campaigners in the second tier, until, with Saunders, Stringer and Forbes the key men, the unique yellow and green shirts finally reached the top tier for the first time in 1972.
The following March, Forbes walked out proudly at the front of the line of Norwich players for the League Cup final.
But one year later, City were relegated. Saunders resigned. The new manager, John Bond, was enticed away from Bournemouth and began recruiting players from his old club. He also insisted on playing the ball along the ground, building from the back and using guile instead of brute force.
With new players and new tactics, surely Forbes would be on his way? I know that Bond thought so. But the big-hearted Scottish defender was determined to prove that he could adapt and still be invaluable. Bond was soon persuaded and Forbes and Stringer were his centre-backs as Norwich won promotion for the second time and another trip to the League Cup final.
Those lone, long, training runs up and down the hills of Mousehold Heath helped Forbes keep his battle-scarred legs pumping, but eventually both he and Stringer had to make way for younger men.
Of course, Forbes wouldn’t go quietly. He didn’t do anything quietly. Farmed out on loan to Torquay, when he returned to Carrow Road he won back a first team berth.
I believe his last first team game was the final (old) First Division match of 1977-78. That was certainly the last Norwich match I reported for the Pink Un. My intro was about Forbes, because he had scored a late equaliser in a 1-1 draw. He gleefully thumped the ball into the net in front of the adoring Barclay. Not a bad finish for a remarkable career.
Forbes provided the template by which all subsequent Norwich captains should be judged, because he was perfect for the job on and off the pitch. On it, he looked as if he had been quarried from granite. Off it he was just as devoted to the club’s cause but a lot less formidable.
Despite that written prank about my wedding (which was a friendly complement, really), Forbes made a point of ensuring that other players never crossed the line with me. I was a callow pup, timorously dealing with famous men, but he made sure everyone was polite and helpful, whatever I called them in print.
After finishing playing, he worked for the commercial department, had two stints as chief scout, and spent a total of 33 years as an employee of Norwich City.
I left Norfolk for Fleet Street, but our paths crossed over the years and my heart always leaped when I saw him. If that sounds a bit wet, I make no apologies. I’ve been fortunate enough to meet many footballers. I’ve known a few really renowned people in other walks of life. But I haven’t encountered anyone I liked more than Forbesy, nor anyone I admired more.
I’d heard he had been stricken by Alzheimer’s. Most of us have seen its effect on people we know or love. It is a particularly pernicious illness which strips away the personality and leaves a husk. To think of Duncan Forbes so diminished is utterly devastating.
Now we learn that his devoted wife can no longer provide the round-the-clock care he needs. For her, the despair must be too much to bear. If you have a god, pray for her today.
And know this. As long as there is a Norwich City, we must talk about Duncan Forbes. Nobody has made a more epic contribution to our club.