Part Two of Ed’s interview with Robert Fleck…
You were obviously coached and brought up to play the ‘right’ way at a huge club in Rangers, one that offered as good an apprenticeship for young footballers as any in Europe could offer – did you think yourself pretty much the finished article, or did you improve even more as a player whilst you were at Norwich?
“Well, you can agree or disagree on that one. I’d come from a big club, and had already played in a team containing some greats – Ally McCoist, Chris Woods, Terry Butcher, Trevor Francis, Ray Wilkins. All exceptionally good players, so I was, remember, already playing at a very high standard when I joined Norwich. Mind you, when I came down here, I was playing alongside and against some very good players. Alan Hansen – I remembered playing against him when he was at Partick Thistle!
“So yes, I had to improve – but did Norwich improve me? Playing with and against great players. Maybe they did. Of course, I eventually moved on from Norwich, but it’s what I wanted at the time. I would have left the previous year and there was talk of me going to one of four or five different clubs. But I ended up promising Dave Stringer and Robert Chase that I wouldn’t leave, and that I’d stay for one more (1991/92) year. But it was always known, to them, that I’d be leaving at the end of that season. It wasn’t the best of seasons for the club, especially given what they’d achieved before in terms of league finishes.
“And I didn’t have a particularly good season either. People forgot all of the good years I’d previously had with Norwich! But I was always going to leave. I went down to London to talk to Tottenham and Chelsea. I met with Terry Venables at Tottenham first, but I was never going to join them, I only went there and met with him out of courtesy. In my mind, I was always going to join Chelsea. They’d asked Norwich about me the previous year – I was on holiday and got a call, ‘Chelsea are after you!’ I then spoke to Robert Chase and he said ‘no’, so I agreed to that one final year.
“But Chelsea became the club I wanted to join. I went to speak with them that following summer, the day after I’d seen Venables, sat and met with Ken Bates. I knew I wanted to sign for them; it was a case of ‘where do I sign?’ I don’t regret it.
“It seemed to me to be absolutely the best move I could have made at the time. I guess people have since thought it was a bad move for me as I didn’t work out quite as well as had been expected, but it was the right choice to make and I have never regretted making it.
“Given the choice again, I’d still sign for Chelsea. I don’t regret anything. I was lucky to play alongside some great players there – big Mick (Harford), Tony Cascarino, Spenny (John Spencer). They’d all come along just before me, I arrived shortly before the start of the season, so it was a bit of a rush at the beginning. Ian Porterfield was the manager who signed me, Don Howe was his assistant.
“Perhaps Don was the problem for me? His philosophy was that you defend from the front, maybe not the game I’d been used to. I mean, I was doing OK, and, by Christmas, I’d scored a few goals – and I was never a prolific goal scorer – but I was up there with the assists, indeed, I had more assists than Dennis Wise, and that’s a hell of achievement, because what a great player he was!
“So, maybe my game was improving now – a different way of playing, new team mates. I thought I would progress and become a better player.
“But Ian and Don got the sack, and after that it was always a struggle, for me and for my game. Dave Webb came in, decent, honest guy; I went to see him and he was straight with me, he said, ‘Robert, I want to play with the big men up top, Mick Harford and Tony Cascarino – but I will need you, you’ll get used. I said I’d do my best, and I wanted to, like I said, he was a good, honest man.
“In one game though (Robert laughs at the memory!) I think it was against Blackburn, he played me right midfield! He’d asked me to do a job and I did it to the best of my ability. It wasn’t my best ever game, but… anyway, he didn’t stay in the job for long, and I was gutted about that, but then Glenn (Hoddle) came in. I thought this would be a good thing.
“He’d been at Tottenham, played and talked the game the right way, good football, a good manager. Anyway – he sat down with me, it all sounded good; ‘…this is what we’ll do, you’re part of my plans Robert, you’ll be playing, I liked the way you played at Norwich, bla bla bla…’ – but it didn’t work out that way. I believed that I was better than what Glenn had in the team, but… and I’ve still no regrets.
