Ssssh. Keep it very quiet but we might, just might, have a new centre-forward with plenty of goals in his boots.
Or head, knee, backside, elbow, chest and, dare I say it, hand. Because a true centre-forward, the old fashioned number nine, the man who would sell his wife and kids if it meant a decent half chance on a foggy afternoon at Selhurst Park doesn’t care how, why, when or where the ball goes or what part of him it went in off – it’s all the same for him.
David Coleman uttered the famous line, “Goals pay the rent. Keegan does his share” in a reference to the inherent ability of Kevin Keegan to pop up whenever needed to apply the finishing touch to a move, the killer blow. Few of Keegan’s goals were spectacular or the result of a piece of single minded individual genius. But when there are games to be won and trophies to be held to the skies, no-one cares how the ball goes into the net, just as long as it does.
And Gary Hooper has a touch of that about him. He just wants to score goals. And they can be beautiful. Or downright ugly and forgettable.
The manner he put away our first in the win at The Hawthorns spoke volumes of the quality he possesses. Most defenders, however classy, will always – consciously or not – regard a pass that is taking the ball away from their goal as a lessening threat; one that is no longer posing a clear and present danger. Watch the man, watch the ball, but contact need be minimal, if at all. How many times after all have we heard the claim, in the aftermath of a penalty that the offending player didn’t need to commit the foul that he did as the ball was “moving away from the goal”. It’s a yellow alert at best and most defenders are canny enough to know this.
Indeed, in such circumstances, they may as well all dress like New York cops, eat a doughnut or two, and as they supervise both ball and Carlton Cole moving away from the scene of the potential crime, they can reassure us that we can all move along and that there’s “nothing to see here.”
And more often than not they’d be right.
But clearly not if Gary Hooper is around, because he’d make them look stupid.
Look at that goal again. When Leroy Fer plays the ball through to Hooper he has the entire West Brom back four to contend with. Yet every one of them is content to watch the ball rather than the man, confident that the angle of Fer’s pass is taking Hooper out and away from any danger and all they need do is shepherd him further away – a case of their acting like ladies in waiting rather than a Premier League defence.
More fool them. Because even though both ball and man were on a trajectory away from the goal, Hooper still had the ability and confidence to take a shot; one strong enough and accurate enough to find the corner of the net – and at speed. Four defenders and one goalkeeper made to look complacent in the process and a likely shellacking from Steve Clark at half-time for the trouble they’ve caused.
Yet, in truth, they were caught out by a master in the art of goalscoring. And that’s undoubted. Because regardless of the perceived standard in Scotland he did enough there to earn that title, one that we all hope he maintains and builds on over the next few seasons in a Norwich shirt.
And, although it’s early days yet, he reminds me of another Norwich striker; one who, like Hooper, wasn’t the tallest or most physical of strikers, yet one who combined a powerful physique and happy knack to know where the goal was. Even if, as at the Hawthorns, opposing defenders thought there might not be a chance, with that inbuilt confidence he knew that given one – and never mind it being a half a one, an eighth would do – he’d dispatch the ball to where it matters.
There were more than a few murmurings of doubt when Ken Brown signed Drinkell from Grimsby Town in the summer of 1985. But perhaps they were understandable ones that came about as a result of a far more serious malaise? The Canaries had, after all, ended the 1984/85 season with one of what we easily call one of their characteristic freefalls in terms of league form, winning just three of their final fifteen league games. They ended up falling from a more than respectable tenth place in Division One to twentieth at season’s end and relegation; one that came as a surprise to most people in the game, let alone those of us in and around Carrow Road.
Brown had, after all, crafted a squad that ticked all the boxes. There was plenty of youth and boundless energy and enthusiasm about the place with the likes of Mark Barham (22), Louie Donowa (20) and Peter Mendham (24) whilst, waiting in the wings and a chance to impress, albeit one that would come much, much later was a certain Jeremy Goss – then still a teenager.
