It was with a delicious accompanying taste of double irony that the Canaries headed to the Valley to face Charlton Athletic in their penultimate away league fixture of the 2009/10 League One season.
Back in May 2005, Norwich had undertaken a similar sunny spring afternoon trip to London with their Premier League status teetering over the precipice. To have any chance of avoiding the drop back to the Championship, the Canaries had to win their final game against Fulham at Craven Cottage, a not too demanding task, even if it would have constituted Norwich’s first away success of the season. Fulham were marooned in lower mid-table with nothing to play for, and, crucially, had already lost seven home league games that season, the same as Norwich.
The combination of Fulham’s fairly lack lustre home form and all the motivation that Norwich would ever need to win the game suggested that an away win would, and should, have been the most likely result. It would be a hugely significant one. Not only would it have secured the Canaries future in the Premier League but, in addition, have almost certainly ensured that their top players, the likes of Robert Green, Damien Francis and Dean Ashton included, would have been more than happy to commit to the club, giving Nigel Worthington a fighting chance of building a team capable of sustaining long term Premier League survival. Plenty of professional kudos went with that, of course. There was also, however, the significant financial reward that would have accompanied it.
The sad truth of it of course was that, even as several thousand Norwich fans turned much of Craven Cottage yellow and green for the afternoon, some of the Norwich players were already off on their holidays, content in mind at least, that their playing careers in Norfolk were at an end and pre-season training would see them at a new club. Not the best attitude to have when your current one needed to see all of you for just one final game. And it showed. Physically the players might have been on the pitch but mentally some were thousands of miles away and going through the motions as Fulham rattled in six goals to send Norwich down on the back of one of the most humiliating defeats in the club’s history, one that will never be forgotten.
And one that was certainly to the foremost of most fans minds when they prepared for another critical away day trip four years later. The destination – London – was the same, as was the need for a win, but the ground was different, the homely and atmospheric riverside surroundings of Craven Cottage being exchanged for the rather more soulless and much redeveloped arena at The Valley, home of Charlton Athletic.
The accompanying story was a familiar one. Norwich had struggled all season and were, again, preparing for the final day of the season staring relegation in the face. If the drop to League One was to be avoided, then the Canaries not only had to win at Charlton (who were already relegated, so not an impossible task – but then it had felt that way about Fulham as well) but also hope for Plymouth Argyle to do them a favour and win at home to Barnsley. Not so straight forward – the Canaries could win 6-0 this time and still go down.
Comfortingly though, Bryan Gunn’s charges elected to follow the Fulham model and, in doing so, offer no false hope for the usual legion of Norwich fans in attendance. Charlton won 4-2, and, with Barnsley also victorious, that defeat was meaningless as a win would have merely confirmed the same end result – another relegation.
So, two critical last day trips to London in four years with two defeats (aggregate score 10-2) and two relegations confirmed. Painful stuff.
The next match after that season defining game at Charlton was, of course, another pivotal one in the clubs history, the 7-1 capitulation at home to Colchester United, the game that sparked an almighty revolution at the club.
A revolution that was now set to end its first phase with another end of season trip to Charlton, albeit one being played under enormously different, and welcome, circumstances. It wasn’t the final game of the season this time but it still had, regardless of that, enormous implications for the club’s future riding on the result with, on this occasion, a win guaranteeing Norwich promotion. Football had, with that devious hand that it often plays, given Norwich the opportunity to right all the wrongs of the last twelve months at the very place where it had all started to go so horribly wrong in the first place.
Evidence of both the finances – driven cull during the summer as well as the one put into place by Paul Lambert following his appointment at the beginning of the season is very much evident when the two line ups are compared.
Just two of the Norwich players that had started the game a year previously had managed to stick around for long enough to return to The Valley and look to wipe away those memories – Gary Doherty and Simon Lappin – whilst one member of the team, Adam Drury, had been in the Norwich side that had crashed so spectacularly at Fulham. Their eight team mates on the day were therefore untainted by the scars of these previous London hidings, but would, no doubt, have been told about it by their colleagues.
A crucial match – again – for Norwich, but one which, you suspect, had particular significance for those previously involved at either Fulham or Charlton, an opportunity to exorcise some ghosts and leave the field, for once, in celebration rather than desolation.
Given the significance of the match and the occasion, Norwich were jittery in the opening exchanges. Unlike those previous matches with opponents who, theoretically, had nothing to play for, this was not the case with Charlton that afternoon. Norwich may have been well clear and racing away at the top, but there was still a chance Charlton could finish as League One runners-up and earn an automatic promotion spot for themselves.
They consequently started the match on the offensive, immediately putting Norwich on the back foot and causing not a little hesitation or nervousness in their opponents. Passes were therefore cautious, set-pieces lacked imagination and, for all their dominance of the league that season, the Canaries looked stifled and a little jumpy. This enable a confident Charlton side to start making inroads into the Norwich defence, a glorious chance breaking for Nicky Bailey whose shot on the run required a breathtaking, “how did he get to that?” fingertips save from Fraser Forster.
