I wrote in defence of one Ricky van Wolfswinkel last week, confident that he would, as he adjusted to the sometimes suffocating Premier League experience, in time, prove to be a worthwhile investment, a player as full of goals as he unquestionably is in working hard for the sake of the team as a whole.
The ovation he got from all around the ground as he came off for Gary Hooper during Sunday’s game against Tottenham suggests that many Norwich fans acknowledge those often unappreciated efforts. The additional fact that he never, despite the lack of both goals and confidence, ‘hides’ during a game (an accusation which could be levelled at many players, both at Norwich and elsewhere whenever things haven’t been going their way) further suggests that here is a player determined to do whatever it takes to prove himself at this level.
I wonder if Danny Mills, one time local boy made ego will praise him as readily as he condemns him when that time comes?
RvW. Record fee, much excitement and hype with all the eager anticipation that a new name and face always brings.
Accompanied, of course, by the expectancy that they are going to deliver. And immediately.
Which was pretty much how it was back in September 1980 when the club more than doubled their existing record transfer fee to bring in a new signing from the continent – sound familiar?
The pedigree of said player was unquestionable. He’d made 36 international appearances for Yugoslavia, representing them at both the 1974 World Cup and Euro ‘76 as well as, in 1974, appearing for them against England in a 2-2 draw. His club record was equally impressive – he was a regular performer in top level European competition with Hadjuk Split; the winners of four league titles and five domestic cups during his time there. During that spell, in 1977, he was named Yugoslav Footballer of the Year.
The player in question of course, was Drazen Muzinic.
Quite a playing pedigree. And as for winning Yugoslav Footballer of the Year Award, that was hardly, as some might now like to suppose, a ‘nothing’ award? Because given the quality of player Muzinic played against and with on a weekly basis – whether at club or international level – he had to have something about him; a certain quality and some stand out ability to even be in contention for the award, never mind win it.
And throughout the 1970s the domestic Yugoslavian league was very strong. This was, after all, a time when their footballers were not able to freely play for the elite clubs throughout Europe. Indeed, all but one of their 22-strong playing squad for the 1974 World Cup Finals – a tournament England failed to qualify for – played their domestic football at home. Yet the calibre of player they had to choose from saw them not only win their group in the that tournament, pipping Brazil to second place in the process, they also broke the record for the biggest ever win at a World Cup by beating Zaire 9-0 in one of those group games.
Not too shabby then. And hardly surprising given the sheer quality of some of the players they had to call on. Dragen Dzajic was perhaps the most well known. He spent most of his career at the crack (I had to put that in, Eastern European club sides always used to be referred to as ‘crack’ for some reason…) Yugoslav side Red Star Belgrade where, in 590 appearances, he scored 365 goals. Amongst the countless awards and recognitions that came his way was third-place in the 1968 European Footballer of the Year Award (George Best and Bobby Charlton came first and second respectively) and, following the European Championships of 1968, ending it as top scorer, part of the team of the tournament and, unsurprisingly, named as player of the tournament.
Had Dzajic played today there is little doubt that he would be a world star and ended up playing for either Real Madrid or Barcelona in the process with Manchester City trying, and failing, to sign him on a regular basis.
In addition to Dzajic, one of the best players in the world for a number of years, there was also Dusan Bajevic, who, like Dzajic, was a formidable goalscorer with 29 in 37 for Yugoslavia and 231 in 429 in his club career – one which included three years spent playing for AEK Athens in Greece.
Two players who, were they playing today, would have been world superstars just as their contemporary peers, the likes of Luka Modric and Mario Mandžukić are.
So let’s not immediately assume Muzinic was an average player performing in a weak team and league. He wasn’t. The fact that he more than held his own in such esteemed company is proof of that. He would, at the time he signed for Norwich, been quite a coup for the Canaries; a player, name and reputation to create excitement amongst both his future teammates and fans alike and most certainly worth every penny of that record breaking £300,000 fee (beating the £145,000 paid for Phil Boyer six years earlier) paid to Hadjuk Split to secure his services.
He was, to coin a phrase, “on paper”, exactly the sort of player needed at the time. A strong, technically adept midfielder who could not only screen the back four if necessary, but also, and extremely effectively, act as the onfield ‘minder’ for a creative, flair-type player; a Mark Barham, Clive Woods or Steve Goble for example. But he was even more than that. For, in truth, Norwich were in dire need of the impossible. A replacement for Martin Peters.
