It’s now over a quarter of a century since we took part in a game which will always be, for me, one of my all-time favourite Norwich games.
No Adrian Chiles or Andy Townsend fortunately, at least, in the case of the latter, in the commentary box. Townsend was, on that day, clad in the yellow and green of Norwich City – the club he seems to have trouble remembering he once played for.
“Listen, I’m just thinking here Clive whether, in my playing days at Southampton, Chelsea, Aston Villa, Middlesbrough and West Bromwich Albion, I might have just taken it first time there?”
Ah, Andy Townsend. Whatever will he find to say about Bosnia and Herzegovina versus Iran when ITV rock and roll their banter rich way to Salvador on June 25? Entertainment of the grisly kind guaranteed, with lots of references to “the big lad” up front for Iran and “Bosnia and Herzegovina’s tricky number ten” no doubt as the Jean-Paul Sartre of pundits whiles away another ninety minutes.
But, having said that, let’s be fair to Andy. He wasn’t a bad footballer.
Good enough for Dave Stringer to use him as the midfield pivot he built the rest of his team around for much of the 1988/89 season; one that saw us finish 4th in the league as well as reach the semi finals of the FA Cup. Norwich City’s greatest ever season? Possibly.
Those who will argue that this particular honour should go to Mike Walker’s 1992/93 side will point out the long period of time that his side sat atop the Premier League as evidence. However, the Stringer vintage of four years earlier didn’t do so bad when it came to being in and around the top of Division One either, climbing to 2nd after a 1-0 win over QPR at Carrow Road on September 10, and staying in the top two without a break until the following spring when an unexpected (yes, we were really that good…) home to defeat to Liverpool dropped us down to third.
Nearly seven months in the top two. Be under no illusions, Stringer had put together an exceptional Norwich team that season – and Townsend more than played his part.
One of the numerous ‘tests’ Norwich had to face that campaign was the trip to Millwall on January 22. Cold Blow Lane by name and nature – the rain fell, the wind blew and the temperature plummeted. It was all very well, critics argued, for Norwich to knock the ball around with Corinthian aplomb on the verdant green Xanadu that was Carrow Road – all sunshine, please and thankyous.
But this was Millwall. And Norwich wouldn’t like it up ‘em.
But, whilst a visit to The Den might have had the odd gritty moment, it was hardly mission impossible for visiting teams. When Millwall made their unlikely ascension into the First Division as Second Division Champions in 1988, their home league results against the sides that made up the rest of the top ten that season included only four wins – just one of those by more than one goal.
Their promotion was therefore not won on the backs of their vociferous home support and the perceived discomfort it gave visiting teams, but on the footballing ability of the team that John Docherty had put together.
And, whilst it’s true that having a reputation for hostility rather than hospitality to visiting teams, and their support, can give the home team a psychological advantage, it can also hinder them at times. Especially if your team doesn’t perform, or, as can happen, a team and, critically, a visiting player in particular finds himself motivated by the aggression and hate that comes from the enemy terraces.
We’ll be looking at just such a player shortly.
But back to Millwall. A team that was a lot more than just their intimidating home and support. Docherty had first come to prominence at Cambridge United, guiding them to 8th place in the Second Division in 1980, a season that saw them, at one point, unlikely promotion candidates themselves. Turning a footballing sows ear into a silk purse was what John Docherty did, and which, ultimately led him to the Den – initially as assistant to George Graham before being appointed as manager in 1986.
Docherty’s Millwall team that won the Division Two Championship in 1988, and took its (unwelcome for many) place at footballs top table, contained some very good players indeed – names like Teddy Sheringham, Tony Cascarino and Jimmy Carter, a later signing for both Liverpool and Arsenal.
Sheringham went onto win the Champions League during his time at Manchester United whilst Cascarino played for, amongst others, Celtic, Chelsea and Marseille in Ligue One. Young, talented, ambitious players who would reach the very top of their club professions, all starting out in their professional careers and determined to impress, having now been given the chance to do so at the highest level in the English game.
So Millwall were hardly going into their first ever campaign of top-level English football short on quality, especially with those jewels in their Cold Blow Lane crown being supplemented by decent and talented professionals like Terry Hurlock, Keith Stevens and Kevin O’Callaghan.
