The name Paul Kent is unlikely to stir the footballing emotions of most Canaries followers. Indeed, in the general scheme of things, Paul’s contribution to the playing history of Norwich City is a very modest one.
Born in Rotherham and a product of schools football before graduating to playing for Rotherham Boys, Paul signed for Norwich as an ‘old fashioned’ apprentice in July 1970 when he was just sixteen, going onto sign full professional terms for the club a little over eighteen months later.
The fact that he survived football’s equivalent of ‘boot camp’ to go from apprentice to full-time professional is an achievement in itself. So many fall by the wayside on that sporting journey from boy to man that both a professional and personal tribute should be paid to those that have made it that far; coming through and succeeding in something that would be, then as now, the better of most of us – a great and telling test that demands much more than ‘just’ ability with a football.
Football remains a tough mistress, especially on the young and talented. Of, for example, the 26 youthful talents who featured for Norwich and Everton in the 1983 FA Youth Cup Final, just six* went onto have a decent career in the senior game with many of the others either ending up in the lower or non-leagues else dropping out of the game altogether.
We all, naturally, have very high hopes for those Norwich City players who won the FA Youth Cup for the club earlier this year – two decades on from Gossy and co. But how many of those, despite the rich potential and talent that is obviously there, go onto make it in the senior game?
They can’t all make it – can they?
Of Paul you could say he at least got that far – even if his career, ultimately, may not have ended up quite as he might have wanted or expected it to have panned out. But he still got through the boot camp of football apprenticeships 1970s style, which I mentioned earlier on; experiences and memories that resonate with him to this day.
I met up with Paul whilst I was researching and writing my book Norwich City: The Seventies. With youth prospects and bringing through our own players very much to the fore in and around Carrow Road these days, especially with the expectancy and hope that surrounds today’s versions of Paul (the Murphy twins, Harry Toffolo and Cameron McGeehan amongst others), I thought I’d include a transcript of the chat we had in my column this week. It makes, I think, for very interesting reading and a sign of just how much the game has changed in those four decades since we first won promotion to Division One under Ron Saunders.
Paul now runs his own hairdressing business in Norwich where he has, like so many one-time Canaries, settled permanently since the end of his playing career. A full-back by footballing trade, Paul was one of the early recruits to the club during the Ron Saunders era. He remembers both those early days after he first arrived at the club – very young, very nervous and very unsure of himself or his place in the greater scheme of things – in captivating and honest detail.
“As regards my club duties, I somehow managed to work my way up to something like bathroom attendant which was, believe me, quite a prestigious role amongst the apprentices. It meant that, when I got in on a Monday morning, I’d have to sort out both the communal baths, jump in them and, through around six inches of cold, mucky water clear the plughole of all the filthy bandages, dressings and plasters that were left there after the previous game.
“The players would just sit there, take them off and leave them. What water had drained away, meantime, would have done so very slowly so there was always a load of separate tidemarks on the side of the bath that meant, after clearing out the plughole, I had to get into action with the Ajax and a scrubbing brush.
“Once I’d done that, it was off to the dressing room toilets, get those cleaned. You can imagine what they were like. And no, they hadn’t been touched since the previous Saturday. Just think, all those nervous players, dreading playing Norwich.
“But that wasn’t all. I’d then have a load of boots to get clean. There might have been 40 pairs in total for us to work ourselves through. We’re working our nuts off and we haven’t even seen a ball, let alone kicked one. The old theory was that if they starved us of the ball, then, come a match, we’d be hungry for it. But we saw so little of it, when we did see it we wouldn’t know what to do with it!
“Can you imagine the young lads at clubs today having to put up with all of that, the degrading work and then barely seeing a football – all we did was run. If they were treated like that now, they’d all pack up and go home.”
When Paul and his colleagues were ‘allowed’ to play football he learnt his trade under the watchful eye of both Ron Saunders and John Bond, two managers who were very different in both manner and approach. What were his immediate recollections of both men?
“With Ron Saunders I had, and have, great admiration for him. He had that presence about him. I used to find myself standing to attention whenever he was with or near me. His appearance was always immaculate. Cropped hair, always clean shaven, collar and tie always perfect.
