There are, invariably, times in football when one of the games little pet phrases comes to the fore.
It’s not one I particularly like, mainly because I completely and utterly disagree with its sentiments as, I would guess, most football supporters would.
The phrase in question is, “Everyone’s favourite second team”.
‘Second’ team? I’m sorry, what does that mean? There are, surely, no ‘second’ teams? There is the team that you support, the one that you follow for all of your life, devoted, unconditional love, an attachment and loyalty that was, is and forever will be. Joy Division memorably claimed that “Love will tear us apart again” – and so it might. But our love for our football team will never rent us asunder from them. They might tear us up or reduce us to tears – but tear us apart? Never.
And that’s just how it is. If you’re reading this then you’ll understand that. A man or woman and their football team are a match made alternately in heaven and hell; one that is, no matter what the ups and downs, bonded together for all eternity.
Meaning you can’t just have ‘a second team.’
Yet they’re everywhere.
Going back to the turn of the century, the team in question was Leeds United. Everyone loved them and everyone loved their unassuming, naive young manager, David O’Leary who forever spoke of his “babies” and how they were “so young” and “learning fast”. Bless them. Kittens, Cocker Spaniel puppies and Alan Smith.
During the first season of Premier League football, the dim but not so very distant 1992/93 season, the team in question was us. Yes, everyone loved Norwich City; the team all of football was talking about, defying the odds with their eclectic mix (a Gunny, a Gossy, a Crooky and and a, er, Suttony) of players and media-friendly manager. Everyone wanted to be our friend and everyone wanted us to win the Premier League.
We were, for a time, that fabled “favourite second team” of the people. And I hated it. “Bugger off” I’d mutter, “go back to your own teams. Mine are not yours to support, now or ever. You didn’t want to know us a year ago, so don’t bother us now”.
If a friend told me that he ‘quite liked’ Norwich, the hackles would go up immediately. Respect and admire us? Yes. Like us? No. That’s like fancying my girlfriend. Stay loyal to your own team and leave mine alone.
The infatuation didn’t last very long of course. We slipped down and out of the Premier League and were largely forgotten as everyone swooned and fell in love anew, this time with Manchester United.
As I write this, the “second team” in everyone’s mind and heart seems to have become Everton. And I can understand why. Previously known for being plucky and well organised under David Moyes, they have, upon the appointment of Roberto Martinez as manager (soon every team will want a Spaniard in charge, West Brom have got one already and they won’t be the last in the Premier League to have done so by the end of the year) taken on a somewhat attractive, swashbuckling edge. The Toffees have, as a result, transformed themselves from footballing magnolia to chrome and steel – contemporary, bright and daring – and, as a result, everyone loves them, especially Leighton Baines; football’s answer to Bradley Wiggins.
I wonder what their fans think about all of the Everton love coming their way as a result?
Now they, nor anyone, are my “second team”. But I do confess to having a lot of respect for what Martinez has achieved at Goodison Park since he took over. They are good to watch – easy on the eye, direct, organised and hellishly quick when they want to be, with some good players into the bargain. Ross Barkley was easily the best on the pitch when we played them on the first day of the season whilst others have, deservedly, taken plaudits for themselves – the aforementioned Baines, Kevin Mirallas and Romelu Lukaku in particular.
So I hope that fans and players alike are revelling in their success right now and making the most of it. Because, as we know so well at Carrow Road, and this is a theme beloved of all soap operas and B Movies everywhere – just as someone, somewhere says that “things have never been so good” or that they’ve “never been happier”, you know, you just know that things are going to crash and burn all around you.
Which is how it was not that far from becoming a grim reality when we met them at Goodison Park in September 1993.
Norwich City were on the up. We’d finished the previous season in a staggering 3rd place in the Premier League and had, as a result, the joys of European football to look forward to. Hell, we were on a roll; we were everyone’s “second club” and were loving every second of it. We’d managed to start the 1993/94 season in equally imperious form, losing just two of our opening eight games meaning we were comfortably in the top half of the table and looking to progress, both domestically and in Europe. Happy days.
So we had a lot to shout about – including, hard as it must be to appreciate now, an away record in the Premier League that was just about as good as it gets. Indeed, we’d become something of away day specialists. Four previous trips on the road had yielded eight points out of twelve; no defeats and an impressive twelve goals scored which was only two fewer than rivals Ipswich managed away from home for the entire season.
This sudden and dramatic improvement in the club’s away form did run somewhat contrary to the norm. Mike Walker had inherited a side that, despite having won many plaudits and enjoyed some success under Dave Stringer, regularly struggled away from home. During the 1991/92 season, where survival and Premier League founder member status was seen as being absolutely essential, it was only finally achieved despite Norwich’s away form, not because of it.
Just three wins from 21 league games including two defeats from winning positions and just eighteen goals scored; eight defeats in away league matches against the top ten sides and, worryingly, heavy defeats away to sides that ended up being relegated – a 2-0 reverse at Luton Town and a 4-0 hiding at West Ham, rock bottom of the table at the time, for their first win in ten games.
Walker, clearly, had a job to do as far as these periodic away day travails that affected his side were concerned. The 4-2 victory at Highbury on the opening day of the following season showed that he was already getting to grips with it. Had Norwich not won that game, had they taken, even accepted the pending defeat that was always going to be predicted for them (and which looked inevitable at half time- Rob Newman has since said the overwhelming thought of the players at half time in that game was one of “damage limitation”- this is before Walker spoke!); then the story of that season and the whole saga that now surrounds Mike Walker and those remarkable one and a half years the club enjoyed at that time may never have happened.
