One of the great rallying cries in football is how a club wants to make its home ground a ‘fortress’.
As platitudes go, its championed so often these days there is a very serious risk it will become a footballing cliché in the ‘game of two halves’ category.
In any case, what do people mean by ‘fortress’?
Are we talking about one like the Alamo where a handful of soldiers held out against both increasingly heavy odds and opposing numbers for thirteen days back in 1836?
Or a series of fortresses much like the Siegfried Line, held to be so flimsy and easy to overwhelm by allied forces during World War Two that songs of battle didn’t so much boast of derring-do and sacrifice but how they would be hanging out their washing on the aforementioned pride of the German military.
Now there’s a fortress – one that lets you dry your battle worn long johns in the face of the enemy.
In recent years, Carrow Road has seen both sides of the fortress comparison. During the 1992/93 season we were defeated only twice in home league games, an achievement that was equalled in the 2001/02 season – or, depending on how you look at it, bettered, rather than equalled, as that particular season saw 23 home league games played rather than 21.
But then we’ve had times when we’ve been a little bit flaky at home as well. Take the 2004/05 season for example. Nineteen league games played at Carrow Road only seven of those ending as wins, the five points taken from the possible 36 at stake in the remaining twelve a prime factor in our eventual relegation that campaign.
Converting just one of our five draws into a win would have kept us up. That’s how tight the margins were.
Which aptly illustrates just how important it is to win as many of your home games as possible.
Unless, of course, you can rattle up rather more wins on the road than you or anyone else might have thought possible.
Take the 1993/94 season for example; one that saw us lose just five of our 21 away fixtures in the Premier League, a record that was bettered by just two other clubs – eventual Champions Manchester United and fourth placed Arsenal. But only Manchester United scored more goals than us in away league games in the Premier League that season – 41 to our 39.
Our eight league victories away from Carrow Road came at Blackburn (2-3); Leeds United (0-4); Everton (1-5); Chelsea (1-2); Sheffield United (1-2); Tottenham (1-3); Southampton (0-1) and Liverpool (0-1).
What would we give for eight away league wins this season?
One of the more memorable of those away day wins was the 5-1 victory against Everton at Goodison Park on September 25th.
We’d already become away day specialist by even that early stage. Four previous trips on the road had yielded eight points out of twelve; no defeats and an impressive twelve goals scored which was only two fewer than rivals Ipswich managed away from home for the entire season.
Much of this was down to Mike Walker’s faith in his players’ ability to counter the tactics teams would normally play in their home games against his side. More often than not, this would mean, via a mixture of pressure and expectation from their own fans and confidence, an opposition looking to attack Norwich from the off, searching for perceived weaknesses in their defence and looking to secure early goals and a comfortable victory.
Which suited Walker and his players down to the ground.
The side that Walker had inherited had, despite winning many plaudits and enjoying some success under Dave Stringer, frequently struggled away from Carrow Road. During the 1991/92 season, where survival and Premier League founder member status was seen as being absolutely essential, it was only finally achieved despite Norwich’s away form, not because of it.
Just three wins from 21 league games including two defeats from winning positions and just eighteen goals scored; eight defeats in away league matches against the top ten sides and, worryingly, heavy defeats away to sides that ended up being relegated – a 2-0 reverse at Luton Town and a 4-0 hiding at West Ham, who were rock bottom of the table at the time.
It did seem that, after two FA Cup semi-final appearances and top six finishes under Stringer’s astute leadership, Norwich were beginning to slip from the high standards that he had set, so vividly illustrated in this poor away form.
Walker, clearly, had a job to do as far as these periodic away day travails that affected his side were concerned. The 4-2 victory at Highbury on the opening day of the following season showed that he was already getting to grips with it.
Had Norwich not won that game, had they taken, even accepted the pending defeat that was always going to be predicted for them (and which looked inevitable at half time – Rob Newman has since said the overwhelming thought of the players at half-time in that game was one of “damage limitation”- this is before Walker spoke!), then the story of that season and the whole saga that now surrounds Mike Walker and those remarkable one and a half years the club enjoyed at that time may never have happened.
It was a pivotal result, one of the most important in the club’s history, and, in terms of achievement and significance is right up there with the famous win over Busby’s Manchester United during that famous FA Cup run in 1959. It sparked confidence and belief in the players, and, crucially, in their manager – the team were down, out and looking at ‘damage limitation’ – same old Norwich.
