Before the election, Ed Couzens-Lake interviewed Ed Balls – the new chairman of Norwich City FC – for one of his books:
I began by asking Ed, who, like me, is very proud of his Norfolk roots, how long he had been a Canaries fan?
“Since before I can remember! I was actually due to be born on February 18th 1967, which was the date of Norwich’s fourth round FA Cup game against Manchester United at Old Trafford. Well, that caused a bit of a debate in the family! In the end it was decided that my dad should go to the football – as you can see, it was a different era then. So he went.
“A special train had been laid on from Thorpe St Andrew to Manchester for the game, so my dad and uncle went, accompanied by Ian Gibson (who became the MP for Norwich North in 1997), enjoyed the game and duly came back again. Luckily, I wasn’t born for another week anyway, so it’s a good job he went along really.
“Interestingly, a few months ago, I finally got to see the goals from that match. They’re on You Tube and someone sent the link to me. Fantastic. But yes, I’ve been a fan ever since I can remember. I lived in Norwich until I was eight, then we all moved to Nottingham. But my family are all from Norwich, we go way back there-and my parents are living there again now.
“The first game I went to was during the 1973/74 season, and it was a big one, against Leeds United. They had a great team at that time – Harvey, Bremner, Lorimer, Jordan, they were all playing. We were sat on the edge of the 18 yard box, about five rows up. I remember at one point, David Harvey (the Leeds’ keeper) came right up near to us on the side of the pitch to get the ball.
“I don’t remember very much about the match at all, but I do remember that! The week before then, I was taken to see March Town play Wisbech Town, along with my dad and uncle. It was a test to see whether or not I could survive a game. My second game was Norwich against Ipswich on Boxing Day that season. If my memory serves me right, Billy Steele scored for us (Ed is nearly right, Steele, who was making his debut that day hit the crossbar with a thunderous shot before Ted MacDougall poked home the rebound).
“Another game, one I remember well – April 1976 against QPR, they were in the running for the title and we beat them, ruined their chances of winning it. We won 3-2 and that team, from that time and those years, it’s the one I regard as ‘my’ team.”
An interesting and not uncommon point which I picked up on, saying to Ed that every football fan seems to have their favourite team era – rather like having a favourite Doctor Who – a person, or a team that you particularly relate to, or remember, a defining factor during an important stage of your life.
“I remember the players in the 1970s so well. Keelan, Stringer, Forbes, Paddon, Suggett, Boyer. But my favourite player was Ted MacDougall. He didn’t do an awful lot apart from score goals. I liked Kevin Keelan as well. At school we all used to pretend we were him when we kicked the ball, when he did, he’d flick his left foot up as well. Kevin ‘the Cat’ Keelan…. (a far off and very sentimental look is appears in Ed’s eyes at this point).
“I go as often as I can now – my dad and uncle have season tickets in the Barclay, if one of them can’t go, I get first refusal. It’s a great ground and match experience now, especially when I compare it to how it was when I went to my very first game. An amazing ground. Amazing.
“Another game I particularly remember, and this is for the atmosphere at Carrow Road on the day, is the first leg of the play-off game against Wolves. It was brilliant. The same for the home leg in the UEFA Cup against Inter Milan. Mind you, it was different in the return leg at Wolves that season; I went to that one alone. I wasn’t an MP then but Ian Gibson was. He had a ticket but there was a vote in the House that night, so he had to go to that. He gave me his ticket and off I went on the train. Meanwhile, Ian Gibson, Charles Clark (then MP for Norwich South) and Phil Webster (then Chief Political Editor of The Times) – they were the Canaries at Westminster at this time – went off to the Sports Bar in Leicester Square to watch it. I rang them from the ground to let them have a taste of the atmosphere! And it’s fair to say that the atmosphere was incredible, really fierce. And when they scored it was wild. But we always knew, deep down, that we were going to do it and get to the play-off final. I went to that as well.
“Of course, there wasn’t a happy ending that time around, but we got there by winning the Championship a couple of years later. Looking back at that season, I remember the Boxing Day fixture against Forest. I was in the Gunn Club before the game when these rumours started ricocheting around the place, coming originally from the car park attendant who’d rang a mate to say that Darren Huckerby had been booked into the car park and was on his way – so that was the first we knew of him signing, and then, of course, he went out on the pitch before kick off with Delia.
“Looking back however to that first Premier League season, probably my favourite memory is that first game at Arsenal. I went along to it with my dad and brother, however we couldn’t get tickets for in the away end, so had to go in with the home fans. We were sat opposite the main stand at Highbury then for that first game and I remember the controversy about their mural at that time, and the fact that, amongst all the supporters faces that had been painted on it, not one of them was black.
