Is there such a thing as glory in defeat?
I’ll take that a step further. How about if that defeat is something that could be regarded as part of a greater good, something which has brought credit and distinction to the game of football as a whole? An episode in the club’s history that, although it saw defeat, did at least momentarily raise our proud yellow and green hearts and mind above the parapet in order to receive a barrage of plaudits, rather than the usual rounds of dismissive and ill-informed opinion all round.
Was it worth it? Is it ever worth it? Defeat I mean – if that defeat is part of a greater good?
One very obvious example is the 1-7 thrashing received at the hands of Colchester United on the opening day of the 2009/10 season. The very public kicking and the inevitable humiliation that followed was of course the very beginning of a renaissance that, after the subsequent seemingly unstoppable ride to the footballing heavens, only really started to lose momentum around a year ago.
Maybe ever since we’ve all been looking, waiting for another catalyst, another incident, another telling part of Canary history to get the thing up and running again. Or maybe it’s already happened and we don’t at the moment know it.
We didn’t, after all, embrace that result and performance at the time. And without the very obvious benefit of hindsight at the time, how many Canary supporters who were at the game on that fateful day would have willingly chosen a 7-1 defeat over a scrappy 1-0 victory?
Hardly anyone I’d guess.
Change in football at a managerial level operates at the ends of the game’s spectrum. It either comes as a result of success or failure and rarely, very rarely, for the sake of change alone. There’s usually a reason somewhere along the line for it to happen and we can all see that ourselves if we track back through the long and chequered history of Canary managerial appointments, each and every one of the departures – certainly from Ron Saunders through to Paul Lambert – came as a result of either relative success or perceived failure.
However, in those four decades since Saunders dramatically quit the club in the aftermath of the boardroom row that followed a home defeat to Everton, the definition of both success and failure in football has changed – and maybe not always for the good of the club or the game.
Compare and contrast the fortunes of Ken Brown and Chris Hughton for example. Most people would expect Chris Hughton to lose his job at the end of this season if it concludes with the Canaries slipping back into the Championship. Indeed, there are those who would have him gone now, so fearful are they of the possibility of that being exactly what happens in May.
Brown, on the other hand was in charge of two Norwich sides that were relegated – in 1981 and 1985. Yet, on either of those two occasions, were there cries for his dismissal? Not that I can remember. Certainly not at the end of the 1984/85 season as far as the mood in and around the ground was concerned. Yes, there was upset and annoyance at our fate. But that was more to do with the farcical circumstances as to how it happened rather than the fact we had gone down. Yes, there was a League Cup success to soften the blow slightly – but could you see Chris Hughton surviving the end of this season, even under those circumstances?
Such is the pressure and expectation in the Premier League today that the very notion of being in it and remaining there is the beginning, middle and end for most of its clubs – City included. The prospect of relegation is simply not acceptable, indeed it is inconceivable; a footballing and, more especially, financial horror that no-one at the club, least of all those who sit in the boardroom even want to consider. Hence you have around four, maybe five clubs who entertain thoughts of winning it – whilst the rest just want to scrape and fight their way through the season so they can do it all again the following campaign. And the one after that. Plus the one after that. And so on and so forth.
No wonder football stands accused, at least at this level, of being boring with clubs being sent out by their managers with instructions of not to lose rather than to win. A subtle difference. But a telling one.
John Bond was a Norwich City manager who was not afraid to lose. He knew his job didn’t depend on not losing or ‘merely’ staying in the, as it was, First Division. That lack of pressure was passed on from him to his players, all of whom played without fear and with the freedom to express themselves in both life and the game.
As a result of that, Bond sustained Norwich’s presence in the top flight of English football for six consecutive seasons from 1975 to 1980; a remarkable achievement that, if we survive this season, we will only have half equalled.
Was that feat, one which came in period which saw bigger clubs with higher expectations relegated – Wolves, Tottenham, Newcastle, West Ham and Chelsea are all examples of teams that went down whilst Norwich stayed up during that time – because there was less pressure and expectation amongst both those that ran the clubs and those who followed them?
Bond’s Norwich played with a freedom and joie di vivre that you would find difficult to envisage Hughton’s team emulating. But were his players so much better than those we have available to us today?
Was John Ryan that superior a footballer to Russell Martin? Jimmy Neighbour better than Anthony Pilkington? Peter Mendham superior to Jonny Howson? Put it another way, how would Bond manage today’s squad of players? Would he have them playing in the same manner as he did his team of the 1979/80 season? Or would he, just like Chris Hughton today, find the demands of staying put so stifling and ever present, he too would sent out teams designed not to lose rather than to win?
