It will be a quarter of a century next summer since the launch of the then FA Premier League.
Do you remember the hype?
Sky Sports went into the sort of marketing overdrive that is familiar to us all now, but back then was both a visual and aural assault on the nerves the likes of which football fans, brought up on the likes of Football Focus and Saint & Greavsie had never seen before.
Sky’s anthem for a new season was the safe and somewhat middle of the road soft rock offering of Alive and Kicking (were Sky suggesting that football had died, and that they had resuscitated it?) by Simple Minds, the one and a half minute long feature used to promote the league and their coverage of same not so much breaking the marketing mould of the game in England as strapping it to a nuclear warhead and standing well back.
Things truly never were going to be the same again, and the feature became an immediate talking point the day after it was first broadcast.
It opened, music suggestively playing in the background, to a montage of casually dressed footballers, all of whom were clearly going somewhere together. Convention shattered already!
These players were not at their respective grounds and clubs, were not on a pitch, indeed, there wasn’t a ball or blade of grass in sight! