Remember when we clinched promotion at Fratton Park?
No, not David Fox’s sublime cross and Simeon Jackson stooping to conquer from same.
I’m going back a little but further than that. Nearly four decades to be precise and our last away game of the 1974/75 season.
Remember that one? I don’t doubt, for one moment, that there aren’t some MyFootballWriter readers out there who were at that game on that memorable spring day, and who were celebrating a promotion won on the South Coast with as much vim and vigour as sons and daughters will have done at the same ground nearly four decades later.
Norwich had slipped out of the First Division at the end of the 1973/74 season with little more than a pathetic whimper – if that. The scene had very much been set, with relegation hailed as a good fellow, if not exactly well met, after that infamous 3-1 Carrow Road defeat to Everton in November 1973.
Cushions thrown onto the pitch in protest, boardroom rows, the angry departure of a once revered manager as a result. Good times? Not.
John Bond stepped aboard the yellow and green Titanic to try and salvage what already seemed a lost cause, but the writing was on the wall. Post-Everton, the club’s record was sixteen games played with just two wins to its name and a place in the relegation zone along with West Ham United and Birmingham City.
Things looked grim.
Now football and its folk love a fairy story and it would have been typical of that John Bond side if, upon talking over that stricken Norwich City side in the bleak early winter of 1973, it had cast away the ghost of Ron Saunders by sweeping in a brave vision of a Canary future. Imagine it… games won, goals scored and deserved plaudits earned all round as a team reborn stormed up the division, the fear of relegation all but forgotten by Easter.
Typically, teasingly, there were signs of a renaissance. Successive wins over QPR and Sheffield United in February lifted Norwich off the bottom of the table but, frustratingly, the team seemed to take two steps back for every one taken forward.
A home match against Derby County following those two wins illustrated the point, City might now have been looking the part but were they also becoming a little blasé with regard to their feats of recovery?
Derby made unseasonal hay at Carrow Road, racking up a 3-0 lead and eventually winning 4-2, a victory that unmasked the deeper malaise that was, despite Bonds effervescent leadership, still at the club.
The end for Norwich came with two games to play, Ted MacDougall’s second minute penalty earning a win against Burnley. But it wasn’t enough, with results in other games sending the Canaries down.
Deflated, they ended the season with a further two defeats, ending it in bottom place and the situation the Norwich board had sought to avoid when appointing Bond had come about regardless.
The end-of-season statistics told a harrowing story. Between them, Saunders and Bond had used 32 different players – a ridiculously high number that vividly demonstrates just how much the side had been changed over the campaign.
Of that total, 12 players had featured in six or fewer* matches with the club’s away form – just one win and a dozen goals scored – further evidence that they were, quite simply, out of their depth.
It was obvious that Bond would need to combine a serious attempt at promotion again the following season with a thorough overall of the clubs playing squad. There was a real possibility that, with an emphasis having to be put on the latter, the team might have to settle for a season of consolidation. Not what the club, fans, and, especially the new manager would have wanted.
And certainly not the board.
John Bond therefore had a colossal task on his hands – yet he found the challenge a compelling one, maybe one he knew was inevitable even as he accepted the job. He hadn’t been frightened to make the changes needed.
His starting XI for the last game of the 1973/74 season included only three players – Keelan, Stringer and Suggett – who had started the first game under Saunders, although, admittedly, Forbes would probably have been a fourth had he been available.
A further three players made their debuts for the club in the opening game of the 1974/75 season against Blackpool; Colin Sullivan, Peter Morris and Tony Powell.
Powell, signed from Bond’s old team Bournemouth joined a clutch of ex-Bournemouth players and staff who had already swapped Dean Court for Carrow Road.
After Bond had arrived at Norwich, he got three of his coaching staff to join him at Norwich: Ken Brown, John Sainty and Fred Davies.
There were also five Bournemouth players: his son Kevin; John Benson; Tony Powell; Mel Machin and Phil Boyer; all teaming up again with Ted MacDougall who had rejoined Bond at Norwich following unhappy spells at Manchester United and West Ham.
The 1974/75 season began encouragingly enough. After an opening day victory over Blackpool -Bournemouth ‘old boys’ MacDougall and Powell both scoring in a 2-1 win – Norwich won three, drew five and lost only one of their following nine league games.
It was a satisfactory opening quarter of the season in which the only defeat had been a surprising 4-0 reverse at Fulham. That had been a performance and result which evoked too many memories of the previous season, and a professional disaster for reserve keeper Roger Hansbury, drafted in for his debut in the absence of Keelan.
Hansbury was dropped, along with Steve Grapes, for the next game, a battling 0-0 draw at Sunderland which lifted Norwich back into second place with the club’s biggest game of the season – the home clash against leaders Manchester United – fast approaching.
Tommy Docherty’s convalescing side were now light years away from the massively successful club they had been – and would become again – following their relegation alongside Norwich the previous season.
Where once strode the giants of the game – Charlton, Law, Best et al – the current team boasted the more honest attributes of Alex Forsyth, Stewart Houston and Arnold Sidebottom.
United were no longer big hitters, neither was this game an opportunity for Norwich to turn giant killers again – it was just two recently relegated sides looking to see tangible progress for their efforts since the dreaded drop.