The sudden fight shocked Norwich into life. Lappin’s cross was met by Stephen Hughes, a confident header and, against the run of play, crucial opening goal. But no, it’s offside. No time to seethe or question the linesman however, as Charlton, relieved at the let off, pressed back into unrelenting action, their frequent forays into the Norwich half thwarted by a mixture of heroic defending and capable goalkeeping from Forster. At the other end of the pitch, the popular Lappin remained the major Norwich threat and outlet, a stinging volley earning a smart save from Randolph and a ripple of appreciative applause from the gradually calming hoards of Norwich fans stationed behind the goal.
The corner that Lappin’s shot earnt was taken by the man himself, the ex-St Mirren midfielder beginning to run the show, demanding to be part of every move, pass, opportunity. His resultant high ball into the box had deadly intent, being met by the dominant figure of Michael Nelson who rose to head the ball past Randolph, causing an eruption of unconfined joy in the Norwich fans whilst their Charlton peers all, as one, shook their heads and wondered quite how it was that they were behind when they had dominated so much of the game.
This pattern was pretty much repeated until the final whistle, with Forster repeatedly coming to the Canaries rescue, either through penalty box dominance or his ability to hold back the ball and dally with it for as long as possible, a tactic that eventually got him booked by the referee amidst howls of protests from the Charlton supporters who had demanded the ultimate sanction. Their ire was understandable. But not because of Forster’s ability to slow the game down and interrupt their rhythm, but because he had, through a series of outstanding saves denied them a victory that their overall superiority had probably deserved.
Not that this apparent injustice bothered any of the Norwich fans. They’d long got used to losing games they should have won and other perceived footballing injustices including being innocent victim of UEFA’s blanket ban on all English clubs competing in Europe in 1985. That plus the farcical circumstances of their relegation that same season when Coventry, three games in hand on the Canaries at the end of that campaign had to play a weakened and, frankly, dis-interested Everton side in their final game, the resultant stroll in the Highfield Road sun earning the Sky Blues a preposterous 4-1 victory against the League Champions that simply would not have happened under fair circumstances.
Then there was that 7-1 defeat against Colchester on the opening day of the season and all the subsequent mocking and cruel jibes it had encouraged, the sarcasm-rich criticism of Mark Lawrenson and reckless turnover of loan players who were doing nothing more than ticking whatever rudimentary boxes were required of them as they came and went, came and went, during Glenn Roeder’s uncomfortable tenure.
There had even been, that same season, constant jibes and comment from the Colchester United chairman, Robbie Cowling who, aggrieved at the nature and circumstance under which the Canaries had recruited his manager, seemed to take every opportunity to belittle Norwich even sending a defensive Norwich supporter an e-mail that included a reference to the Canaries hierarchy together with Hitler and Nazi Germany.
With all of that and more in the club’s recent history, did a fortunate win, a backs to the wall win, a win, indeed, where the infamous bus may even have been parked in front of the Norwich goal bother or worry the Norwich fans? Of course not. And far from it. Their team was so much more professional, so much more resilient, capable and able to get the results they needed with the players that they had. All that mattered, in this case, was the win, the three points and the promotion it earnt the Canaries, won at the same ground where, a year earlier, those same fans had left for home in a dark mood and fearful of their clubs long term future.
The final whistle sounded to a chorus of “We are going up” echoing around the ground, the disconsolate Charlton fans, now facing up to the fact that they were almost certainly going to have to settle for the play-offs, having long since deserted the ground and their team. A little piece of SE London therefore became a corner of Norfolk for an hour or so, Paul Lambert and the players staying on the pitch as the celebrations began, the supporters adulation for their manager very loud, obvious and genuine.
If it had been a triumph for Paul Lambert, then it was also one for Norwich’s centre-half Michael Nelson. His signing had, at the time, symbolised the depths of Norwich’s despair that previous summer, coming, as he did, on a free transfer from Hartlepool United where he had played over 350 league games.
Was this, fans wondered, the level that the club was now at, having to scrimp and save, fighting, no-one in particular as it turns out, for a player who has just ended his contract at Hartlepool? It seemed that way. Nelson’s debut was hardly auspicious either – one of the two central defenders on duty in that dreadful performance against Colchester, he was promptly dropped for the next game, looking, for a while, as if he would emulate Aussie keeper Michael Theoklitos and make a swift exit as a consequence of that seven goal mauling.
Not so. Paul Lambert and Ian Culverhouse quickly established that, in Nelson, they had just the player they needed for the hectic, hurly-burly life that was to come in League One. Thus, following some fine tuning on the verdant fields of Colney, Nelson was back in the Norwich side for the long trip to Hartlepool, his former club where he not only put in a defensive performance of the highest quality, but, scored the opening goal, a spectacular overhead kick that had the Hartlepool support wondering where he had learnt to do that. The Norwich faithful meanwhile, celebrated the arrival of a new cult hero, his status as such irrevocably secured with that goal at The Valley.
With promotion guaranteed, Norwich wrapped up the League One title with an ultimately comfortable 2-0 Carrow Road win over Gillingham in their next game, Nelson again a scorer, again a formidable barrier in defence against the Gills. Resolute in defence or a major threat in attack, the Admiral offered a little bit of everything, just as Paul Lambert and the whole team had done for the entire season. They had all, Nelson very much included, ‘done their duty’ – with the promise of more to come.
Adapted from Greatest Games: Norwich City (Pitch Publishing, 2012)