They had won Division Two on their playing merits, not because of their ground and reputation – and were more than capable of impressing, despite the complacent and lazy claims to the contrary made by the games ‘experts’. And impress they most certainly did.
By the time the clubs met at Carrow Road on September 24, Millwall had played four league games, winning three and drawing one – and were third in the table as a result. Indeed, the game at Norwich had an early season top of the table clash feel about it.
Norwich had also enjoyed a good start, winning all four of their opening fixtures – a best ever league opening – including a memorable 2-0 win at Newcastle (Dale Gordon and Robert Fleck, two of Dave Stringers own eager young tyros the goalscorers). That win meant that Norwich were the only club in the top flight to have a 100% record – a record that Millwall promptly blunted.
Goal-less at half-time, the game sprung into life early in the second-half when Ian Crook scored from a free kick – a trademark strike that Norwich fans were becoming familiar with. A minute later Millwall were back in the game, courtesy of Cascarino’s clinical volley. Norwich went ahead again on 73 minutes when Robert Rosario soared into the Norfolk skies to score his second of the season only for Millwall to equalise again within a minute. Substitute Carter, he that would later play for Liverpool and Arsenal, twinkled his way down the touchline, his precise cross being met by O’Callaghan – a sweet moment for the former Ipswich player who had spent the game being reminded of his origins by the Norwich crowd.
Millwall went one better the following week – their 3-2 home win against QPR taking them to the top of the table. In doing so they became the fifth team to lead the table that season but certainly the most surprising one – and that is from a list of other teams that included Norwich and Southampton!
Much of the Canaries good and prolonged form was due to the form and presence of one Robert Fleck. This was the former Rangers forward’s first full season in England and he was drawing a lot of attention to himself – not just for his prowess in and around the penalty area, but for the sheer joy in which he seemed to take in playing the game and winding up opposing players and fans.
As a consequence of this Norwich fans loved him and Flecky being Flecky loved them right back. It was a footballing match made in heaven and if he was never a prolific goalscorer – he went eleven games without scoring at one point that season – he was always involved and had a hand in most Norwich goals, either as provider, distracter or general nuisance.
He was an all-round talent and entertainer, deservedly rewarded with a place the Scotland squad that travelled to Italy for the 1990 World Cup Finals, thus becoming one of the select few Norwich players who have had such an honour whilst at the club.
Did Fleck’s relative goal drought get him down? An eleven game bare spell would have had most centre forwards resorting to any proposed solution in an attempt to resolve the problem, but if it bothered him no-one noticed. Dave Stringer continued to select him and he continued to play as only he knew, full of energy and vigour, an explosive and fiery talent who gave his all for the team.
As ever he was invariably involved in some way as the goals were, again, spread out amongst the Norwich team; a good habit with Andy Linighan, Trevor Putney, Andy Townsend and Malcolm Allen among the contributors. At the other end Fleck’s good friend, Bryan Gunn was having an inspired time of it himself in the Norwich goal.
They would, along with their team-mates, have been in no doubt about the challenge Norwich were facing at The Den. Sheringham and Cascarino were amongst the goals whilst Carter had made a first-team place his own; his fast and very tricky play from the flanks having already upset a few names and reputations. And, contrary to what people might have expected, they were still in the top half of the table – in seventh place – aware that a win could lift them to third, a place and two points behind second-placed Norwich.
So, just as it had been in the early weeks of the season, this late January clash also had a top of the table feel about it. It was to be a televised match – ITV were present in force with Brian Moore and Ian St John in place to narrate the Sunday afternoon top billing of the two unlikely leads.
ITV bosses may well have been worrying whether they could live up to it; the game coming a day after the sort of fixtures that the station, driven by ratings and advertising revenue, might have preferred – such as Arsenal’s 1-1 Highbury draw with Sheffield Wednesday or West Ham’s Upton Park loss to Manchester United, a 3-1 thriller. Alas, too late. The footballing nation sat back to watch the latest chapter in the lives of two of English footballs upstarts unfold.
Norwich had the perfect start after just two minutes. A corner was awarded, to be taken by Dale Gordon, and, as the Norwich side made their tactical moves in and around the penalty area, Brian Moore noted Andy Linighan, the large and uncompromising Norwich centre-half, take his place amongst the pending goal line melee, suggesting that Gordon might be looking to get a flick on from Linighan?
