One of the casualties of David Moyes’ ill fated tenure with Manchester United was a man who, in the dim but not so distant past, wore our number one shirt with distinction.
He had first come to the attention of the soccer watching nation in 1978 when, as a far from precocious (how could you be under the steely eye of Brian Clough?) 18 year old, he won a League Cup winners medal with Nottingham Forest; stepping into their first team in the competition in place of the cup-tied Peter Shilton.
As good as he was, even at that age, the ambitious Christopher Charles Eric Woods knew that, with Shilton a record signing – and who at 28 was yet to reach his peak – he was never, barring injury or suspension, going to be anything other than cover at The City Ground.
Indeed, Clough’s near worship of Shilton at that time was adroitly summed up when, asked to compare him to his then rival for a place in the England team, Ray Clemence. Clough drolly observed, “’Shilton was head and shoulders above Clemence in every aspect of goalkeeping, it was the biggest insult to Shilton to alternate between the two”- a reference to Ron Greenwood’s decision to switch between the two keepers for England games during his time in charge of the national squad.
Needless to say, even with two quality keepers to choose from, Clough wasn’t going to mimic Greenwood – the man who took the job Clough had believed was his for the asking. If only the FA had asked him and alternate between the imperious Shilton and Woods. Which meant one of them would have to leave.
Had that been the case today of course, Woods would, as a young and exceptionally promising talent, be sent out on loan by his parent club; spending one, two, maybe three seasons, as has been the case with Chelsea’s Thibaut Courtois at Atletico Madrid.
However, the loan-system back in the late 1970s was still used primarily for its original purposes – to enable a club to recruit a player in a hurry to cover for suspension or injury, and nominally for no more than five to ten games. This meant that if they were not prepared to play him, which they clearly were not, Forest had no option other than to cash in on Woods; QPR winning the race for him. They pipped a legion of other clubs, including the Canaries, to his signature for around £250,000 – a not inconsiderable sum for a teenager who had yet to make a first team appearance in the league.
Woods commenced the 1979/80 season as first choice at Loftus Road yet, halfway through the subsequent campaign and shortly after playing in a 2-1 win at Bolton Wanderers (watched by just 6,315 hardly souls) on 19 December, lost his place in the side to John Burridge who proceeded to stay in the team for all bar one of the remaining games of the season. It seemed that, in a side that was strong on youth and potential but maybe a little lacking in experience and nous, QPR manager Terry Venables preferred those qualities that he unquestionably saw in Burridge, having also had the charismatic keeper with him at Crystal Palace.
Unsurprisingly, Venables was initially reluctant to risk losing his rising star, much as he wanted to put his faith, for the short term at least, in Burridge.
Luckily for Venables, a goalkeeping shortage at Norwich, one of the clubs who had originally coveted Woods, meant that he was able to loan the youngster out for their remaining ten games in the First Division. That situation had been precipitated by the uncertain form of Clive Baker, Norwich’s woes enhanced when their preferred number one, Roger Hansbury, due to move to Hong Kong that April anyway, suddenly found himself stricken with jaundice.
All of the loan boxes had therefore been ticked – Norwich needed a goalkeeper whilst Venables wanted to keep Woods playing and happy without necessarily losing him permanently. Woods duly signed for the Canaries on loan on 12 March 1981, going on to make his debut two days later in the league game against Wolverhampton Wanderers.
Sadly for Woods and Norwich, it wasn’t the most auspicious of debut: the Canaries ending that afternoon on the end of a 3-0 defeat in a game that also featured Steve Walford in a Norwich shirt for the first time – the ex-Arsenal centre half stepping in for Phil Hoadley.
Woods did however distinguish himself in that game by saving a Wayne Clarke penalty and proceeded to keep a clean sheet in his and the club’s next game, their first for eleven matches, in the 2-0 win over Middlesbrough. That game saw recently appointed Canaries football consultant Joe Royle scoring both goals in the sort of hard working and gritty win a club troubled by relegation would have been expected to put in – one that would, without doubt, raised hopes amongst the Norwich support that relegation (they’d been one from bottom prior to the Middlesbrough game) might be avoided.