Top level nous and knowledge came in the shape of Steve Bruce, John Deehan, Dave Watson and Chris Woods whilst there was a couple of wily old foxes on the scene in Mick Channon and Asa Hartford who, despite their longevity in the game, still made 31 and 28 top flight appearances respectively that season – despite having a combined age of 72. Channon was, feasibly, old enough to be the father of some of the younger players in the clubs first team squad, a role he happily took on in a non-literal sense, acting as a footballing guide and mentor for more than one of them during his time at Carrow Road.
A decent team then with a good manager. Yet one that still managed to get itself relegated. Football is, of course, littered with the sad fates of teams deemed “too good to go down”, a phrase which, in reality, is nonsense. If you go down it’s because you weren’t good enough. And, collectively, the Canaries of that season were not – even though all of the players listed above (with the exception of Gossy) had been part of the team that won that seasons League Cup, beating Sunderland 1-0 in the final.
Even that win had lost some of its gloss with the ban on English clubs competing in Europe being declared sine die following the tragic events at Heysel that spring. A tilt at the UEFA Cup – then seen as a feather in your cap rather than, as it is now, something the cat deposited in it – would have been some consolation for the Canaries, one that might have provided a springboard to the expected run at promotion as well as helping to attract new players to the club. Ultimately however, the deflated Canaries only had the promise of a promotion race to offer, one that, with clubs like Sunderland, Stoke City, Charlton, Sheffield United, Portsmouth and Leeds United amongst their peers didn’t look as if it was going to be anything like straight forward.
One thing that did sit very comfortably in Norwich’s favour was the decision made by the clubs three “big names” to stay put for the 1985/86 season in order to play a full part in the chase to get straight back into the top flight – something the club had achieved on each of the previous occasions it had been relegated. The club could very easily have cashed in on assets like Woods, Watson and Bruce – and, more pertinently, each of them could have presented a very strong case for wanting to leave in order to pursue their careers at the highest level. But none of them did, something which speaks volumes about them as well as the sense of camaraderie that remained at the club that summer, despite the twin blows of relegation and the consolation prize of that European place being whisked away from the blameless and unfortunate Canaries.
Naturally, with the big three all electing to stay, Ken Brown didn’t have perhaps as much money in the transfer pot as he would have either wanted or expected. What he did have, he used very wisely.
Drinkell was one arrival out of six that summer; the other five new faces at Carrow Road being Wayne Biggins, Gary Brooke, Ian Culverhouse, Mike Phelan and David Williams. Of that quintet it was perhaps the signing of Brooke from Tottenham Hotspur that generated the most excitement. He had seemed destined for big things at White Hart Lane, scoring two goals on his full debut and appearing in two consecutive FA Cup finals before, in the 1982/83 season, making 33 appearances, scoring nine goals in the process. Not bad for a home grown youngster in a team whose midfield also included the eclectic talents of Ardiles, Villa, Hoddle and Hazard.
Then, in February 1983, Brooke was involved in a serious car accident. It took him seven months to regain full fitness and, even when he had done so, it was noted that the severity of his injuries had affected his previously remarkable levels of stamina and energy – in short, he found himself short of breath rather too easily. He consequently struggled to make much more of an impact at the club and, after just seven games in the 1984/85 season, found himself heading for Norwich later that summer where, fit and eager to reinvent himself as the player he was, he embraced the challenge that lie ahead at Carrow Road as eagerly as those Norwich fans who saw his arrival as one of the more exciting in recent years.
Drinkell, on the other hand, seemed to arrive almost as an afterthought.
The reason for that seemingly rather dismissive description of a signing and player who went onto do great things whilst a Canary is not made lightly. The truth that, although Brown had long identified that the Canaries needed a new striker, Drinkell’s name had rarely come to the fore and he was certainly not the clubs long term target. That had been Trevor Senior, then at Reading who, having contributed 41 goals for Reading during their Division Four promotion winning season of 1983/84 followed up with another 27 the following campaign. Sixty eight goals in two seasons. No wonder Brown, amongst others, had taken note.
To his credit, Brown’s pursuit of Senior, one of ‘the’ hot properties in English football in the summer of 1985 looked as if it would end with him putting pen to paper, with, at one time, even the Eastern Daily Press stating that he looked likely to sign for the club. But it was not to be. Senior elected to stay at Reading for the 1985/86 season, top scoring for the Royals again as they won promotion to Division Two.