However, a few words from Walker, a tactical switch and the introduction of Mark Robins changed all that. Walker didn’t just talk the talk, he walked the walk, inspired his players, filled them full of self-belief, dug the passion out of them and put them on the pitch, any pitch, any opposition. And they played with fire in their bellies and confidence overflowing, certain that they could win. This was a very different Norwich City.
The star of the show at Goodison Park was, without any doubt, Efan Ekoku.
He’d had been signed by Walker the previous March from Bournemouth, another addition to the striking complement at the club which, with Mark Robins, Chris Sutton and the precocious Lee Power already in attendance, was starting to look very strong in both numbers and quality. An impressive haul of 25 goals in 74 games for Bournemouth soon had the scouts flocking to Dean Court. At one time it was reckoned that as many as 40 different scouts had been sent to watch Ekoku, so it seems quite a coup that Norwich emerged as the team to put their faith in him with a £500,000 bid, which the Cherries immediately accepted.
Actions speaking louder than words. Norwich had maybe caught a few of their more illustrious opponents out with the speed of the bid, another sign, perhaps, that the Canaries under Walker were singing a different tune. Determined to strike first, and, in the case of Ekoku, ready to sign him in March, rather than wait for the close season when they may have ended up in a multi-club bidding war for his services.
Ekoku’s impact was instant. He came on as a substitute in only his second game, a 5-1 thrashing at Tottenham and was sufficiently motivated, despite the result, to score within a short time of his arrival.
His first start came in the last day of the season and no party atmosphere either as City needed at least a point at Middlesbrough to guarantee a thirds place finish. Ekoku opened the scoring and added a second in the Canaries 3-3 draw, ending his end-of-season cameo role at the club with 3 goals from one start and three substitute appearances. Walker may well have signed him with the future in mind – but that impact more than suggested he had an immediate role to play and would be a major player the following season when Norwich not only had to live up to – maybe even look to exceed – their previous efforts, but also had a UEFA Cup campaign to think about.
That was one which Ekoku contributed to in a major fashion, his opening goal against Vitesse Arnhem settling nerves in Norwich’s eventual 3-0 win over the Dutch side in the first round, first leg game on September 15th, a goal that not only announced him to the wider footballing public (John Motson and pundit Steve Coppell both spoke in effusive terms about the quality of Ekoku’s strike in that game) but propelled Norwich onto the European footballing stage.
Not bad work for someone who had, just three years earlier been playing non-league football for Sutton United, making his debut for the club a week after Norwich had beaten them 8-0 in an FA Cup 4th round match at Carrow Road.
For Ekoku and his team mates, the Everton game promised to be a tough one. The Toffees had won six of their opening league games and were in fourth place prior to the game, with Norwich in tenth. And, true to form, Everton opened the scoring, Paul Rideout racing onto a long, high ball played into the penalty area and outwitting two Norwich defenders before scoring. Shortly afterwards, he hit the bar with a header from close range, and, for a while, Everton were dominant.
Dominant, that is, until one man in particular took centre stage.
41 minutes. Crook finds Ekoku on the right hand side of the Toffees penalty area, the pass and subsequent shot and goal very reminiscent of his opening goal in the UEFA Cup tie against Vitesse a week earlier.
57 minutes. John Polston and Chris Sutton combine near the edge of the box, Sutton lifts in a dinked little cross for the unmarked Ekoku to head home.
63 minutes. A clearance out of the Norwich area finds Fox and Ekoku racing clear with no defenders in sight. Its route one but it works, Fox’s shot parried by Southall into the path of his fellow Canary, 3-1 and Ekoku has his first Premier League hat-trick.
69 minutes. Another long ball for Ekoku, his pace and trickery making fools of three Everton defenders as he easily shoots pass a now furious Southall. 4-1 and with it, he became the first Premier League player to score four goals in a match.
Not a bad story to be able to tell the grandchildren.
Salt was rubbed into the weeping blue wounds in the 77th minute when John Polston sets up Chris Sutton for a convincing fifth for Norwich, a goal and end result that sees a cascade of boos flood Goodison Park and swift elevation to fifth place for Norwich.
Despair for the Toffees but cheer for Walker and his delighted team as well as two records for Ekoku in quick succession: the first Norwich player to score in competitive European football followed by becoming, as already mentioned, the first player to score four goals in a Premier League game. Not a bad weeks work at all-and another win for Norwich, the team that, try as it might, football was finding it more and more difficult to write off.
For one man in particular though, the result and his team’s performance and the manner of their victory was far from something to be written off. It made the sort of impact that meant, just over four months later, vanquished opponents on the day knew exactly who their first choice would be when they looked to appoint their new manager.