Four wins in Norwich’s next six league fixtures (with a further three clean sheets for Woods into the bargain) raised hopes even higher, and, after a 1-0 win over Ipswich Town on 20 April, Norwich were in 17th place, as high as they had been in the table since the previous November. The Canaries were now two points clear of the relegation places with their final game, against already relegated Leicester City at Carrow Road, fully expected to be the one that confirmed the Canaries top flight membership for another season.
Which is exactly what the much anticipated win would have done. However, with the pressure off his young side, Jock Wallace sent Leicester out to enjoy themselves which they duly did, going 2-0 up in just over 20 minutes, much to the shock of a near 26,000 crowd who had assembled for the game in party mood. And, although Mick McGuire and Justin Fashanu goals brought Norwich level, the scores in other games meant that a point was not going to be enough and, consequently and painfully for all those present, Norwich’s constant pressure on the Leicester defence left their own back four hopelessly exposed to the counter-attack.
Melrose duly capitalised again, sealing his hat trick late on, the result meaning that Norwich were relegated, two points shy of Brighton and safety.
It was the culmination of a frenetic introduction to senior football for Woods, still only 21. He’d played alongside the likes of Viv Anderson, Kenny Burns, Martin O’Neill and John Robertson in Forest’s League Cup Final success against Liverpool, keeping what would become a characteristic clean sheet in both the original game and replay. No mean feat when you consider the Liverpool side of the time included Messrs. Dalglish, Case, Heighway and McDermott.
He’d followed that by becoming first-team keeper at QPR and under Venables at that (Brian Clough and Terry Venables, how’s that for your first two managers in the game?), expected, at Loftus Road, to dominate his defence and bawl out, if necessary, some of the wise old heads who played in front of him at that time – David McCreery, Steve Wicks and a certain Glenn Roeder included.
He’d then overcome the shock of being dropped by moving up a level to play for Norwich in a relegation struggle, only to see both his and the club’s efforts to escape the drop thwarted by defeat in the last game of the season.
Some baptism. And some goalkeeper.
Ken Brown had seen more than enough of Woods in those last ten games to know he was a player he wanted to build a promotion winning team around. However, even if QPR were to sell, would Norwich, recently relegated, be able to afford the fee? And would Woods court interest from clubs at a higher level, one of which, at the time, was rumoured to be Arsenal?
It was perhaps more in hope than expectation therefore that Norwich made an offer of just £225,000 to QPR for Woods once his loan spell had expired – less than QPR had paid for him in the first place. It was, however, enough to seal his signature on a permanent contract.
The signing turning out to be quite a coup for Ken Brown who saw his faith in Woods rewarded the following season as he played in everyone of the Canaries 42 league games as we eased our way back to the First Division with a third place finish – despite a shocking opening game at Millmoor on 29 August that saw recently promoted Rotherham United* saunter their way to a 4-1 win – despite Greig Shepherd’s 7th minute opener for the Canaries.
Woods made a total of 267 appearances for Norwich, one of the highpoints of his time at Carrow Road being the 1985 League Cup final. Norwich were relegated at the end of that season as well, but, as they had a few years previously, the club’s board kept their faith in Ken Brown, just as, critically, his players did.
Woods chose to stay at Carrow Road despite relegation and, along with Dave Watson, played a full role in Norwich’s 1985/86 Second Division title win, one that saw him concede just 37 goals in 42 league games – a superb achievement.
He moved to Rangers for £600,000 in July 1986, a move that no-one could really begrudge, his place in Norwich side eventually going to Bryan Gunn who joined the club from Aberdeen that November-after, ironically, seeing his own proposed move to Rangers that summer thwarted by Woods’ own move to Ibrox Park.
One Canary giant out, another in – and a rich goalkeeping line in yellow and green maintained.