Contrary to what we are often led to believe, football in England did not begin with the first ever Premier League campaign back in the 1992/93 season.
I’m not being flippant either. Time and time again I’ve read, else heard a comment on the game talking about various domestic records for clubs and leagues. More often than not, the records apply to any and all football played in this country since 1992.
There is an occasional, almost embarrassed reference to the fact that there had been a domestic league programme in the century or so leading up to the formation of the current corporate behemoth; that tip of the lustrous tail that wags the rest of the mangy and ill-treated dog that is 21st century football in this country but, much more often than not, it remains something which is conveniently forgotten.
Chief executive Richard Scudamore sits and bangs the drum for the Premier League as its member clubs pontificate in the sunshine above the decks in all their glory whist, deep down in the darkest depths of our game, the representatives of the other 72 league clubs drive their centre piece along.
Was, is and forever will be.
And if we are destined to rejoin them next season then so be it. It’s not as if we haven’t gone through it all before. Prior to the start of this season, we’d already experienced six relegations (or two, as the current scribes of the game would have it) from the top flight of English football; ignominious departures all but drops that have, none the less, been responded to with an immediate return on four from those six occasions.
I’ll think about if we can make it five from seven as and when the occasion presents itself.
Yet, should the worse happen, who does the relegation buck ultimately stop with?
For most people it would be the manager. He is, after all, the man who makes all of the footballing decisions at any football club (in theory at least. At most, our own included, I suspect his input on football matters is neither final nor total), therefore it is he who should take the blame for those failings on the pitch as much as he accepts the plaudits for those all too rare successes.
So what have we done with the men in charge who oversaw a Canaries top flight relegation?
1973/74 – Ron Saunders. Survived.
1980/81 – Ken Brown. Survived.
1984/85 – Ken Brown. Survived.
1994/95 – Gary Megson. Not retained.
2004/05 – Nigel Worthington. Survived.
2013/14 – Neil Adams. Survived.
Looking at each of those relegations and the circumstances behind them reveals some interesting information on each and every one of those seasons as well as the circumstances behind each of their appointments and subsequent departures from the club. But I’m going to focus on just one of them today, mainly because there are some similarities that link him and his time at Carrow Road with those surrounding our current manager.
Ron Saunders, who, like Alex Neil, was a relatively young (he was 37 when he took over at Carrow Road) and inexperienced manager, who (again, like Alex Neil) had been headhunted from a lower league club; in this case, Oxford United, where he had impressed during his short time at the Manor Ground.
Saunders inherited a club in some disarray on and off the field. The club’s youth policy was virtually non-existent (he actually did very little to improve it, something which John Bond took responsibility for almost as soon as he was appointed), the club was in debt and the squad he had to work with was, with a few notable exceptions, comprised of mediocre and relatively disinterested old footballing lags who were going through the footballing motions at Carrow Road.
Yet there was no way he could just walk in and immediately bomb them out. Not straight away in any case. He had to get them all playing, get them playing his way.
There was no way Saunders was going to set another standard for Alex Neil to follow by taking Norwich up at the first time of asking. His first game, a 3-0 defeat at Leicester City on August 2, 1969 came five matches into that 1969/70 season, one that saw the Canaries eventually finish in 11th place in the Division Two table.
His team, incidentally, for that game at Filbert Street was as follows – Keelan, Stringer, Butler, Mallender, Forbes, Anderson, Foggo, Bryceland, Conlon, Bennett and Crickmore.
Saunders and Norwich finished in 10th place at the end of the 1970/71 season before, gloriously and most improbably, he guided the Canaries to the Second Division Championship the following campaign.
That was the one that saw the Canaries go on that dreadful run of games in the league that I highlighted on social media earlier this week and which my fellow MFW writer Stewart Lewis mentioned in an article of his own.
It was a grim one and no mistake. There seemed little to worry about at Carrow Road on November 18, 1972 after a 2-0 home win over West Brom saw Norwich move up to sixth place in the Division One table, level on points with the bunch from Suffolk and just five points behind leaders Liverpool. It wasn’t even the highest we’d been in the table so far that season. A run of four wins in five games from mid-September onwards, victories over Arsenal and Tottenham included, had seen Norwich also move up into sixth place in the table.
That win against Tottenham, played out in front of a Carrow Road crowd of 34,445, saw David Cross score twice for the Canaries in their 2-1 win, the team that Saunders picked on the day being as follows: Keelan, Payne, Black, Stringer, Forbes, Briggs, Livermore, Bone, Cross, Paddon and Anderson.
How many people will think of David Cross and Jimmy Bone as their favourite Norwich strike duo I wonder? Twenty five goals between them that season, a hugely impressive stat, even more so when you consider that Bone was shipped out in early-February in exchange for Trevor Hockey of Sheffield United.
Could they have ended that season with over 30 goals between them? It would be hard to argue that they couldn’t have.
The good times were rolling at Carrow Road. Kevin Keelan was a personality footballer in the same way that Peter Osgood and Frank Worthington were, whilst Graham Paddon was being talked of as an England player in waiting, such was his form and flair in the Canaries midfield. He ended that season with twelve goals. What we would give for an attacking midfielder these days who could score that many goals over a season of top flight football.
He was the Dele Alli of his day.
Ron Saunders was also being talked about. His Norwich side showed no fear and went into games determining to let the opposition worry about them rather than the other way around. The Canaries were a side in his image. They were fit and strong; they chased and harried their opponents for 90 minutes.