“Anyway, before the game, they had some parachutists come in and land on the centre circle. One of them overshot the landing area and went out of the ground, beyond the mural and on to the building site. That not going to plan became rather symbolic of Arsenal’s day – not that we knew it at the time of course! Indeed, it all looked as if it was going to be a bad day.
“The game kicked off and they went 2-0 up. Everyone where we were was happy – apart from us. Robins then scored to get it back to 2-1. We stood up and cheered, even though we were in with the Arsenal fans. But we were still losing, so no-one minded. But, when we got to our third goal, well, it was pretty tense by then, and we had loads of Londoners yelling at us about being cider drinkers – which is, of course, what you’d expect, what with Norwich being stuck out in the West Country! Anyway, at that point we decided we’d better just sit there quietly, so, when we scored our fourth goal we just hummed ‘On the Ball City’ to ourselves.”
Passionate and noisy Norwich supporters celebrating amidst an army of Gunners typifies Norwich City fans, determined to show their love for the team, no matter where they are, or who they might be. With that thought in mind, Ed mentioned one particular fan who garnished quite a reputation for her support at the time, demonstrated, as it was, very publicly on Sky Sports.
“Talking of Delia on the night of ‘Let’s be ‘aving you’, I was at the club as her guest for dinner. We were playing Manchester City and had gone 2-0 up, only for them to get it back to 2-2 by half-time. When half-time arrived, she turned to me and said “they’re not singing like they did for Middlesbrough”. A few weeks earlier we’d been 4-1 down to Middlesbrough and got it back to 4-4 and it felt, to Delia, as if the fans had willed the team on to get that point – but, for the game against Man City she didn’t feel it was the same. Anyway, she then added, …they’re not doing it. No-one knew that she’d left and gone on to the pitch, indeed, she’d forgotten that the game was live on Sky. Her appearance wasn’t set up in any way at all. She just felt that if the fans reacted in the same way that they had in the game against Middlesbrough, we would won the game”
Did Ed own a Norwich shirt? One that he wore at matches or around the house during his “downtime” perhaps?
“Not at the moment, no, but I remember my first kit very well. It must have been in about 1973 when I got it. I remember that the socks were completely yellow, no green braiding on them at all. The shorts were green with two yellow lines on each side, whilst the shirt was yellow with a green edging around a round collar and, of course, the badge. They then switched to Umbro and then to Admiral and it all became a bit fashionable. Mind you, I still have two of the older shirts, the Norwich and Peterborough Building Society one and the Digital Phones one.
How about actually getting to games – surely it hasn’t always been easy with his workload and the expectations of the electorate for their politicians to always be seen at, or involved in, their work, either at Parliament or in their constituencies?
“It can be a challenge sometimes. I remember the Millwall game in 2010. We had a vote at the House that night and they wouldn’t let me off attending the vote! I still went to the game though, along with Clive Efford (Labour MP for Eltham and a Millwall fan), we HAD to be back in the House by 10pm for the vote. We had the initial vote at 7pm, and then we took the train to the game, me in the Norwich end, Clive with the Millwall fans, and got there by 7:45. The absolute latest we could leave, in order to get back in time for the vote was 9:35, so we booked a cab for that time and left then, the game was still on, but Norwich were winning 1-0. However, after we’d gone, they equalised, very late on, so that was a bit of a blow!”
Ed’s own constituency was Morley and Outwood in Leeds. I wondered if there had been any expectations from the people that he represented that he did what might have been perceived as the ‘right thing’ and be seen to support Leeds United?
“I have attended a Leeds game. Big mistake! Delia asked me if I wanted to attend the game at Leeds last season. I went along, but sat near to them and the others in the Director’s Box, visibly in with the Norwich supporters. Now, you have to remember that Elland Road is about 100 metres from the edge of my constituency – something I hadn’t thought about when I agreed to go along. Anyway, Leeds scored first and about 29,000 Leeds fans all stand up and celebrate. The Norwich fans, including me of course, don’t. Then Norwich equalise. So 29,000 Leeds fans are sat, in silence but the MP for Morley and Outwood is up on his feet, clapping and cheering, cheering a goal against Leeds.
“Now I’m thinking, all of a sudden, for God’s sake, what have I done, how can I be so stupid? Now, I can’t not stand up. I’m a Norwich fan. But, at the same time, there are all these thousands of people all looking at Delia and me near to her, and they’re thinking, ‘what’s HE doing?’ I got loads of abuse from Leeds fans, ‘how dare you’ etc, terrible! It’s the only game I’ve ever been to where the scores have been level (2-2) and I’ve wanted the final whistle to blow, if Norwich had got a winner, I’d have been lynched!”