He had left the club (something he now professes to regret) in the summer of 1981 to join Sheffield United, leaving behind him an enormous gap in both the team and at the club in general; one that seemed to be almost insurmountable in terms of filling. Peters influence and authority on the team had been enormous, something which became immediately obvious at the start of the 1980/81 season when, after beating Stoke City 5-1, Norwich lost their next four league games; conceding eleven goals in the process. It was their worse ever start to a top flight campaign.
The Canaries were rudderless and in danger of sailing directly onto the rocks as a consequence; consecutive league defeats of 4-1 at Liverpool and 3-1 at West Bromwich Albion seeing them drop into the bottom three. It was a young side as well – both in terms of age and top flight experience. Greg Downs, Justin Fashanu and Steve Goble were all 19, Peter Mendham was 20 and Kevin Bond was 23. Peters had, in every instance, been both an off-field influence and on-field guide to them. Kevin Bond admitted, only last year, that Peters was an influence on him “without even having to try”.
With Sheffield United now reaping the benefits of Peters wisdom (they won four out of their opening five league fixtures that same season) it was clear that Norwich needed someone cut from the same cloth. Someone who had played at the very top level of the game for a number of years, who was a full international with World Cup and European Championship experience and, club wise, had played in European club competition.
Someone who the Canaries were not going to find in England, or at least, not someone on their budget. Their signing of Peters had, to all extents and purposes, been a fluke; he was a player so keen to get away from Tottenham, having fallen out with the clubs hierarchy, he would have gone almost anywhere to enjoy playing football again. The fact that it was Norwich and John Bond who had stepped in at that oh-so-opportune a moment had been a welcome bonus for both. But that’s all it had been, a lucky moment; an opportunist signing, the sort that maybe comes along once in a manager’s lifetime.
Bond knew he couldn’t be so fortunate enough a second time and with money, as always, tight at Carrow Road he set both the clubs scouts and its overall vision far and wide in order to secure the right type of player as a replacement for Peters.
The £300,000 the Canaries ended up paying for Muzinic, whilst doubling their record outlay on a player at the time, was already small change in British football where the record fee paid by any club stood at over four times that. Indeed, that £300,000 ‘barrier’ – as extraordinary and eye catching an amount of money for the Canaries to have paid at that time as the £8.5million paid for Ricky van Wolfswinkel last summer was – had already been breached in the domestic game on a number of occasions since 1974, when Bob Latchford had left Birmingham for Everton for £350,000.
Norwich were then, as now, simply unable to buy readymade and proven players from the domestic market so had, again, then as now, to rely on those who had proven themselves abroad; hoping against hope that they would be able to transfer their class at that level and in that country to the English game. And, whether it be £300,000 in 1980 or £8.5million in 2013, it’s still a massive gamble and no guarantee of success. And, if the jury is not exactly out on van Wolfswinkel yet (although some are already pushing their chairs back in readiness for a verdict) it didn’t take long for both the fans and critics of the day to have made their mind up with regard to Muzinic.
Perhaps the only thing more surprising than the amount of money Norwich invested in him was the fact that then Canaries manager John Bond had never seen him play, relying instead on reports from other parties, most of whom would not even have been connected with the club but acting as hopeful intermediaries for any possible deal. And, whilst both club and manager cannot be held as totally remiss with regard to Muzinic being signed for that record fee without being watched, at least once, by either Bond or Ken Brown (maybe the clubs travel budget didn’t extend to return flights to Split?) then at least the perceived pedigree and career history of the player was, seemingly, unimpeachable.
Enough in any case to seal the deal. Thus, on 12 September 1980 Drazen Muzinic became a Norwich City player.
He made his debut the following day, wearing, curiously, the number nine shirt in the game against Southampton at Carrow Road, showing – according to one report – some “nice touches” as Norwich won 1-0, thanks to a goal from Justin Fashanu. It was Fashanu who later famously commented, as Muzinic’s difficulties became all the more obvious in the weeks and months that followed his signing, that Norwich hadn’t signed Muzinic at all but had, in actual fact, signed his milkman!
Milkman or not, Muzinic had arrived at Norwich with the reputation of being able to cover most positions on the pitch; the one thing, perhaps, he had in common with Peters – that multi-positional ability that all leading players seem to have. It’s one that sometimes leads to those with that flexibility in their game occasionally (and sometimes disparagingly) being referred to as “utility” players. It’s a description that is usually taken to mean exactly what it says (i.e. That the player in question can play in a variety of positions).