It was a pivotal result, one of the most important in the club’s history and, in terms of achievement and significance, is right up there with the famous win over Busby’s Manchester United during that famous FA Cup run in 1959. It sparked confidence and belief in the players, and, crucially, in their manager – the team were down, out and looking at ‘damage limitation’ – same old Norwich.
However, a few words from Walker, a tactical switch and the introduction of Mark Robins changed all that. Walker didn’t just talk the talk, he walked the walk. He inspired his players, he filled them full of self belief, dug the passion out of them and put them on the pitch, any pitch, any opposition – and they played with fire in their bellies and confidence overflowing, certain that they could win. This was a very different Norwich City.
Walker’s team simply did not give up and would have headed to Goodison confident of another success, ever more so with media and bookies alike predicting a relatively straight forward three points pending for Everton.
Nothing changes under the sun as they say.
The Norwich side for the game was identical to those that Walker had entrusted to get the points in previous games at Ewood Park and Elland Road – with one notable (as it turned out) exception, Efan Ekoku retaining his place in the side at the expense of the injured Robins. Ekoku had been signed by Walker the previous March from Bournemouth; another addition to the striking complement at the club which, with Mark Robins, Chris Sutton and the precocious Lee Power already in attendance, was starting to look very strong in both numbers and quality.
Ekoklu’s impressive haul of 25 goals in 74 games for Bournemouth soon had the scouts flocking to Dean Court. At one time it was reckoned that as many as 40 different scouts had been sent to watch him, so it seems quite a coup that Norwich emerged as the team to put their faith in him with a £500,000 bid which the Cherries immediately accepted. Perhaps City caught a few of their more illustrious opponents out with the speed of the bid. Another sign perhaps that the Canaries under Walker were singing a different tune; determined to strike first, and, in the case of Ekoku, ready to sign him in March, rather than wait for the close season when they may have ended up in a multi-club bidding war for his services. For Ekoku read Ricky van Wolfswinkel.
Ekoku’s impact was instant. He came on as a substitute in only his second game, a 5-1 thrashing at Tottenham, and was sufficiently motivated – despite the result – to score within a short time of his arrival. His first start came in the last day of the season and no party atmosphere either as City needed at least a point at Middlesbrough to guarantee a third place finish. Ekoku opened the scoring and added a second in the Canaries’ 3-3 draw; ending his end-of-season cameo role at the club with 3 goals from one start and three substitute appearances.
Walker may well have signed him with the future in mind – but that impact more than suggested he had an immediate role to play and would be a major player the following season when Norwich not only had to live up to – maybe even look to exceed – their previous efforts, but also had a UEFA Cup campaign to think about. One that Ekoku contributed to in a major fashion. His opening goal against Vitesse Arnhem settled the nerves in Norwich’s eventual 3-0 win over the Dutch side in the first round, first-leg game on 15 September; a goal that not only announced him to the wider footballing public (John Motson and pundit Steve Coppell both spoke in effusive terms about the quality of Ekoku’s strike in that game) but propelled Norwich onto the European footballing stage. Not bad work for someone who had, just three years earlier, been playing non-league football for Sutton United; making his debut for the club a week after Norwich had beaten them 8-0 in an FA Cup 4th round match at Carrow Road.
For Ekoku and his team-mates their good start and impressive away-form meant nothing and the Everton game promised to be a tough one. The Toffees had won six of their opening league games and were in fourth place prior to the match. And, true to form, Everton opened the scoring; Paul Rideout racing onto a long, high ball played into the penalty area and outwitting two Norwich defenders before scoring. Shortly afterwards, he hit the bar with a header from close range, and, for a while, Everton were dominant – that is, until Ekoku decided to enter stage left.
41 minutes. Crook finds Ekoku on the right hand side of the Toffees penalty area; the pass and subsequent shot and goal very reminiscent of Ekoku’s strike against Vitesse a week earlier.
57 minutes. John Polston and Chris Sutton combine near the edge of the box, Sutton lifts in a dinked little cross for the unmarked Ekoku to head home.
63 minutes. A clearance out of the Norwich area finds Fox and Ekoku racing clear with no defenders in sight. Its route one but it works, Fox’s shot parried by Southall into the path of his fellow Canary, 3-1 and Ekoku has his first Premier League hat-trick.
69 minutes. Another long ball for Ekoku, his pace and trickery making fools of three Everton defenders as he easily shoots pass a now furious Southall. 4-1 and with it, he became the first Premier League player to score four goals in an away Premier League fixture – an achievement that will be his to cherish forever.
Salt was rubbed into the weeping blue wounds in the 77th minute when John Polston cannily set up Chris Sutton for a convincing fifth for Norwich; a goal and end result that saw a cascade of boos flood Goodison Park and swift elevation to fifth place for Norwich.
Despair for the Toffees but cheer for Walker and his delighted team as well as two records for Ekoku in quick succession; the first Norwich player to score in competitive European football followed by becoming the first player to score four goals in a Premier League game. Not a bad weeks work at all – and another win for Norwich; the team that, try as it might, football at that time was finding it more and more difficult to write-off.
For one man in particular though, the result and his team’s performance and the manner of their victory was far from something to be written off. It made the sort of impact that meant, just over four months later, his vanquished opponents on the day knew exactly who their first-choice would be when they looked to appoint their new manager.
A move that, in the end, suited neither party.