Centre forwards excite people.
Of all the players in a football team, the one that the majority of fans talk about and look forward to seeing in action is the man in the number nine shirt – still the squad number of choice for most players of a goalscoring persuasion in these days of squad numbers and variations of name or nickname on the back of the aforementioned garment.
It’s one of the numbers that says what the job is.
Number nine. 9. He does what it says on the shirt. He gets goals.
We’ve had a few at Carrow Road. Oh yes, we certainly have. In fact we’ve probably been spoilt over the years.
Jack Vinall, Alf Ackerman, Ralph Hunt, Terry Bly, Ron Davies, David Cross, Phil Boyer, John Deehan, Iwan Roberts….
A fine and noble collection garnished over the years, anyone of whom, I am sure we would happily take a modern version of in our squad for next season. Indeed, the thought of Ron Davies, at his powerful and merciless peak making hay at the expense of Championship defences next season is a tantalising one to be sure.
We all hang our yellow and green hats on goalscorers at Carrow Road. And unashamedly so. I’m sure that yes, if Bobby Moore had played for us when he was at the peak of his powers, similarly Bryan Robson or Sol Campbell, we’d have all given them due respect and recognition at the time. Of course we would. But the real adulation, the songs and the devotion would have remained the preserve of the lesser lights in their respective teams – a Peter Silvester, a Deehan or a Roberts.
That, as Bruce Hornsby would have opined, is just the way it is.
With all of that adulation however, comes a strict caveat.
Because as far as that adulation is concerned, the love and devotion that can only exist between a man in a yellow shirt and several thousand more men and women in almost identical ones, it’s got to be earnt – it doesn’t come as standard.
Thus it doesn’t really matter who the player in question is – their former club, their reputation in the game, the achievements that they have to their name already. In fact that all means nothing.
Because, and rightly so, if a new player arrives at Carrow Road, any new player, then he has to prove, all over again, that he is worthy of the shirt, the number on it and the long legacy that he is becoming part of in doing so.
The canvas is clean, clear and bright. Paint your name on it.
Some do from the start – indeed, they don’t as much write their names in glorious goalscoring introduction as throw the whole tin of paint at the canvas in the manner of a footballing Jackson Pollock. Wham, bang, thankyou ma’am.
Take Leon McKenzie for example. He made his debut against Ipswich Town at Portman Road, some introduction. And some impression as well. Two goals scored, a headline stealing performance and one that was enough to take Norwich to the top of Division One on that December afternoon – a place they never relinquished from then until the end of that season; McKenzie ending it as the club’s second highest league goalscorer with nine in total from 18 appearances.
Leon is now long gone. But the song about him and his achievements that day are remembered and celebrated to this day.
Other newcomers are slow burners. Hesitant footballing dabs are made at the canvas, uncertain and laboured, like an expensive firework that doesn’t go off.
Take Iwan Roberts for example. He came, courtesy of £900,000 the club didn’t have, six foot plus of ginger goalscoring gristle with an impressive CV that included a half century of strikes in 142 games for Huddersfield Town and twelve in 33 for Wolves. So he knew where the goal was. And, more importantly, he knew how to take the knocks, how to hold the ball up and bring others into play. So he’d been here, been there and done quite a bit.
It’s just that it took a little while for him to do anything in particular at Carrow Road.
Iwan made his debut for us against his old club on 9 August 1997, a game that is now remembered as the one that saw the then 17 year old Robbie Keane make his debut for Wolves. Two goals from Keane and three points for Wolves later and we knew why they’d been happy to sell us Iwan.
Keane started that season as he meant to go on. But Iwan struggled. Six league games and no goals came his way. He made 29 league starts in an injury interrupted season, scoring just five goals in the process. Such was, however, the paucity of goalscorers at the club that campaign that he still ended it as our second highest scorer in the league, eight behind Craig Bellamy and one ahead of Neil Adams, Adrian Forbes and Chris Llewellyn.
Thus the jury was very much out for Iwan Roberts at that time – indeed it was out, down the road and out of sight across the neighbouring border. So distant in fact, that the Hubble telescope would have been needed to see exactly how great a distance had been travelled since his less than auspicious debut.
Yet Iwan had still scored more goals than one of his Canary colleagues that season. Robert Fleck had, in 27 league appearances, only scored two goals, a poor return by any standards, most of all his own and enough to see him depart for Reading where, in delicious coincidence, he and Roberts faced each other on that campaign’s final day.
Yet, for all the disappointment and frustration of his last season in a Norwich shirt, Fleck remains a Canary legend and rightly so for what he had achieved at the club before those final, frustrating days.