Bond’s Norwich lost games, of course they did. But we did so with style – and few people condemned either him or the players for it. Take the Canaries visit to Coventry City in December 1977, a game that saw Norwich score as many goals in an away fixture as we have managed in our last four away games in this season’s Premier League.
It was a game that paid practical tribute to the footballing philosophies of its two managers.
The man in charge at Highfield Road was Gordon Milne who had succeeded Noel Cantwell in 1974. Milne had previously been in charge of the England Youth side, guiding them to success in the European Youth Championships in 1972.
Milne encouraged his teams to play without fear and to express themselves on the field, even if it meant taking a risk or making a mistake. Much like Bond and Norwich. Because there was less pressure in the game, less, and yes, here’s that ‘e’ word again, less expectation.
Why was that the case?
Because there was far less money in the game. That smaller financial gulf between the competing teams in the First Division meant it wasn’t so difficult for teams to keep their leading performers happy, salary-wise. They tended to stay at their clubs for a considerable time; many of them eventually securing lucrative testimonial matches as a ‘thankyou’ for their services.
Unlike the Premier League therefore – an out of control sporting behemoth that is purely results driven – managers were given much more time to build a side.
By the time this fixture was played for example, Milne had already been at Highfield Road for three and a half years; league finishing positions of fourteenth in his first two seasons at the club seen as being perfectly acceptable to the Coventry board. And, with players of the calibre of Tommy Hutchinson, Terry Yorath and Ian Wallace in their side, the Sky Blues had some very good players, all of whom capable of playing at a much higher level.
Likewise Norwich. Who would have thought, for example, that a World Cup winner, an exquisitely gifted player with additional medals won domestically at home and in Europe would play some of the best football of his career whilst at Norwich City, rather than Liverpool, Leeds, Manchester United or Arsenal, the ‘giants’ in English football at the time?
Yet that is what Martin Peters did. Discarded by Tottenham at just 31, he moved to Norwich for just £50,000, one of the greatest players of his generation moving onto a club where it was likely he would never again challenge for the top honours, but, for him, somewhere where he could simply enjoy his football and life with his family. That and the attraction of playing his football under John Bond and Ken Brown, both of whom he had known during his time at West Ham.
Even the fact that Norwich had been relegated to the Second Division didn’t stop Peters signing, Norwich were on the up and up and doing it the right way, the ‘West Ham way’. For Peters it was a no contest.
So… Peters at Norwich then. Alan Ball, one of his victorious teammates, was down at Southampton, whilst the scorer of that hat-trick against West Germany in the final was managing non-league Telford United. Again, it is inconceivable that something similar would happen today; that Steven Gerrard would leave Liverpool to see out his career at Brighton or that Wayne Rooney would spend a few years as Manager of Forest Green. It simply would not happen. Not today. But it did then.
Players like Martin Peters could move to a Norwich City and no-one would bat a proverbial eyelid.
The Coventry game was one that symbolised the football of the day. One of those games which should be lauded as an example of the way the game was played in what some people now refer to as a ‘golden age’ in the English game.
Norwich may have lost a thrilling contest by the odd goal in nine. But, cliché or not, on the day both sides came out of it winners – managers, players and supporters. If Norwich were to score four goals in an away game now, some people would see it as a crisis. Questions would be asked. The capabilities of the defenders would be questioned.
Canary Call would go into another meltdown – indeed, no doubt we would, once again, say ‘what are they doin’ in traynin’ Paul?’ Two First Division clubs who wanted to entertain. Images of the thoughts and ethos of their managers; clubs whose ambitions were no more than looking to win the next match.
A crisis? Well, John Cobbold, the famously cheerful Chairman of Ipswich Town probably summed it up best – an attitude which was probably shared at more than a few other First Divison clubs at the time, saying , “…there is no crisis at Ipswich until the white wine runs out in the boardroom.” So no crisis. Just some great players on each side, characters all and many of them full internationals enjoying a game of football, a game that nearly 22,000 spectators were privileged to watch.
For Coventry there is European Cup finalist Yorath, a fearsome striking duo in Wallace and Ferguson and one of the games entertainers, then or at any time, the quicksilver Scottish international Tommy Hutchinson; a man good enough to go to the World Cup finals in 1974.
In the yellow and green corner, alongside the virtuoso Peters is the flamboyant Kevin Keelan, doomed to star in English football at a time when the likes of Banks, Shilton and Clemence reigned supreme, else you feel England caps in abundance would have been his.
