So, Team Hughton has left the building.
The ins, outs, pros and cons of recent happenings at Carrow Road have been debated in a lively fashion ever since and will no doubt remain a focus of conversation amongst us all (as well as those who have previously had no interest whatsoever in the football club) for the remaining weeks of the season.
So I’m not going to add my voice to the fire today. Plenty of informed and worthy opinion is being offered without me having to add my own. I would however like to keep the theme of the last few days in mind with this week’s piece and, with the sacking of Chris Hughton in mind, look back at the final days of another of our previous managers and the eerily similar circumstances that ultimately led to his controversial departure from Norwich City Football Club.
The aftermath of Saturday’s defeat to West Brom led me to make parallels with a similar series of occurrences that happened during and after another fraught game and defeat at Carrow Road, one that occurred over four decades ago against Everton on 17 November 1973.
Having gone into the game on a run of just two wins in ten games, a poor run of form that had taken Norwich to within two points of a relegation place, the pressures demanded of Ron Saunders were beginning to build. If we think that top flight survival is a priority above all else only in modern day football, think on. It has always been the case. Relegation from the elite was as unthinkable a prospect for club boardrooms then as it is now – and for pretty much the same reasons.
Income would have been badly affected. So too pride and status; two values particularly precious and jealously guarded ones for two men – Geoffrey Watling and his relatively new successor as chairman, Arthur South.
Under their visionary and passionate leadership, the club’s financial long standing financial woes had been put to bed and, with the appointment of Archie Macaulay as their first manager, the club had really started to push on; a thrilling ride to an FA Cup semi-final, promotion and consolidation, plus success in the League Cup (the latter under Willie Reid but with a core of Macaulay’s players).
The two men had the twin vision, an obsession almost, of seeing Norwich promoted to the First Division whilst they were at the club. It took over a decade and the proverbial revolving door of player ins and outs, plus six managers to achieve. It was an elevated and privileged status that they were not going to easily relinquish.
Thus Ron Saunders would have been expected to deliver. He had arrived at the club as a fiercely motivated, ambitious and no-nonsense character from the lower divisions (sound familiar?) whose brief had been to drag the Canaries into the elite – period. This he had, eventually, accomplished at the third (and you suspect final as far as he would have been concerned) time of asking with a memorable Second Division title success in 1972.
Survival had followed during the club’s first ever campaign in the First Division, and with some memorable results, as well as an unexpected visit to Wembley in the League Cup Final. The problem, you suspect for Saunders at the end of that season was that he might have over-achieved. How do you follow that with a club on, as is the case today, limited resources and aspirations that have, as is also the case today, a clearly defined ceiling height?
In the case of the Canaries, we could not. The defeat against Everton – a side that contained Joe Harper whose £180,000 transfer fee was nearly four times the combined cost of the entire Norwich squad – saw the Canaries outclassed, even after them having a goal start. When the third Everton goal went in off the unfortunate Duncan Forbes with barely a minute left, the Carrow Road crowd – now accustomed to the likes of Leeds United, Liverpool and Manchester United rather than York City, Oldham Athletic and Orient – could take it no longer.
Blame for the own goal, the defeat, even the performance could not, and would not, be burdened on to the unfortunate Forbes. He had been trying manfully – and only as a captain can – to hold things together on the pitch but even he was suffering now. The own goal was the result of a comedic turn that put the seal on a woeful Norwich performance; perhaps their worse since promotion or even since Saunders had been appointed.
Large numbers of the Norwich crowd jeered at the end and cushions were peremptorily, and with some feeling, thrown onto the pitch from the crowd; an early echo of those yellow clappers that took a similar route on Saturday. There was a similar conclusion to follow.
For Arthur South, witnessing those blue cushions (blue?) sailing their rebellious arc onto the Carrow Road turf, it would have been a painful experience and one he wasn’t prepared to tolerate. Yes, the actions of the fans – normally amongst the most passive and non-demonstrative in the game – was unacceptable, but the very fact that fans who were normally so disinclined to rebel were now doing just that was even more unacceptable. As were the recent performances of the players who were, in South’s mind, paid handsomely for the privilege of representing Norwich and Norfolk.