“However, even at that time, I didn’t regret the move and didn’t see myself going back to Norwich, or wanting to. I went out on loan to some other clubs instead – initially to Bolton, under Bruce Rioch and Colin Todd. I remember that, one week we were playing Southend, then Millwall on the Saturday, so the team stayed in a hotel in London, even though I still lived there! I went to Bristol City on loan later on, under Joe Jordan and John Gorman – he’s Glenn’s best mate.
“I loved it, loved it there, and Joe wanted me to sign, I know I wanted to stay (in 13 league appearances for the Robins during 1995, Robert scored three goals), but, for one reason and another, that didn’t work out. There was even a chance to go to Celtic when Lou Macari was manager…”
Much as I didn’t want to, I had to interrupt Robert at this point, I couldn’t believe what I was saying. He would have joined Celtic? It was like saying he’d have considered a move to Ipswich – maybe even worse than that!
“Yes I would – but that’s how desperate I was to play again! I needed to get out of Chelsea, Glenn wasn’t even talking to me by now. And yes, it was Celtic, but I saw it as an opportunity to get playing, score a few goals and get a permanent move back down in England.
“However, Chelsea moved the goalposts and it didn’t come off – and, looking back now, that was probably a good thing! And then Norwich wanted me again. I went and spoke to Martin O’Neill, he said, ‘listen, this isn’t going to be just a loan, we want you back full-time’.
“Martin was like Dave Webb, very straight, very honest. I like that in a manager, if he talks to you straight, gives it to you straight, then you’ll work your bollocks off for them over ninety minutes, and that’s what I wanted to do for Martin. It’s a respect thing with managers – especially with ones like Martin O’Neill. Whatever else you might think about them, it’s vital you respect them? And I had a lot of respect for Martin.”
Much has been said – and is doubtless still has to be said – about Martin O’Neill’s six month stint as Norwich City manager. In fact, there is probably a book in there somewhere!
The story goes that O’Neill was frustrated at the reluctance of the club to release funds that would help him continue to rebuild a squad that, although full of talented young players, could have done with a little experience and professional nous.
O’Neill identified one player in particular as being ideal for his needs, one who would, had he joined the club, been a striking partner in arms for Robert, the player in question being Dean Windass.
“That would have been nice, yes, to play alongside Dean. But things don’t always work out. We had a good side at the start of his time here, we thought it was good enough to get back into the Premier League – players like Darren Eadie, Andy Johnson, Jon Newsome, John Polston, Bryan of course, Spencer Prior…Spencer, yeah, bloody hell (Robert’s words and expressions indicate good memories of that team and time!), plus in time, we had some good players come in on loan.
“Jan Molby was one of them. He was a fantastic player. So down to earth, a great big Dane with this amazing scouse accent! He gave us all a big lift when he came here; he just knocked the ball about, a great striker of the ball, great passer. You could get players like that to come in for a spell at that time. You probably couldn’t now, the changes in the game, the wages they’d be on.
“We showed that everyone had a chance of doing well, given a good squad of players and managers, which Norwich had. But will a club the size of Norwich ever finish in the top three of the Premier League again? No, definitely not. Not a hope in hell. We had our time right at the last moment, before the gap became too big. A fourth place finish and two FA Cup semi-final appearances.
“And we’d have qualified for Europe as well, had it not been for the Heysel disaster. People forget that. People say that Mike Walker is the most successful manager Norwich have ever had. They’re wrong. The most successful manager Norwich have ever had is Dave Stringer. Two FA Cup semi-finals and a fourth place finish.”
I wondered – not for the first time – if Robert, with that thought in mind, would you have fancied his team from 1988/89 in a game against Mike Walker’s side from a few years later? I did allow for the slight difficulty in that some players could have represented both teams, so am assuming that they would have done just that, played for both! Theoretically, in that case, which side did Robert think would have come out on top?
