Part two of Ed’s interview with Bryan Gunn…
Bryan had a great career at Norwich, from player to a variety of roles within the club and community, becoming an increasingly popular figure in City and County. Having been so strongly linked with the club, and being part of it for such a long time it seemed inevitable to me that Bryan would, one day, be appointed manager. Given what subsequently happened and how it had suddenly ended, did that play any part in his thinking? A case of ‘yes, time to move on and away from here and make a fresh start’? Do what might have once been thought unthinkable and move away from Norwich?
“Having the chance to be Norwich manager was an unexpected opportunity. When such things arise, you often have a very short time to make the decision as to whether you want to take them or not. As far as the manager’s job was concerned, I had only a day to make that decision. After the 4-0 win against Barnsley (January 17 2009) I had the next day, the Sunday, in which to make it.
“We had been in Burnham Market at a friend’s party that weekend, and I didn’t really join in as much as I wanted to as I was thinking about the manager’s job. We’d won against Barnsley, we’d won well and I‘d enjoyed that and the day. Had it been a 4-0 defeat, things might have been different! Anyway, yes, I had a quick decision to make.
“I knew that the board were interviewing on the Monday; names were coming out in the press, those who were the favourites for the job, and I eventually thought, ‘I’m going to have a go at this’. I immediately spoke to the chairman and Neil Doncaster to let them know that I wanted to be considered and was fortunate to get bolted on to the end of that day’s interview schedule.
“I’d already spoken to the likes of John Deehan and Ian Crook. Ian was in Australia, he said to me, ‘I’ll get on the plane now’. I said, ‘well, hang on… I haven’t got the job yet’.
“Another person very much at the forefront of my mind was Ian Butterworth. He was still under contract at Hartlepool (Ian now heads up the scouting team under Harry Redknapp at QPR) but I wanted him as part of my coaching team, and he, plus Dixie and Ian Crook were the team I proposed to the board late on that Monday afternoon.
“It was a full-on interview; others had come in with laptop presentations and other different things. I just came in with my passion for, and knowledge of, the football club, expressing the belief that I could, along with the team I’d proposed, come in and do a good job. So it had all happened very quickly, from the Barnsley game, to making my decision, contacting the others and attending the interview at the end of that Monday.
“That same night, at about 11pm, the phone rang and that was it – I’d got the job. And that was great. Of course, it changed everything. I spoke to the family about it, how things would change. It’s a different job, lots of press involvement, pressure, and no guarantees at the end of it. But… I wanted to do it. And that pressure was on from the off.
“We felt we had to change things around straight away and very quickly. We’d had a lot of loan players at the club. I knew some of them had bad attitudes and that we needed to replace them, so some of them went back to their parent clubs. It was a massive task, and yes, there were some bad results, especially at the end of my time in the job.
“There are a lot of fine lines in football though and, when I look back at it, well – the width of a post here, a bad refereeing decision there. Things could have been different. But I was able to bring in some new players, amongst them Grant Holt. His coming here was a legacy of the scouting that I’d done with Peter Grant and Glenn Roeder; he was amongst the group of players that I’d been watching.
“He was one that I was able to go out and sign, and that signing, of course, is a tribute to both the fans and Michael Foulger. Many fans didn’t claim their refunds back, Michael helped as well, so we were able to get Grant – he was the ‘marquee’ signing at the time. I’d seen him play on a number of occasions and was sure he’d be able to do a job for us – I’m delighted that it all worked out so well for him and the club, he did very well and proved his talent at the highest level of the game.
“But I had to sign a lot of players. Some of our targets were out of reach, but we still needed to get onboard some contracted players, players who might have had something to prove. I wanted to put in a bonus structure; an incentive scheme that was similar to the one that had worked so well for us in 1992/93, and that worked. It encouraged some players to come here who were offered more by the likes of Leeds, Brighton, Huddersfield and, possibly, Charlton.
“The new players coming in had also been attracted by other things: crowds of 26,000, fantastic facilities for playing, training, the area as a place to live in. You get them here – it’s an easy job. If you’re just doing business over the phone with agents, well, it’s a lot more difficult and they’ll end up signing for someone else.”
How did Bryan look back at that time now? Much has changed; he took over a Norwich side that was heading for League One – but, less than two years later, the club won promotion back to the Premier League. Did he have any regrets? After all, the path of his life and where he is now might only have come about because he chose to become the club’s manager.
“Well, it was an experience, an opportunity that I’m glad I took. Naturally I am disappointed with the end result and I accept that is because of bad results. I think I had 21 games – of those, we won six, drew five and lost ten. There were chances to get a run going – we had an excellent win at QPR, that could really have got the momentum going, but then we had a bad result at Blackpool, losing 2-0 and that’s maybe one of the games that stands out for me as a turning point.
“But you know, all managers will do that when they’ve had a bad run, a bad time, got relegated. ‘If we’d done this, just done that, won this game…’ Football managers like hindsight!”
Was it, I suggested, more difficult managing a team that you support? One where your heart lies?
“Well, think of all of those who have gone onto manage ‘their’ club and haven’t had the best of times; there have been a few. So yes, it probably is, but, at the same time, you have an advantage; you know what’s expected on the terraces, and you put that across in the dressing room, you’re familiar with the club and maybe the players.