Did Ed’s wife, and fellow politician (Yvette Cooper, MP for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford) share his passion for all things football?
“Well, Yvette got used to me being quite dejected about the football, especially in the 90s when things weren’t always going terribly well at Norwich. I’d look for the result, see we’d lost and she’d just say, ‘well, what did you expect?’ But no, she isn’t a fan really – she just went through those years of laughing at me whenever Norwich lost. Mind you, in the last couple of years or so, she’s been silenced, that’s a nice change as it was quite destabilising for the family whenever we lost!
“Another time, of course, when we were able to be happy as fans was the previous time we were promoted back to the Premier League, back in 2004 – maybe against expectations, just as it has been this season. Of course, this season we have performed very well on our return to the Premier League. Back then, however, it felt different to how it feels this time around. It just didn’t feel, to me, that the 2004/05 team was ever quite strong enough for the Premier League, and that was right from the beginning. The two big signings – Helveg and Jonson – didn’t look quite right, and we never really looked as if we had a goal threat until we signed Dean Ashton.
“Ultimately, of course, the striking partnership between Ashton and Leon McKenzie looked very good indeed. Maybe if we had signed Ashton earlier, who knows? But we did very nearly survive that season. Look at that last game; we needed to win at Fulham to stay up. I went to the game, we were six rows back, behind the goal, and directly behind the goal, so we were watching the match through the net. And I just remember watching that net bulge in front of me. That was a bad day, the team just looked as if it had fallen apart and there were problems. It feels so different now. The whole set up now is different, it’s fantastic. But, however well we are doing, there does seem to be this deep Norfolk pessimism surrounding some of the games we play, or even before we’ve even started the season. I don’t understand that.
“My dad and uncle say it about Norwich especially before games; ‘…oh, they’re never going to win, they’re no good, they’re useless…’ etc etc. But the whole family does support the club – they’re just a bit more pessimistic than me, or my brother. Richard, for example, my cousin, writes about football and Norwich and is a big fan.”
“My uncle once did some fundraising for the club, and, as part of that, he won a raffle prize, it was a football, signed by all the members of the squad at that time, the 1975/76 team. A week or so after he’s won it, I come along for a visit, so he and my dad set up a stunt, my uncle says to me, ‘do you want to buy a raffle ticket?’ Well, I did, of course, I remember, it was number 100! Later on in the day there’s a knock on the door, ‘guess what, you won, here’s the prize’. All completely set up-though – I didn’t have a clue. I now had a signed ball. It went off to Nottingham with me and I kept it in my bedroom, untouched, for about a year…until one day, i just couldn’t stand it anymore, couldn’t stand the thought of that ball, in my room, taunting me!”
“So me and some friends went up the Rec and played with it, all the signatures were soon gone. My dad got home and just said to me when he found out, ‘you stupid idiot’. The trouble is, I couldn’t not play with it. Anyway, then it burst, and then it was gone, so that was that. You have to have a go don’t you?
“I still play a little bit. But I’m out of condition. I play for the MPs team. A highlight of that was playing at Carrow Road though. Ian Gibson had arranged for a political team to play against a team of Norwich City All Stars. It was great, but we didn’t play in the ‘real’ goals, which was a bit disappointing. But I can say that I’ve scored at Carrow Road. Anything to be at or near the club really.
“I stayed at the Holiday Inn Hotel overlooking the ground when the Sky coverage of the Labour Party leadership contest was held in Norwich last summer. When the booking was made, I asked to make sure I had a room with a view of the pitch – and was asked if that was because Norwich were playing whilst we were there? No, I said, I just want to be able to stand in my room in the morning and gaze at the pitch!”
Would, I wondered, Ed ever want to take his support of the club a step further – thinking of Delia Smith and Stephen Fry’s involvement with the club and that of his Parliamentary colleague, David Milliband and his involvement with Sunderland (not that I was expecting that Ed necessarily had to invest lots of money into the club!)
“I think I’d have to consider anything that they asked me. No, anything that they asked me to do, I’m sure it would be a pleasure.”
Chatting to Ed in his Office at Portcullis House in London had also been a pleasure and a very interesting experience. As we talked, it was easy to forget the surroundings, the security, and the sense of history and political power that exists in that building, including the very clear sound of Big Ben striking every quarter. Ed is a Norwich fan, and, for the hour or so that we spoke, it was just two Norwich fans chatting about the team they support, the players, the matches and their opinions! I was, and remain, grateful to Ed and his Westminster team for taking the time out for him to talk to me.
Interview condensed from Ed’s book ‘Fantasy Football’, an account of the 1992/93 season that features interviews with many of the key players at that time. Contact Ed for more info about the book including purchase details.