The Norwich City “way”.
We’ve all heard it a thousand times. Heard it, read it, witnessed it eulogised. But what does it actually mean to you as a Norwich City supporter? Is it a well intentioned statement that describes a footballing philosophy?
Or is it a lazy and out of date cliché, one regularly trotted out as part of a general Norwich City checklist, those all important points that have, by law, to be included in any feature about our club.
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- Mention Delia Smith – check.
- Clip of Delia watching match from Directors Box – check. Light hearted quip optional but something along the lines of “I wonder if Delia had one of the pies at half time?” or “There’s Delia Smith. With her husband” are acceptable.
- Close up of Cathedral. Always good for a programme director with half an eye on doing the ‘Songs of Praise’ gig. Then zoom away to view of ground with Cathedral in background – check and double-check.
- Reference to our ‘perch’ – either ‘top of’ or ‘fallen from’, depending on clubs current circumstances – check (but make sure league position is established before kick-off).
- “They like to play good football, Norwich” – check.
Yep, there it is. Point five. There are many more, then and now of course – remember, for example, the obligatory statement that always used to follow once Gary Holt was in possession of the ball?
“Here’s Gary Holt for Norwich. He used to be a chef in the army”.
Do they trot that one out in Scotland whenever Falkirk are playing on TV? A clip of the immaculate Holty, clad in his best suit, exhorting his troops from the technical area.
“There’s Gary Holt, the Falkirk Manager. He used to be a chef in the army”.
I wonder if Mrs Holt greets him every morning in much the same familiar, lazy manner?
“Good morning my darling. Sleep well? Cup of tea? You used to be a chef in the army.”
But I’m getting distracted. Because this is about “The Norwich way” – as in, “…they like to play good football, Norwich”. That must be the ‘Norwich way’?
I certainly heard it said on more than one occasion last season whilst watching us on the small screen. It’s usually uttered doing an all too rare period of yellow and green possession; a hurried, almost casual aside from either the match commentator or his sidekick – one lobbed in to take up time whilst they scan their match programmes to see who the Norwich’s number 27 is. You can almost hear the agonised cry of the producer in Simon Brotherton or Gary Neville’s ears can’t you – a desperate plea for them to say something, anything…
“Ummm…errr…hmmmm, ah, got one….they like to play good football, Norwich.”
“Phew, we got away with that one chaps. Thankfully, Liverpool have now retained possession. As you were gentlemen, as you were.”
So there, in a roundabout way, do we have it. The fabled, much talked about “Norwich City way” is that we like to play good football.
When did our reputation for such a thing begin, what are its origins?
I would reckon it goes back to the days of John Bond. His was the unenviable task of following in the footballing footsteps of Ron Saunders; the manager who led Norwich City to the top flight of English football for the very first time in our (then) seventy year history. But not only that. Because, against all expectations, he not only kept us there at the end of that first season, he also took us to Wembley for the very first time into the bargain.
A Second Division Championship, top flight membership for the first time, survival and Wembley. Yet Ron is rarely at the top of anyone’s list of ‘Greatest Ever’ Norwich City Managers. Which seems an oversight. All three were, after all, massive achievements and ones that went totally against the sporting grain at the time.
We had, prior to that now increasingly distant Second Division Championship success spent eleven consecutive seasons grubbing about in the Second Division, promising very little and delivering even less; our finishing league positions in the five seasons prior to that win being 11th, 13th,9th (sixteen points behind Champions Ipswich Town, bet that hurt?), 11th and 13th.
Not exactly stirring stuff is it?
Indeed, and with very genuine respect to Bournemouth, what Saunders achieved with us in that 1971/72 season and in the year or so that followed is probably equivalent to someone doing the same with the Cherries next season; Premier League survival plus a Wembley Cup final for them into the bargain.
Yet Ron Saunders is rarely, if ever, lauded as a Norwich City great in the way that his successor John Bond is. Nor, for that matter, Ken Brown – yet Ken took us down twice!
Why is that, I wonder?
It can’t be because no-one is left to remember Ron’s Norwich! Any Norwich fan from their mid-to-late forties onwards is going to have memories of his managerial tenure, his players, the way his team played the game, so why aren’t there…
…but wait a moment, let’s rewind that last sentence a bit.
“…the way his team played the game.”
Is that it? Is that the reason why Ron Saunders is respected, admired almost for what he did during his time at Carrow Road but seems is nowhere near as loved as the likes of Bond, Brown, Dave Stringer, Mike Walker and Paul Lambert? Is it because of the football we played under him?
And that, no matter what this ‘Norwich way’ is, we didn’t practice it under Ron?
Norwich were, it is fair to say, a robust team under Ron’s tenure; one coached on a basis of work, work and then more hard work. They rarely clapped eyes upon something as peripheral to the game as a football until they were at least three weeks into pre-season training – and that would have been a medicine ball.
They did spend a lot of time in the fresh air mind, enjoying the sights and sounds of Mousehold Heath, a popular one being the noisy view of professional sportsmen throwing up after yet another bunny hop (as in repeatedly jumping forward rather than walking) to the top of the Heath in what were, more often than not, the lava-like conditions of a Norfolk summer in the early 1970s.