Norwich of course, had their own version of Hutchison, the fleet of foot Jimmy Neighbour. Like Peters, once of Tottenham, but now very much a star of the Norwich side; a winger who is the darling of Norwich’s vocal Barclay stand.
This is football, raw in tooth and claw, the working class ballet where fans sing in perfect harmony in praise of their heroes and the stage is owned by the players, shirts numbered 1 to 11, no names on the back, no crass sponsor logos and a bright young thing in every side – in this case it’s Barry Powell for the Sky Blues and the Keegan-like (same name, same haircut, same jinking feet), Kevin Reeves for Norwich.
The game starts and both sides are immediately going hell for leather, wingers being brought into the game at every opportunity, the dancing feet of fighter Neighbour escorting the ball on its journey, ready for the heavy bombers of Gibbins and Reeves to dispatch it to the target. Norwich attack, the air is chilled and the pitch icy, but the spectators are warmed through, every time a Norwich advance is repelled (often with Neighbour being bundled to the ground in heap of arms and legs, does he protest? No, he gets up and carries on the fight).
Coventry state their own case, Hutchison has the ball, he owns it, caresses it as it was a lover, delivers to the feet of Wallace and head of Ferguson; Keelan is being kept busy, but he loves the attention, ever flamboyant in whatever he does, mopping up, clearing, saving, catching and punching, preening and posing.
The two sides went at each other from kick off despite the sort of icy surface that would demand a pitch inspection and possible postponement today.
Coventry struck first; a clumsy challenge leading to a penalty that the youthful Powell dispatched past Keelan – a cue for the Coventry support to break into joyful song. Shortly afterwards they make it 2-0, a spectacular bicycle kick from Wallace charming the whole ground – Norwich fans included – all applauding its majesty.
Five minutes later a flailing Sky Blue limb, a Norwich penalty; a formality for John Ryan. 2-1.
The Norwich equaliser comes minutes later, the passing and movement sublime, the finish is Kevin Reeves of the highest quality. 2-2 now and the two choirs are locking harmonies as On The Ball City mingles with Play Up Sky Blues to form a 22,000 odd strong wall of sound that would have Phil Spector in ecstasy. But never mind the music, another goal must be due any moment; who is going to score it?
It’s Reeves again and, crucially, just before half time –Norwich lead 3-2 at the break. So, as the fans catch their chilly breath, Bond is advising his side to sit back and defend their lead in the second half.
Is he hell.
To sit on a lead is anathema to the man. He is enjoying the show, as is Milne. The two of them are already looking forward to dissecting the game and the goals over a glass of wine at the end of the game. But, for now, there’s another 45 minutes to go and footballing comrades must resume battle.
Norwich stormed out of the starting blocks, looking for a fourth; the goal that might, just might, make this crazy game safe. It’s more like a game between schoolboys with the old jumpers for goalposts than a Division One fixture in the league of the reigning European club champions. It is unlikely however, that even Liverpool could have coped with the attacking intent of these sides today.
For it is glorious, end to end stuff with the ten minute goalless drought finally broken when Gerry Gow wills the ball past Keelan to make it 3-3. Shortly after that, Coventry go ahead, the seventh of the game coming from Bobby McDonald; a left back in name but Brazilian in nature, his curling short from the by-line is more Mineiro than McDonald.
Peters then arrives, in typical spectre-fashion to bring Norwich level again. 4-4. A quarter of an hour remains, can someone still win? A draw suddenly seems a fair result, a just one, no team should have to lose this game. But one does and it’s the yellow shirted men of Norfolk who are slain, again by the man who broke their hearts in the League Cup final less than two years earlier.
The Claret and Blue nemesis that was Ray Graydon is a Sky Blue one now and it is he that has scored the winner (again). 5-4 to Coventry and hearts are alternately healed or broken in an instant.
There is even time for a small postscript.
In the dying seconds, Coventry concede a second penalty. Ryan steps up to take it. Another formality surely. 5-5 and an epic conclusion.
Yet, in this game of nine goals, it is a goalkeeper who still has the final say. Ryan takes but Jim Blyth steals the show at the death with a fine save; a wonderful irony in a game where defences were laid to waste that it is still a goalkeeper who is the ultimate hero.
For Coventry the points. But for both teams the plaudits in an era when the football was all that mattered and no-one said that the game was a ‘business’.
Managers, teams and matches. They don’t make them like this anymore. Yet when they did we played our part. And we should be proud.