“Yeah. I think we’d have beaten them…(Robert pauses, then speaks, quietly but great conviction and a little bit of that fire he showed as a player briefly shows in his words and conviction)… we could have pushed Arsenal and Liverpool all the way for the title that season.
“The worse thing that happened was getting to the semi-final of the Cup in 1989. Dave was starting to rest players and think about the Cup more, rather than going all out for the league. We spoke about it, it was decided, this is what we were going to do, and some players it was, ‘yes, the FA Cup semi-final, how often do you get that close to Wembley?’
“But we could, we should, have gone for it in every game. You should have been playing in every game, play, play well, if you don’t, then you’re out, then someone takes your place. I’ve spoken to Bryan and Dale Gordon about it, we agree, we should have pushed it in the league that season. We were doing well up until we played Newcastle at home (the Magpies were nineteenth!), well – Mirandinha scored and we lost, 2-1.
“After that it was ‘never mind, we’re still in the Cup’ and we seemed to give up on the league – plus I missed out on that first semi-final, indeed, I nearly missed the second one (in 1992). Back then though, with a good side and a chance of winning the league, attention turned more to the Cup from about March onwards. So we just focused on that, not the league. A nightmare!
“Of course, the FA Cup meant more then, certainly to fans. I’d like to think it still does today. I never won the Scottish Cup – won the Skol Cup a couple of times though, the medals are at home in a cupboard somewhere!”
I wanted to further question Robert on the point he had made about Dave Stringer’s 1989 side maybe not going all out to try and win the league that season, and to rest players, rather than selecting the best side available and giving their all in every match. Would he have wanted to play in every game, do footballers really want to play in as many games as possible?
“Very much so, yes. I wanted to play in every single one. If the reserves were a few players short in midweek, I’d put my hand up, I’d volunteer to play. But it wasn’t just me; there were loads of players like that there at the time.
“Like I said, I just wanted to play and I wanted to win. People ask me; do I wish I was still playing the game today? My answer is ‘no’. They then say, ‘well, what about the money?’ That’s not playing for the love of it. Listen. I won a league, a couple of cups. I’ve played for my country in the World Cup finals. When is my country going to play in a World Cup finals again?”
There is a great clip from the 1990 World Cup finals which features Robert wildly celebrating in the background after a Scotland goal – just as any member of the travelling Tartan Army would have done. Did he remember the game?
“Sweden! (big smile!) I’ve got the photograph. But I shouldn’t even have been there; it should have been Davie Cooper. I was in Dubrovnik, on holiday with my wife, daughter and mother and father-in-Law. Davie was injured, so Norwich were trying to get hold of me to let me know I was needed. They managed to do so, I had to leave and go off to Malta to acclimatise and then off to Italy.
“For the first game (Scotland lost 1-0 to Costa Rica) I wasn’t even on the bench – but you’re there, you’re at the World Cup finals, it’s every boy’s dream. We lost that game, second up is Sweden.
“All of a sudden, I’m starting, and from nowhere. Fantastic! Third game, Brazil. I’ve done well against Sweden, so I’m thinking, I’ll be starting again – but I wasn’t playing, Ally McCoist did. I wasn’t happy, especially as McCoist hadn’t started in either of the last two games.
“During the Brazil game, me and Andy Goram were warming up, up and down the touchline. We weren’t watching the game though; we were watching the Brazil fans! They’re great to watch – but the Scottish fans are the best in the world, colourful, good humoured-fantastic, the whole experience. You’d pay to play for your country in the World Cup finals. They’re just there to support their team. And we felt well we could have done well – we were full of confidence.
“Great squad and players. But you go into the first match, Costa Rica, and, with no disrespect to them, we should have won. But we lost, and we’re on the back foot straight away. But we beat Sweden, and we should have at least got a draw against Brazil.
“The keeper made one of the best saves I’ve ever seen – the ball came in, wet pitch, it just bounced over my foot. If I‘d got a connection, I’d have scored. It falls to Mo Johnston; he’s about four yards out. He smashes it, but the keeper, Taffarel, he made a fantastic save. If only it had fallen to me! If I’d have put that away, well, I’d probably still be running around Turin celebrating today.