Norwich’s subsequent 2-0 victory, both goals coming from Ted MacDougall (who had scored for United against Norwich two seasons earlier) affirmed their right to be regarded as genuine promotion contenders, reinforcing the belief for anyone who was at Carrow Road that day that the duo’s promotion was almost a given; the only question remaining being that of which club would be promoted with them?
Good times? Most definitely.
Bond had, as per his remit, completely transformed the football club and it continued to show for the rest of the season with the club also reaching the League Cup Final for the second time in three years where promotion rivals, Aston Villa, now managed by Saunders, would be the opponents.
That game, despite the club’s excellent league form, was a huge disappointment. Norwich were, to be brutally frank, woeful. Quite a game to choose for your first really bad performance of the season.
Luckily for the Canaries, Villa didn’t exactly do themselves or supporters proud either and only won the game via a penalty that Ray Graydon prodded home at the second attempt. Final whistle blown, Norwich slunk off to the dressing room whilst Villa paraded the trophy with the happiest man in the stadium (not that he would show it) being Saunders; triumphant at the third attempt and against a former club, as well as, tellingly, a former chairman.
In time honoured fashion, Norwich were now able to “concentrate on the league”.
By the time they met Sunderland the following week, the Canaries had slipped to fourth in the table. This didn’t mean that the alarm bells were ringing at Carrow Road, but they were on stand-by, especially with Sunderland in second place and, with a win, going four points ahead of them.
It wasn’t exactly a must-win game, but it was certainly a not-lose one. And Norwich didn’t, a 0-0 draw the inevitable consequence of a bad tempered and tense game between promotion chasers that saw the normally placid Boyer sent off.
A second trip to Manchester United, still the league leaders followed; the fourth encounter between the sides that season. It ended 1-1 but Norwich, with Martin Peters making his debut, should have won with a MacDougall effort cleared off the line.
The day ended with United clear at the top on 47 points, Villa and Sunderland on 42 in joint second, with Norwich still in fourth and needing a run of goals and wins to force their way past the late season favourites.
Five wins from their next seven league games meant that Norwich had done enough to have the season’s outcome firmly in their own hands – a destiny shaped by rivals Sunderland surprisingly losing at Oxford United.
The Canaries all but sealed the deal with a wonderful performance in a 3-0 win over Nottingham Forest at Carrow Road on April 19, Peters opening the scoring with Boyer netting twice. This win meant that a season’s denouement depended on other results going the Canaries way – providing they fulfilled their side of the bargain.
A poor and struggling Portsmouth side were set to play the fall guys whilst, over in Birmingham, a win for Villa against Sunderland would ensure promotion for Saunders and his side.
How ironic that Saunders, who had taken Norwich up two seasons earlier could now help get them promotion again. There was, of course, no doubt at all that Villa would win. They did, 2-0, and Saunders was a hero again, different City and team, same result.
Fratton Park now became the stage for City to stage a second farewell in three years to Division Two and they did so in some style, playing a fast, direct attacking game that mirrored the philosophy of their manager: get the ball, keep it, pass, move and create chances.
The first was hardly textbook – a pass from Sullivan through to MacDougall who played a high ball into the Pompey area towards strike mate Boyer, only for the latter to be flattened by an aerial challenge from Eoin Hand. Admirable as Hand’s clearance was, it only went as far as the swiftly advancing Mick McGuire who headed it straight back and past Phil Figgins; making only his second appearance for Portsmouth.
Did City think that was promotion in the bag? You would hope not. Shortly before half time Portsmouth won a free-kick on the left hand side of the Norwich penalty area, and, despite the best efforts of the Norwich fans who were hemmed in behind Kevin Keelan’s goal to put him off, Norman Piper’s shot went very close – hitting the post before rebounding back into play.
Maybe the Norwich fans had put him off?
With ten minutes left, Norwich had their second – a Suggett cross finding Peters, as only he could, ghosting in at the far post to head home.
And, ten minutes later it was three – MacDougall brushing off Hand to play the ball to the ever fizzing Suggett who showed he could play a pass through the middle as well as from the wing, his measured effort finding Boyer who advanced forward before stroking the ball home to confirm the victory, two points and promotion.
The player ‘count’ for this season had been 20 in the league – a full team (plus substitute) fewer than the ludicrously high figure for the previous campaign. More consistency had meant better results, one of the golden rules of the game.
Of the 42 league games Norwich played that season, nine different players had played in at least 35 of them with MacDougall and Boyer scoring over half of the side’s total goals in the league.
In addition to that, the acquisition of Peters, still only 31, had been a masterstroke. With a World Cup winners medal acquired less than a decade earlier he was more than ready to prove himself at the very highest level again and there was every reason for optimism ahead of the club’s return to the big time.
Against that was the fact that three of the five core members of Bond’s defence weren’t getting any younger. Keelan, Forbes and Stringer were all on the ‘wrong’ side of 30 and, although they were all doubtless capable of continuing to serve the club and at this highest of levels, there would come a time when the manager would have to think about replacing them.
Bond had, as expected, delivered. But he had, as yet, only matched what Saunders had done. The real test for him would be keeping the Canaries in the top division.
In effect, his job had only just begun.
*Jim Blair, Geoff Butler, Paul Cheesley, Ian Davies, Steve Govier, Billy Kellock, Paul Kent, Neil O’Donnell, Clive Payne, Andy Rollings, Peter Silvester and Les Wilson.