“I used to bump into him right when I didn’t want to. One time I were cleaning outside the main entrance of the Trowse training ground and he pulls up in his car, comes walking up to me, gets right in my face. I can’t help but grin, it’s a nervous reaction. Is he in a good mood or a bad mood? Should I be grinning even? Then he looks me right in the eye and says, ‘Son, are you laughing at me – or with me?’ Hell, what do I say? I mumble back, ‘I’m laughing at you boss… laughing with you boss…erm….and I don’t know what to say’. And with that, he’s gone. He’d do anything to wind you up, anything at all. Just to see how you’d react.”
What about training and playing?
“If you did well in the Reserves, he’d have you join the first team for training. Like a reward. He used to love basing these on Scotland versus England; we had a lot of Scots at the club at the time so it fitted in well. It would be shirts versus skins. And he’d always be skins as he liked to show his muscular body off. Anyway, one game, I’ve cleared my lines and am making my way down the pitch. Unknown to me, Saunders is just behind me and, without me even realising he’s there, he clatters me one. Down I go, I can barely breathe, let alone move. And, as I’m laying there, he leans over to me, grins, and says, ‘be aware of that one son’. It was a hard lesson. But you know, I never forgot. And nobody got me like that ever again.
“Bondy, he were very different. For a start, when we were at training, rather than never seeing a ball, or, at best, having about one between the lot of us, he’d bring these great sacks of balls in. So we’d have one each. It was so completely different. I could only improve under him, my game especially because of the work we did with, and on, the ball. He eventually gave me my first team debut – which came about in a funny way. I’d been in training that week and Ted (MacDougall) had the hump. Didn’t want to be there, didn’t want to be training. He was irritated. So, when he challenges me for the ball, he goes in, elbow first; my eye came up like a balloon. And I thought, I don’t know, but this is a bit of an injustice.
“So the next time Ted got the ball I took it, took him, took everything out. He’s down, moaning and grumbling away. And I get immediately sent off. This is it, I thought, the end of my career here. My last training session, last time at Trowse. Ted was the top man at the club and you didn’t treat him like that. I showered, changed, left the training ground. But nothing more was said. So I kept coming in.
“Eventually the team sheets for the weekend games went up and I wasn’t in the Reserves so thought, that’s it, I’m down in the A team, South East Counties League. But I weren’t in that either. I’d just about given up – then I saw the team sheet for the first team. And there I am. Down as sub. Against Manchester United. Bondy must have thought that if I was prepared to kick Ted then I must have something about me.
“Mind you, I was risking biting the hand that fed me at the time, as I used to clean Ted’s car for him and he’d pay me a fiver to do it – and that was half my weekly wage at the time.”
Paul duly made his first team debut for Norwich City in that game on 6 April 1974, replacing the injured Mel Machin. It was the game that John Bond had, in the days leading up to it, announced that would almost certainly see the losers relegated. Norwich lost and, as predicted – and not only by Bond – were indeed relegated; ending the season in bottom place, eight points adrift of safety.
Kent played another two games for the club before then, including his one start in a 0-0 draw at Newcastle before coming on as substitute again two days later in the return fixture at Carrow Road; this time replacing Colin Suggett. It was his third, and final, appearance for the Canaries, and one made in front of both the first-team managers he played under at Carrow Road. Amongst the crowd that day was a certain Ron Saunders, recently sacked by Manchester City and, no doubt, keen to keep his eye in.
One can only wonder what the reaction of Bond might have been, had he known his predecessor was there, watching the team that he had led to promotion falter and ultimately tumble back into the Second Division under Bond. But one thing is for certain, Saunders would have derived no pleasure from it at all.
Paul left Norwich in the summer of 1976 to join Halifax Town before signing for Cambridge United a year later. His hairdressing business, a career he started in 1980, is situated on Ketts Hill in Norwich, right next to the Ketts Tavern. A warm welcome and an almost guaranteed chat about the Canaries, then or now, makes it a very welcoming place to visit whenever you need a bit of attention up top.
*Tony Spearing, Jeremy Goss and Louie Donowa – all primarily for Norwich; whilst Everton’s Ian Marshall was most well known for a playing spell at Oldham Athletic, Ian Bishop at West Ham and Manchester City and John Morrissey for Tranmere Rovers.