And they got some astonishing results, one of which was a 3-0 win at Arsenal in the League Cup quarter finals. This was the Arsenal who, two seasons earlier had won the League and FA Cup double, a side who, the previous season, had reached the FA Cup final again and reached the quarter finals of the European Cup. And, crucially, this was a time when the clubs cared about the domestic cup competitions.
The Arsenal side that Norwich so casually swatted aside at Highbury that night was no scratch XI; it featured the likes of Wilson, Rice, McNab, McLintock, Radford and George. Internationals. Men who had won the double. Plus another who had played in a World Cup final.
It was, and remains, one of the most impressive results in Norwich’s history; up there with the FA Cup wins over Manchester United and Tottenham in 1959 and the one over Bayern Munich in 1993.
Saunders was taciturn when it came to his media duties. He said very little but he made his words count. He’d look the interviewer straight in the eye, chin jutting out, back straight. No nonsense.
You didn’t mess with him as this forever memorable copy he once gave Gerry Harrison showed, demonstrating his tunnel vision and desire for success no matter what the cost. Asked by Harrison for his initial thoughts on the playing squad he had inherited when he took on the job as manager, Saunders, deadpan fixed a steely eye on him and answered, “A mixed one. Some good players. Some not so good. Some good types of players, you know, as individuals, some not so good types. And, obviously… (telling pause)… the problem was to sort them out.”
“What was the first thing you did?”, mooted Harrison.
“I sorted them out.”
No doubts there then.
Saunders may not have thought there was a great deal of ‘sorting out’ that needed doing after the Canaries had followed up their win over West Brom with a 4-1 defeat at Birmingham in their next game, one that had seen them go ahead through an Alan Black goal after 22 minutes. Gary Pendrey had made the scores level at half-time before the Blues struck three times in twelve second-half minutes to make it a most uncomfortable day for all of those of a yellow and green hue, a collapse precipitated by Dave Stringer exiting with a rib injury with his replacement, Neil O’Donnell then being knocked unconscious.
It was a blip surely, a one off?
Sadly not. Norwich lost their next three games, conceding eight goals in the process. A home win against Wolves should have followed after Bone had given the Canaries the lead but, agonisingly, Derek Dougan equalised with a little over a quarter of an hour left.
That result, in particular, seemed to knock, two days before Christmas, all of the proverbial stuffing out of the Canaries that season with the afore mentioned win against West Brom preceding a nineteen game winless run in the top flight as follows; L L L L D L D L L L L L D L D L L D and L.
Five points from a maximum of 38. Or, as it would translate today, five points from a maximum of 57.
Yet there was never any doubt that Saunders would stay on as manager. Not at all.
He was still young, he was still raw, he was still learning his trade in the top flight of English football. It was an unforgiving place for the rookie and didn’t he, and his team, know it.
That run saw Norwich drop from the dizzying heights of sixth on November 18th to 22nd and bottom after a defeat, their 14th from 19 games, at Manchester United on April 7, 1973.
The Canaries looked doomed. With five games to play they were bottom with just 26 points with West Brom one above them in 21st place [goal average, rather than goal difference was used at the time, the Baggies had, on that day, a goal average of 0.01 superior to that of the Canaries – fine margins indeed!] also on 26 points, with Crystal Palace in 20th [only two teams went down] on 27 points.
With Manchester United in 19th place and looking reasonably secure – especially as it was two, rather than three points for a win back then – on 31 points and with a game in hand on both Norwich and West Brom, the candidates looked likely to be any two from three, two from Norwich, West Brom or Crystal Palace.
It was, in effect, a relegation ‘mini league’ that Norwich needed to win in order to stay up. Sound familiar?
One thing the Canaries did have in their favour however, was that they were, in those remaining games, still due to play both those clubs; games that were very much four-pointers and would go a long, long way in deciding who stayed put and who went down.
Circumstances which, again, have a resemblance to how the remainder of this season will end up with Sunderland and Newcastle, our fellow clubs in this campaigns top flight relegation mini league, both set to play Norwich. Games that are very much six-pointers and will go a long, long way in deciding who stays put and who goes down.
As things turned out, Norwich won both of those critical games, beating West Brom at the Hawthorns 1-0 before confirming their safety with a 2-1 win over Palace at Carrow Road three days later and just one day (fixture congestion? What’s that?) after a 3-0 defeat at Wolves; hardly the sort of game or result you needed to go into a relegation decider on the back of.
Yet Norwich did with ten of the starting XI who started at Molineux also starting against Palace the following evening.
That run of three wins in their last five games (Norwich had ended their dismal sequence of nineteen without a win with a 1-0 win over Chelsea on April 14, was enough to see Norwich finish in 20th place and safety.
Saunders had, resolute and convinced of both his methods and his players, seen it through to the end amidst scenes of wild celebration accompanying Dave Stringer’s 90th minute winner.
If Stringer had not risen to the occasion, if that game had ended 1-1, it would have been Norwich and not Crystal Palace who would have been relegated at the end of that season-by 0.16 of a goal.
Dave Stringer, “Mr Norfolk”, had kept Norwich up in the dying seconds of the penultimate game of the season.
They and Saunders had, against all the odds, survived. The question now was, would Saunders, the man who the Norwich board had kept their faith in, keep them there and reward the faith that had been put in him?