He’d come into the job with the reputation as a straight-talker. Well now it was time for some straight-talking. South made his way out of the directors’ box and up to the boardroom, where he awaited the usual post-match arrival of his manager. Under Geoffrey Watling these had been pleasant affairs; football and life in general small talk amongst the board and their guests with Saunders and, occasionally, the opposing manager there as well.
This wasn’t going to be the case today.
What subsequently happened in the normally calm and rarefied confines of the Carrow Road boardroom shortly after the end of that match is only known to the few that witnessed it – some of whom, no doubt, would rather not have. The details behind the “explosive row” that took place can therefore only be conjecture, at least until such time that someone who was there tells the story. It is fair however to suppose that, upset by the defeat, its manner and the reaction of the fans after the match, South challenged Saunders on all matters, asking him, perhaps reasonably (although the manner of the asking was perhaps not) what the problem was and what he proposed to do about it?
More historical parallels with recent events.
South had, after all, experienced the eventual success of the club under Watling’s tenure and the popularity around the club, city and county that it had generated for Watling, both as the chairman of the football club and a man in general – including a Second Division title, a trip to Wembley and a successful first season in the top league. And now that all seemed to be falling apart – but under his tenure. He wasn’t prepared to accept that. However, neither was Saunders prepared to accept what was almost a public dressing down by his chairman.
His thoughts, like so many ‘proper’ football men, were that his job was to run the football side of things whilst the chairman looked after the finances – something which it is quite likely he reminded South of during their brief but fierce exchange of views. One of those acts was South’s decision to sanction the sale of the popular David Cross to Coventry – not one Saunders would have welcomed.
With both men equally strong of character and will, there was little chance either would back down and the damage that had been done was swiftly irreparable. For Saunders there was little option for him but to resign. He wouldn’t have been prepared to back down from the points he would strongly have been making and he most certainly would not have seen fit to apologise either. As far as he would have been concerned, there was nothing to apologise for.
It is extremely likely that in the eyes of Ron Saunders, South was in the wrong. Unfortunately, Sir Arthur South would have felt exactly the same way about Ron Saunders. The latter promptly repeated his desire to resign and departed the room and the club without, it is likely, even telling his players.
In normal circumstances of course, such incidents are part and parcel of any business – especially football clubs, when emotions can run high after a defeat. But there was no ‘cooling off’ period this time. Saunders had gone and even if he went on to regret the hastiness of his decision or had second thoughts – which is unlikely – South didn’t make an effort to persuade him to stay. The Ron Saunders era at Carrow Road was therefore suddenly, and with some acrimony, over.
Ron Saunders had been in charge of Norwich City for a little under four and a half years. His legacy to the club stands the test of time and will always be remembered and appreciated; something which remains the case to this day.
Saunders had brought some success and no little recognition to Norwich City, as well as being responsible for the purchase of several players, all of whom – just like him – are now etched in Canary folklore. Fifteen players joined the club during his tenure – amongst them names such as Graham Paddon, David Cross, Trevor Hockey and Colin Suggett, as well as the man who scored the club’s first top flight goal: Jimmy Bone. He left Carrow Road with his reputation intact and his name as an outstanding young (he was just 41) football manager enhanced by his achievements in Norfolk.
It was clear that, despite the nature of his departure from Norwich, he wouldn’t be out of work for long. This proved to be the case, with his acceptance of an offer from Manchester City to take over as their manager just five days later. The ambitious Saunders had, at last, given the opportunity to prove himself with a top club and was appointed before Norwich had even started interviewing possible replacements.
It is a tangled knot of events and circumstances that, in many ways, resembles what we have all seen and felt over the last few days. A manager under pressure, poor form, a bad result and display, visible protest, post-match boardroom confrontation and questioning, and the resultant departure of a manager who had, the previous season, done an outstanding job.
The consequent appointment of John Bond as Saunders’ replacement was not, ultimately, enough to save Norwich from relegation back to the Second Division at the end of that season.
Let us all hope, with that in mind, that the similarities between the departures of Ron Saunders and, over four decades hence, Chris Hughton have already come to an end.