Ron’s players didn’t need heart monitors attached to their sweaty torsos to ascertain levels of performance. He could tell how fit they were by who was conscious and who was unconscious. Much easier.
Such a philosophy was personified in the way Ron’s Norwich played the game. They were as fit as the proverbial butcher’s dog. They were very lean, very keen and very mean. They ran hard, they tackled even harder. And, in Duncan Forbes, they had a captain who, in the manner of Monty Python’s famous Knight would shrug off the inconvenience of a punctured lung, fractured eye socket or broken nose by getting up and carrying on whist casually observing, “…tis’ but a scratch.”
They were, in effect, a team of hard men. All of them. Now I’ll grant you, Graham Paddon, all flowing blonde locks, bohemian looks and untucked shirt might have looked a bit of a fancy dan. But in a one to one with John Terry, I wouldn’t have fancied Terry’s chances at all.
The football therefore was fairly basic. Two big bastards at the back in the form of Duncan Forbes and Dave Stringer plus a mean bastard in attack in David Cross. Plus eight other big and mean bastards in and around them, including Kevin Keelan who in one match grew so weary of the attentions of a Northampton player by the name of Tommy Robson that he took matters into his own hands – tucking the ball away with one hand whilst knocking Robson out cold with the other.
Tough guys who really did play a man’s game. But it was hugely effective even if, in hindsight, it was not exactly what we now see referred to as the ‘Norwich way’; that preferred type of play that the club hierarchy are very keen on making the focal point of the entire footballing culture. A nostalgic throwback to the rather more cerebral passing game that is widely assumed to have been first introduced to the club under the management of John Bond.
If ‘kick the thing and run’ had been the Saunders mantra, then ‘pass and move’ was Bond’s somewhat more cerebral footballing approach; one that his successors, Ken Brown, Dave Stringer and Mike Walker were only too happy to perpetuate (not that any of them would have found it difficult with the type and calibre of players they had to work with).
Bond was richly blessed, as were we all, during his time at Carrow Road in having the likes of Martin Peters, Colin Suggett and Jimmy Neighbour, whilst Brown had Martin O’Neill, Mark Barham, Mike Channon and Kevin Drinkell. Stringer had Dale Gordon, Andy Townsend and Robert Fleck, whilst Mike Walker built his team around the unique and very special talents of Ian Crook.
With players like that to call upon, no wonder those managers were able to preach a gospel of fine football, pass and move, “get it and give it”.
Well now it would seem, we want to get it back and, with that, the much debated issue about the other appointment that the club will shortly be looking to make, that of a technical director, a position that you would think will be ring fenced by the Canaries hierarchy – for managers may come and go, but the club creed, as taught and passed down by the technical director lasts forever.
Stability in other words. Consistency. He and his message are there for the long term and he will outlive any of those more fleeting members of club staff. Like managers. And players.
And that would make sense because consistency and stability works.
Between the date of John Bond’s appointment for example, and the departure of Mike Walker, those four different Norwich City managers had, in total, over two decades in which to build their teams and preach their footballing philosophy. Twenty one years, four managers.
Yet, in the subsequent two decades since Walker left the club for Everton we have had, including caretaker or interim appointments, eighteen different men in charge at Carrow Road, seven of which (if you include Neil Adams) have been in the position on a temporary basis.
That’s works out at nearly a manager a year, every year, over the last two decades. And that is shocking.
What the club has lost more than anything, especially since the launch of the Premier League in 1992 is consistency and stability. And it is those two factors which I suggest are those that would and should reflect the ‘Norwich way’ more than a type or style of play – because surely, please, good football and results best come from a side with a settled management team and a settled squad of players?
When, for example, we finished fourth in Division One under Stringer at the end of the 1988/89 season, he’d called upon the services of just eighteen different players; nine of whom started in at least thirty league games. Eighteen different players over a whole season of 38 league plus 9 cup games. No wonder we had such a good season.
The squad was settled, the manager left to get on with things. In sharp contrast to that, we’d already used just one player fewer than that, seventeen in total, after just three Premier League games this season.
And, lest we forget, take the disastrous 2008/09 season of Roeder and Gunn, a total of 33 players used during that campaign, fourteen of whom were loanees with ten of that entire total playing in ten or less games. No managerial or coaching consistency, no selection consistency and no footballing consistency.
No wonder we struggled. We were footballing bric-a-brac, a bizarre collection of the uninterested, unmotivated and couldn’t be bothered.
An epithet which could well be applied to some as regards last season.
So yes, let there be a “Norwich way”. And let it reflect and pay tribute to the legacy of managers, players and teams from years gone by. But don’t build it from sand; don’t assume that the immediate way ahead is simply the way that we play the game and dictate that is how it has to be.
Because it isn’t and it shouldn’t be.
What really matters is that consistency. And yes, that takes time and patience. But, as we have seen, if it is given, the results and successes that it begets, can be encouraging. Get that bit right and the football we all want to see will surely follow?