It’s 23rd December 1972.
Two days before Christmas. The time when everyone can relax. It’s all done. Shopping? Check. Food? Check. Drink? Check. Done and very much dusted. Turn on, tune in, drop out.
Or go to the football.
Norwich have got Wolves at home. The Canaries, in their first ever season of top flight football, are sitting comfortably if not particularly prettily in 13th place in Division One; their gold-shirted opponents a few places above them. A winnable game then and, with many people now on holiday and looking to relax, a good turnout at Carrow Road is anticipated.
A good performance from his players is not anticipated by Ron Saunders however. It’s expected. As standard. And, as they change in the cramped dressing rooms beneath the main stand, he prowls the arena, a word here, a suggestion there. Christmas is most certainly not on the menu.
He stops mid-stride and looks down at the nervous 21 year old sat, head down, fiddling for the umpteenth time with his boots, socks and tie-ups. Again and again and again he has adjusted them, re-tied them, taken them on and off again. Making room for himself on the wooden bench that goes around three sides of the room, Saunders squeezes down beside the youngster who is, even then, not so blissfully unaware of his manager taking a seat beside him.
“What… oh, sorry boss.” Steve Govier’s face reddens with embarrassment. Saunders approves. It shows a touch of respect, deference even. He wants Govier to be a colossus at the back in much the same way as the man he replaces today; quite an impossible task you’d think given the games, leadership and aura that surrounds Duncan Forbes, missing for the fourth consecutive game. The Canaries have conceded twelve goals in those four games.
Fingers have been pointed – but not at Kevin Keelan or Dave Stringer. Govier has borne much of the brunt for both the goals and the defeats that have accompanied them. Easy to do, if cruel. In their six previous games, all with Forbes in and starting, Norwich had suffered just one defeat – one defeat in six games and wins over the likes of Tottenham and Leicester City; the latter at Filbert Street. Impressive stuff that took Saunders’ team into the top six.
Govier is still fiddling with his tie ups. Saunders speaks. His words are for the youngster’s ears and his alone but the whole side stops what they are doing and look over to where they are sat. They feel for Govier and no-one blames him for anything.
“Stephen… don’t forget, keep an eye on Richards, all the time. He’s quick with his feet, quicker in his thoughts. He’s an intelligent footballer…”
Saunders glares at the faces all watching and listening.
“…which is more than I can say about most of you bloody lot. No, listen. He’s clever. Watch him, stick to him. Let him know you’re there. He’ll know you’re raw, you’re still learning, he’ll try to exploit that. So get him early on. And ignore the backchat. They’ll all be at it.”
“Got it boss. Thanks boss.”
Govier goes back to his laces. Forever fiddling with something, his nerves all too tangible. Jimmy Bone lobs a bandage in his direction, Govier looks up to see the battle hardened Scot looking straight at him.
“Listen lad, I know I hate nothing more than a big centre back who whacks me early on. I got hit big time by Dugdale last week. Took me twenty minutes to even think straight after that, let alone run in a straight line. Have him. You’re a big unit. Take him out.”
Govier nods. He’ll do just that – if he can even get near Richards. Tipped for full England honours, 13 goals last season as well as a UEFA Cup Winners medal, 13 goals already this season and barely a year older than him; Richards has already achieved so much, he’s being talked about as perhaps the first £300,000 player in English football.
I’ve a way to go yet, thinks Steve Govier. A long way.
Saunders had named his team around an hour before kick-off, reading out the names in that staccato, headmaster-like way of his, all clipped tones and authority.
“Gentlemen, the team is as follows: Keelan, Butler, Black, Stringer, Govier, Briggs, Livermore, Bone, Cross, Paddon and Anderson. Trevor Howard is twelfth man. Thankyou.”
Players all have their little habits and rituals to go through in the minutes leading up to kick off. Some are physically sick; others go off for a crafty fag in one of the two cubicles in the changing room. Others sit quietly, heads down, chewing furiously. Jimmy Bone shouts encouragement to his teammates. It’s not needed but they all enjoy it, the energy he brings to the club.
“Cat, keep them out today man, I’ll stick one in if you do. Where’s the big man, having a gasper is he? Let’s have this lot, let’s have a good reason to party tonight…”
He feels the glare on the back of his neck even as he utters those last two words.
“…I’ll be drinking Pepsi gaffer, you know that”
Saunders doesn’t know that of course. But then as long as his players perform for him, he doesn’t care what they get up to in their own time. The malingerers, the wasters, those that don’t want to play; he’ll weed them out in training. Mousehold Heath does the job for him. Players have been known to crawl up it one last time and decide, there and then, this isn’t the place for them. It doesn’t worry Saunders. Let them go if they want.
He wants fighters, players like Bone, like the missing Forbes and Stringer, like David Cross, a striker who’ll put his head in where a lot of players would hesitate to place a boot. They’ll do for him. He hopes Govier will be another like them.
The lad has the build – six feet, a real athlete. He’s played the games as well; nearly 200 in the reserves where tough and physical comes as standard. He’ll do for Saunders; he has faith in the young man from Watford. He’s in the team today and, whatever happens in this match, he’ll be in the team at Arsenal on Boxing Day.
Saunders believes that if you show faith and belief in your players then they will return it for you. It usually works for him; he’s no reason to think otherwise.
The game kicks off. Carrow Road is colourful, excited, expectant. People want a win before Christmas. The gate is a little lower than usual, perhaps Christmas shopping has tempted, even forced, some of the faithful away that afternoon? But the atmosphere crackles. It’s as good a time as any for a win.