He was half right. Gordon’s corner was met and flicked on, but by Fleck – quite possibly the shortest player on the pitch – who threw the Millwall defence into a “we didn’t account for that” panic. And there was Ian Butterworth, positioned at the far post, to meet and rifle the ball back in and past Horne for the opening goal – his first ever for Norwich -amidst a Millwall penalty area that had seven players, plus the goalkeeper all looking for someone to blame. The vociferous Millwall hoards were momentarily (for about a second) shocked into silence.
Five minutes later it was 2-0. Phelan’s penalty box persistence won City another corner, which was again lofted in by Gordon, that was only partially cleared. It reached Linighan who, this time, chose to lurk on the edge of the penalty area. His fierce shot was fumbled by Horne with the advancing Fleck and Rosario pouncing and making the chance for Bowen to tuck away. No silence, however short, in response from the Millwall fans this time. Roars of anger instead and directed at the Norwich players as much as their own!
Suitably motivated, Millwall became the beasts of their nickname, striking back twice before half-time. It’s not pretty but it’s effective. Carter to Cascarino – 1-2. Then, just before half-time, Morgan, a mazy run, found Carter just inside the penalty area; his first time shot was hard, straight, true and flew high into Bryan Gunn’s net.
So, 2-2 with the pending half-time bringing relief to all. An exceptional game so far then, one living up to both teams reputations – Norwich neat and tidy, short passes and good at set pieces. Millwall fast and direct, utilising the pace of their wingers to great effect.
The second-half was like being a witness to the Alamo. Millwall breathed fire and brimstone with the Norwich defence almost permanently under siege. Time and time again Gunn came to the rescue, the compellingly brilliant performances from the Norwich keeper a stand-out feature of this game.
One save from Cascarino came from him defiantly throwing himself at the striker’s feet, the fierce shot cannoning off Gunn’s knees to safety. Moments later Hurlock hit a shot of such power and majesty that it was a goal from the moment he makes contact, but no. Again Gunn comes to the rescue, tipping the ball over the crossbar and away; Hurlock’s shot throwing him back down and into the netting, such is the fury with which it had been struck.
Norwich, you feel, would have been delighted at the point they still had. Their chances in the second half were seldom, a clever shot from Gordon that Horne tipped over the bar the nearest they came to scoring. But still Millwall advanced, ever onward, certain in their ability to win, and, in doing so, handing Norwich only their second away defeat of the season.
But, again, Norwich resist and this time, as Mike Phelan wins the ball, defence becomes offence as, in a flash, Norwich strike. Phelan’s pass into the box is only partially cleared by Salman and, as the ball falls, it drops at the feet of Fleck – by fate one of the best strikers of a volley in the game.
Flecky’s body movement is textbook as he strikes the ball, full on and seemingly in full flight as he does so – the ball hitting the back of the net at speed and in full view of the despairing Millwall fans behind the goal who react in the only way they know. By hurling every known insult to man at the happy figure celebrating in front of them.
The game and the glory is all Norwich’s. Fleck, the little wizard who had gone so long without a goal has conjured up a piece of magic and won the day, preserving the Canaries excellent away record. It was a game and a day made for a player who thrived in the hostile atmosphere within the Den. The calmness and precision with which Fleck delivered the shot to secure the win spoke volumes of his self-confidence as a player, as well as his complete insouciance to the sheer volume of noise and aggression that had surrounded him and his teammates that afternoon.
‘No-one likes us’, claimed the Millwall fans. ‘I don’t care’, was Flecks considered response. And how.
He was a player full of audacity – both in both game and personality. His performance, alongside that of the heroic Gunn in the Norwich goal exemplified the Norwich team throughout that season. It was a squad full of players who not only didn’t know how to lose, but, more importantly, knew how to win – as this game perfectly demonstrated.
The Canaries were a side on the up – but, even as they took the plaudits in the next day’s newspapers, there were still those waiting to see them fall, citing the pending visit of FA Cup giant killers Sutton United to Carrow Road the following weekend as when it might happen.
They would be disappointed… again.