Credit to him for, like the Norwich trio, staying loyal. But the Canaries still needed a new striker.
There were others the club could and maybe did consider. John Aldridge had scored 34 for Oxford United as they won promotion to the First Division* for the first time in their history – although he was never likely to drop a division having just won promotion with the club. Then there was John Clayton of Tranmere Rovers, he’d scored 31 goals that season and was, like Senior, considered a player of some promise and potential. But he still ended up at Plymouth Argyle. Maybe Norwich could have made another trip to Tottenham in order to expand on their striking options? Brooke and Culverhouse had joined with the latter, unknown at the time, set to become a club legend. Maybe someone like David Leworthy could be tempted to join them?
As it was, the eventual signing of Drinkell made a lot of footballing sense. The only doubt surrounding him at the time was that he seemed to have been at Grimsby Town for ages, having made his debut for the club in 1977, when he was just sixteen. He’d been at the club ever since, scoring regularly, but, despite all that, never getting a move to even a slightly bigger club; never mind one with the sort of top flight pedigree, squad and aspirations that Norwich had. He was 25 when he signed for Norwich and the nagging doubt was that if he was so good and such a good player – why hadn’t he moved on earlier? Brown ended up paying £90,000 for him and a partly sceptical Norwich support sat back and waited to see if he would be able to adapt to life at a bigger club and a hoped for one season only sojourn in the Second Division.
Drinkell made his debut for Norwich, alongside Phelan, Brooke and Williams in the opening day Carrow Road win over Oldham; a Peter Mendham strike sealing victory in a a dour game in which, if Norwich barely sparkled, they certainly never looked like losing. The Canaries coughed and spluttered a bit after that game, failing to record a win in any of their next four league games but, by the time Sheffield United rolled up at Carrow Road a few weeks later, everything fell into place. Drinkell scored twice as the Canaries strolled to a convincing 4-0 win.
A little over a week later Norwich struck four again, this time beating Crystal Palace in a 4-3 thriller at Carrow Road – a game that saw a young and still raw Ian Wright come on as a substitute for the Eagles. Wright was then the pupil, Drinkell the pending master – four goals in three games for Norwich now and he never looked back from there on in, finishing the season with 22 goals from his 41 league appearances. He was top scorer and Player of the Year as City, effortlessly in the end, won the Division Two Championship and that hoped for return to the top flight.
Drinkell, previously unheralded and ignored by the big clubs, for all his scoring prowess at Grimsby (89 in 272 appearances) now began to attract their attention. The fact that he went onto score 19 goals in the First Division in his first ever campaign at that level, top scoring again and winning the Player of the Year award again illustrated just how good a player he was proving to be. But not only that. It was the calibre of opponents and the games he was scoring the goals in that caught the eye. He scored both in a 2-0 win over Newcastle (for whom a certain G.Roeder was playing); a late equaliser against Arsenal, then league leaders, at Carrow Road and winners against both Manchester United and Liverpool, the former at Old Trafford.
Kevin Drinkell, the not so ancient Mariner who it had seemed that no-one wanted, had arrived.
He ended up turning down a move to Manchester United soon after Alex Ferguson had taken over at the club, biding his time and waiting, waiting for a move to a really big club. And he got it, eventually joining Rangers for £600,000 in the summer of 1988. His Norwich goalscoring stats at the time of his departure being 57 goals from 150 appearances, a more than respectable record and one which, if Gary Hooper comes anywhere close to matching, will likely see him matching Drinkell in terms of both being a leading goalscorer for the club over a few seasons, as well as winning his fair share of the Player of the Year awards. Let’s hope so – and, in doing so, let’s also consider this little piece of footballing symmetry.
That whilst Kevin Drinkell proved himself at Norwich, he had to head north and to Glasgow Rangers in order to further his career – whilst Gary Hooper, proven at the highest of levels with Glasgow Celtic chose to move south to Norwich City in order to further his career.
How times have changed!
*Three top flight clubs and opponents for Norwich in the 1980s, and all of them Wembley winners, have since spent time in non-league football – Oxford United, Wimbledon and Luton Town.