“I was able to tell them when I was here what it would be like to be in a winning team at Norwich, ‘you’ll all be heroes’. So, difficult in some ways, not in others. The club will always be special to me. And certainly one I would recommend to a young player as a good club to join. The whole set up is great and the club will only improve and go forward, be looking for and attracting good players. And good players are always going to be interested at the prospect of joining Norwich City.
“But I’m part of the club’s history now, I’ve had the highs and the lows, and, ultimately, I look back, learn, and move on. And that’s what I’ve done. I can relate both sides of the game to people, doing well at the top of the Premier League and being at the bottom of League One.
“A little bit of me will always be at Norwich. And, as I have said, I’m sure I’ll be able to recommend young players to the club. I’d been watching the academy since Angus was nine and I know that it produces good players. Some of the current academy players will go onto have a career in professional football, I know that for sure.
“There are always a lot of lads who look good when they come along, fourteen, fifteen years old and a lot of them fall away and end up doing something else, but there are always some special ones – and there are some of those at Norwich now. Plus there are others who will develop, especially with the higher level of coaching you get once you’re in the academy. You’re training every day – so you develop quickly, in different ways.
“Of course, other things become an issue as well – the possibility of injuries for example. You also have to start really delivering out on the pitch. But this current batch of academy players Norwich have got, it reminds me of the ones we had – players like Andy Johnson, Darren Eadie, Andy Marshall, Keith O’Neill, Craig Bellamy. All good players and there are equally good players coming through now.
“The exceptional players amongst them, of course, go onto bigger things and maybe generate a lot of money for the club. After all, the role of the academy is to develop players for your club. If not that, then for other clubs, with you gaining the financial benefit of that. But, even if they don’t make it, they get a good grounding in life, if they’re not going to make it in professional football. There are chances to work in schemes like Football in the Community, else in a sporting background elsewhere. Its role is to develop people. It helps teach them discipline, educates them about fitness and keeping healthy.
“There are the tougher moments, those I have mentioned, who don’t quite have what it takes to reach the top, else earn a professional contract, and you have to break that news to them. And I’ve had to do that. But you don’t tell them that they aren’t going to make it, you tell them to go out there and prove you wrong. You’re hardly sat there, telling them they’re a load of rubbish!
“But, even so, this is when you’ll see how much desire they have, how much they really do want to get out there and prove you wrong. It’s another part of what is a very difficult job. One thing that was very difficult for me was the hurt that it caused the fans when we were struggling. But, ultimately, the club had the chance to take a step back, evaluate, rebuild and under Paul (Lambert) go forward again”
Talking of management again still, which of the three managers in that famous trio – Ken Brown, Dave Stringer and Mike Walker – did you enjoy and appreciate playing under the most?
“Ken changed things here a lot. He brought in new players, started that Tottenham connection-bringing in Ian Culverhouse, Mark Bowen, Ian Crook. He’d sorted out the scouting system, hence those quality players being identified and signed. So yes, a lot changed under Ken and for the better, he reshaped the squad, combined some really decent young players with the more experienced ones and really, started the whole momentum going that eventually took us through to the 1992/93 season.
“Dave worked under Ken, so he kept things going, brought in some more quality players, people like Andy Townsend, David Phillips and John Polston. Then Mike pushed it forward a bit more, and he, of course, had been working under Dave. Overall I do think that Ken hasn’t had as much credit as he deserves. We finished fifth in my first season here under him, and yes, we fell away in the season that followed and Ken left-was it a good decision to fire him?
“What was a good decision was the choice of Dave as his replacement, thus maintaining that continuity. The same with Mike after Dave left. But I think Ken for me. He was so good at relaxing the players, plus he put a really good team together – with Dave, of course, Mel Machin, Ronnie Brooks and Duncan Forbes as chief scout.
“He had the image of being the really nice guy – and he was, but Ken could be tough if needed. So could Mel Machin! Ken also brought some excellent players to the club – Dave Watson, Steve Bruce, Mike Phelan to name three of them.
“He still comes to the club to watch games and I see him on the golf course every now and again. Same with Dave, he’s at the club quite a bit as well. So really, yes, Mike was in charge of that great team and great time that we had from 1992 to 1994, and he was a good manager. But he was really the final piece in the jigsaw that Ken and Dave had been putting together, and neither of them should be forgotten in that respect.”
There is, of course, no such thing as an automatic pick on any football club’s team sheet before a game. You do, however, get the feeling that, during his time at the club, Bryan Gunn was as near to being one as it is possible to get. His injury, sustained in the post-Christmas league game at Nottingham Forest is widely attributed to be the reason why Norwich, 7th in the Premier League prior to that game, won only two of their remaining 21 league games, ending the season in 20th place and being relegated.
This was no reflection on Andy Marshall, his successor in the Norwich side for the rest of that campaign, but a sign of the huge influence that he had at the club – at the training ground, in the dressing room, and, most of all with his fellow players, especially the back four, out on the pitch.
Norwich were relegated not because Marshall was in the side (and he was a very fine young goalkeeper) but because Gunn wasn’t. It is, I think, fair to say that his injury in that game can go down as one of the pivotal moments in Norwich City history – for who knows what the club might have achieved had the Canaries stayed up that season?