The question with regard to Roberts was a simple one. Could he become another Fleck? Or would he join the not so hallowed ranks of big money striking disappointments, a rather undistinguished list that included Dean Coney and Darren Beckford?
Cue the arrival at Carrow Road of Bruce Rioch.
Rioch is one of the most understated and least talked about managers in the clubs history. Indeed, it’s often easy to forget that he was ever here at all. Yet it could all have been so different, especially considered the calibre of players he had at his disposal during the 1998/99 season.
Look at the start we made under him that campaign: four wins from the opening five games of that campaign, one that has been equalled, just the once, in the fifteen league seasons since then*, but never beaten.
One of those games was the 4-2 win over QPR on 8 August 1998, a match that, remarkably, saw four goals, three of them for the Canaries, scored before ten minutes of the game had elapsed. Rioch’s team that day was a potent mix of eager youth and calm experience, the likes of Peter Grant (a half-decent player whatever anyone thought of him as a manager), Craig Fleming and Matt Jackson seamlessly fitting in alongside young tyros Andy Marshall, Darren Kenton, Craig Bellamy, Chris Llewellyn, Darren Eadie and Keith O’Neill.
A memorable game plus performance to go with it. And eight goals scored in just three league games. And no wonder. With players like Eadie, O’Neill and Bellamy to choose from, it was a striker’s delight, one which Roberts could only, surely, benefit from?
He’d been on the bench that day, his first chance of the season, one given to him by Rioch only after his new manager had deemed it necessary to have a ‘quiet word’ with his expensive, misfiring striker that pre-season.
It’s one that Iwan recalls in his book, All I Want For Christmas, admitting that: “That first season had been a nightmare for me. I was overweight…really sluggish and slow…I got loads of stick from the fans…”
Rioch’s words did the trick and, whatever else anyone might think of that most uncelebrated of Norwich managers, it’s clear his influence and guidance helped turn Roberts around and made him the player he became, that and the great reputation he has now amongst Norwich fans.
Iwan ended that season with 23 goals in all with Bellamy not so far behind on 19. The fact that the next highest goalscorers that season were a quartet of players all on four goals, one of whom was Paul Dalglish, is probably explanation enough as to why Rioch’s team never fully realised its undoubted potential; that and a woeful run of eleven home wins without a win.
One of those was a 3-4 defeat to Port Vale, a result and performance that saw one disgruntled home fan attempting to throw his shirt at Rioch in response to the defeat, one that ended play-off hopes in a season that had gone from hopes of automatic promotion, to a certain place in the play offs to, again, mid-table mediocrity.
As it was, the Canaries seven wins from their 23 home games was the same as Oxford United and Bristol City – both of whom were relegated at the end of that season.
But at least, at least it saw the emergence of Iwan Roberts as the type of player that we’d all hoped he would be for Norwich, maybe even more than that. And certainly one of those number nines in a yellow and green shirt that you could, as I wrote earlier, happily hang your Canary hat upon.
Now, sixteen seasons on, a generation in football terms, we find ourselves in a similar position with a new manager and a new centre-forward ready to lead us into a new campaign.
Neil Adams is, admittedly, a known quantity – both as a player, coach and, albeit in a temporary capacity, a manager. And, popular a figure as he has been, the knives will very swiftly be unsheathed if he does not live up to many people’s expectations from the beginning of next season with some critics suggesting that he should have only ‘ten to fifteen games’ to prove himself the right man for the job.
Reasonable or ridiculous? That’s a whole different argument and not what this piece is about. But he will, regardless, feel that pressure, that expectation from day one of the new season.
As will the man entrusted to be the latest to wear the number nine shirt at Carrow Road, the latest in the line, some good, some poor, some quickly forgettable, to follow in the thrall of Roberts.
The man with the number 9 on his shirt in the 2014/15 season will be, like Roberts, a new boy, in this instance, Kyle Lafferty, once of Burnley and Rangers and now the man trusted with leading the line from August.
Lafferty will, as every single striker the club has ever bought, be under close scrutiny from the very beginning and you can only hope that he is able to hit the ground running and score his first goals for the club as early as possible – preferably and very hopefully, in that very first game against Wolves.
It has shades of the season opener for us and Iwan back in 1997, the day when the visiting teams striking debutant made all of the headlines. Let’s hope the visiting teams striking debutant makes as compelling an opening day performance this time around.
Good luck Kyle. And remember, if it doesn’t start as well as you, I, or anyone might like it – just work hard and think of Iwan… the eventual legend.
*The 2001/02 season.