“The team spirit was cracking, a real eye opener. I’d made my debut against Argentina in a friendly – they were then the holders. That was a big to-do. But then to actually go to the World Cup. A bonus, wonderful team spirit. You can’t buy memories like that. My memories are very special to me – and personal. And they’re for me alone, I wouldn’t do an autobiography like so many players have done. I’ve been asked, someone asked me about it only a couple of weeks ago, but I said no, I won’t do it.”
One of Robert’s memories might have been an early game he had for Chelsea at Stamford Bridge, with the early Premier League pacesetters Norwich City in town. Chelsea had gone ahead and Robert had set up their opening goal for Mick Harford. Did he remember much of that day, and, dare I say it, the final result?
“Yes – and I’ll be honest here, and I don’t care who knows it – Bryan knows anyway! He and his wife had stayed with me that weekend, so I told him! Anyway, the Norwich team were late arriving for the game, which was good, as we got into them from the kick off. I had a chance early on, went through, only the keeper to beat!
“There I was, heading towards Bryan Gunn and all the Norwich fans – and it just hit me, I thought, ‘I can’t score, I can’t score!’ It was Bryan – who was staying with me, the Norwich fans and team, I just couldn’t do it, Norwich had been such a big part of my life! So I laid it back to Mick who went on to score. He turned and celebrated, I just turned the other way to him and slowly walked back towards the centre circle.
“I couldn’t do it. Not against Norwich or Bryan, especially as he was staying! In fact, if I had ever scored against Norwich, in any game, I wouldn’t have celebrated. I had, have, too much affection for the club and their fans. The fans were amazing to me, I’ve a lot of respect for them, they never criticised me. They knew I would never hide, would always give everything, even if I was having issues with the club or the management.
“Dave Beasant was unfortunate in that game, making the errors that let Norwich back into it. The fans and the management let him know all about it, but, you know what they say, if a striker misses a couple of good chances, he can make up for it and those misses are forgotten.
“With a keeper, well, with Dave that day, he made a couple of mistakes that won the game for Norwich, but he was criticised afterwards too much. You know, Dave was the definitive gentle giant; he’d do anything for you, anything to help out. He was devastated after that game, I don’t think he even changed afterwards, he was in his car and gone. But no-one in the changing room said anything against him afterwards – and that’s football, you stick together.
“The fans had their say, and Ian Porterfield, well, he did have a lot to say, and pretty much immediately after the game as well. That should be kept in-house, in the changing room. Norwich had a great start to the season, including doing the double over us and I was pleased, of course.
“Really chuffed for them, I knew most of them – I even knew Gary Megson because he came in whilst I was still there, so I got to know him – it was only Mark Robins I didn’t know. So yes, of course I was pleased for them.
“But I was jealous as well, jealous that I’d left and they ended up doing so well, they ended up third whilst we finished in eleventh. I’d gone to Chelsea thinking we had the better team and squad, but it wasn’t to be. I came back to Norwich, and ended up finishing my career at Reading.
“That came at a time when Norwich were getting rid of all of their players – or so it seemed! I went to play there under Tommy Burns, bless him. I tried to help them stay up, but it wasn’t to be, and that was sad. It was my only relegation as a footballer. But they were, like Norwich, a lovely club, a community club. I enjoyed my spell there, and. Like I’ve said, have so many good memories”.
How would Robert sum himself up today as a footballer I asked?
“Well, I wouldn’t have called myself a prolific goalscorer. I was more of a creator; I liked to play in and around the eighteen yard box, just behind the main striker. I did my bit, tried my best for all the teams I played for, and the fans. I guess I was just an honest footballer. Yes, if you’re going to say anything about me at all, just say that he was an honest footballer.”
He’s said it himself – and I agree. An honest footballer.
And if I’m honest, my initial fears had been groundless and I hadn’t been disappointed. Not at all.