Sadly, for Norwich, it was more a case of Muzinic not being able to play in any position. Whilst his footballing pedigree was unquestionable, Muzinic did not settle at Norwich, and, desperately trying to find a place for him in his team, Bond and his successor, Ken Brown, played him in several roles, with Muzinic ending up wearing seven different numbered shirts (this at a time when your shirt number signified the position you played in). In all, Muzinic wore the numbers 9, 7, 4, 3, 8, 5, and (perhaps as a compromise?) the number 12.
Matters were not improved on or off the field by Muzinic’s inability to learn English – or, more probability, outright refuse to commit to lessons; preferring to spend his spare time in haughty and unsociable isolation with only his evil smelling native cigarettes for company. Willing to try almost anything, the club tried to bridge the communication gap by hiring a translator from the University of East Anglia to help get team plays and tactical instructions across to the player – but with little apparent success; the experiment being swiftly abandoned.
In hindsight it is easy to speculate whether or not Muzinic’s arrival at the club had been a result of John Bond maybe, just maybe, losing a little focus on the job in hand at Carrow Road. The previous campaign, which ended up being the last in both Kevin Keelan and Martin Peters careers at the club, had seen Norwich finish in 14th place in Division One; seasonal highlights including Kevin Reeves winning his first England cap as well as Justin Fashanu’s immortal goal for the Canaries in that famous game at Liverpool.
However, there had also been moments of great disappointment. The club had, briefly, gloriously, led the table at the start of the season, leading Bond to winning the Manager of the Month Award for August. However, any sign of the club finally pushing on and becoming more than perennial ‘bit part players’ in the top flight soon evaporated with a dreadful run of games following Christmas that saw them slide from 4th to 15th in the table.
This had included a dreadful performance at home to Wolves that February which resulted in a 4-0 defeat during which the Canaries looked anything but a top flight side. Coming a fortnight after that 5-3 defeat to Liverpool, it also meant Norwich had conceded nine goals in just two games at Carrow Road. So maybe Bond was, by that summer, beginning to think he had done all that he could at the club and that it might be time for him to move on?
Perhaps the signing of Muzinic had been an easy one to make with that in mind, a perceived showpiece signing made without the need to spend hour after hour on the road or phone trying to sign another Peters for peanuts? Who can tell – but it does leave you wondering if Bond would ever have sanctioned such a move earlier in his spell at the club when he repeatedly signed players with high sell-on fees for relatively little money, but which required a lot of time and effort otherwise, as had been the case with Kevin Reeves for example.
Following Bond’s seemingly inevitable departure just a month after Muzinic had signed, Brown – seemingly sceptical of the Yugoslav’s ability to cope with the English game from the start – gave him just four more chances to prove himself that season; preferring to let him go through his largely ineffective motions in the reserves.
The club’s onfield struggles that season ultimately ended in relegation*. However, mindful of both the transfer fee paid for him, as well as his high wages, Brown reinstated him into the team at the start of the 1981/82 season by giving Muzinic the left-back slot in the opening game at Rotherham. Norwich duly lost 4-1 and Muzinic did not start another game until November. He played a further four league games before being substituted in Norwich’s 3-1 loss at home to Luton three days after Christmas in what turned out to be his final league appearance for the club.
He remained at Carrow Road until the following summer, playing no further part in any first-team related activities or the end of season promotion celebrations. Brown had, by now, more than seen enough to realise that his signing had been a ghastly and very costly mistake. With no clubs willing to take Muzinic off Norwich’s hands, his contract was cancelled. Muzinic returned to Yugoslavia where becoming, at one point, the owner of a wine bar and restaurant in Brac (maybe purchasing it out of the proceeds of his signing on fee at Norwich?) as well as doing some scouting for Hadjuk Split; the club where he made his name.
No doubt he spent many a night at the bar of his restaurant telling a captivated audience all about his time playing in the top flight of English football. It would be interesting to know what he would have said.
In total, he made 23 appearances for Norwich, six of which came from the bench.
*Norwich have been relegated at the end of any season that has included or followed a club record signing on four occasions since their initial promotion to the top flight in 1972. Phil Boyer arrived for £145,000 in February 1974 (relegated at end of 73/74 season), Muzinic arrived for £350,000 in September 1980 (relegated at end of 80/81 season); Jon Newsome for £1million in the summer of 1994 (relegated at end of 94/95 season) and Dean Ashton, who cost £3million in January 2005 (relegated at the end of the 04/05 season).