Wolves are, like Norwich, managed by a disciplinarian. Bill McGarry doesn’t suffer fools gladly either. He’s crafted an experienced side decorated with some young tyros like Richards and Alan Sunderland, strikers both; players who have relegated Derek Dougan – the one Saunders was thinking of the most when he mentioned the “backchat” – to the bench.
Most managers would rejoice at Dougan being out of the starting line-up, but Saunders doesn’t. He’d rather have Dougan where he can see him and deal with him from the off. If he comes on and he’ll have a point to prove. As do Norwich.
The Canaries have by far the better of the first half. Graham Paddon, blonde hair trailing in his tricky wake, runs, teases and bewitches Mike Bailey; briefed to “keep the bloody hippy quiet” by his manager but finding the scheming and clever Paddon too much for him.
Indignant at the disrespect being shown to their captain, Wolves shadow Paddon with John McAlle; the very definition of a “no nonsense” defender. But Paddon turns him inside out as easily as you could a winter duvet hung out to dry on a blustery day. Paddon is running the show and Norwich are in the ascendency. Govier even manages a nudge or two in Richards’ direction; nothing too obvious but enough to put the young striker off his stride.
Twenty minutes in, corner to Norwich. McAlle picks up Cross who promptly shoots across the penalty area, dragging his marker, tormented by Paddon, with him. When Cross finished his little sprint, as suddenly as he had started it, it seems an age before McAlle catches up with him. But Cross has done his job to perfection. Yes, he may be a danger man but so is Bone and, 5’9” or not, he is ready and waiting at the back post as the equally unmarked Govier nods the ball on for Bone to head past Phil Parkes.
‘One – nil’ as David Coleman would say.
Bone is delighted with his goal, not only because of the pre-match promise he made but because of Govier’s role in it. He slaps the youngster on the back as he trots back to his own lines and says, “Nice one lad, put it on a plate for me, I couldn’t miss”
Suddenly, Steve Govier is beginning to feel as if he is part of things.
Ebb and flow, ebb and flow. Norwich drive forward, Paddon pulling all the strings – the men around him are the orchestra and he the conductor. He revels in the responsibility. Cross is also making a nuisance of himself, albeit in a somewhat more prosaic manner; all knees and elbows as his opponents are discovering. The ball is not quite running for him but he is of sufficient nuisance value to allow Bone to poke and prowl at the fringe of the penalty box in relative freedom, looking for a half, even a quarter, chance.
Saunders doesn’t need to say much at half time. But he does shake Govier by the hand as the team runs out for the second half. Firm grip, looks him in the eye.
“That was a great 45 minutes Stephen. More of the same.”
Try as they might, Norwich can’t fashion a second goal. Some of their build up play borders on the exquisite, a slap in the face to those who say Saunders only picks teams that can run all day. Terry Anderson is tormenting Shaw whilst Livermore offers guile in abundance on the opposite side. Wolves are stretched, troubled, worried.
Which can only mean one thing. Off goes Alan Sunderland, overwhelmed and out of sorts, and on comes Dougan. Saunders silently curses; this was not what he wanted at all although if he had been Bill McGarry, he’d probably have done the same thing himself. Dougan struts onto the pitch and is immediately animated, forever talking, pointing, and gesticulating. Either at his teammates or a Norwich player or two. He offers a glare to Paddon.
“Watch and learn son, watch and learn.”
Paddon smiles and walks off. It wasn’t the response Dougan had expected or wanted. But it impressed him nonetheless.
Lifted by Dougan’s presence, Wolves begin to play. Richards starts to look for the ball rather than running from it whilst Paddon starts to tire, the heavy pitch beginning to pull at his powers. It’s as if the wind has changed, a moment of clarity. The game is now with Wolves and they push forward with the sort of conviction and confidence that had been City’s in the first half.
Now is when Norwich miss the calming influence of Forbes at the back. He would have been issuing instructions, pushing, pulling, cajoling and encouraging; an inspiration to those around him. But, rather than that, Dave Stringer finds himself looking after the defence and a nervous partner as well who isn’t sure if he should come forward or stay back as the gold shirts pour forward. Uncertainty follows and that is all Dougan needs as he soars onto a pass from Bernard Shaw, a left back with sudden licence to roam. Dougan’s powerful header sends the ball arching past Keelan for the equaliser.
Yellow shirted arms on green shorts with heads down collectively. Yet Bone raises a smile amidst the disappointment.
“I stick to my side of the bargain Cat but then you let that bandit plant one past you.”
The Norwich players can’t help but smile. Bone has lifted them again, as he does. With his goals, yes, but also his manner, his wit, his character. It’s invaluable.
Norwich bossed the first half. Wolves, late on, had the better of the second with Dougan, as Saunders had feared, making all the difference. But it’s a good point for both teams and, as Saunders and McGarry shake hands at the final whistle, their respective best wishes to each other and their teams are genuine and well meant.
Post-match sees Govier sat in the dressing room with his head down once more. But this time it is a posture driven by sheer exhaustion yet, amidst the mud, the blood, the bruises and the sweat, he is, short of being part of the shared defensive hesitancy that led to the Wolves equaliser, entitled to feel pleased with his contribution. He’ll be at Highbury with its marble halls in three days time and he rather thinks he might even enjoy the day. He is, slowly, learning what being a professional footballer is all about.
And after all, Big Dunc can’t go on forever.
The MyFootballWriter team would like to take this opportunity to wish all of our readers a very ‘Happy Christmas’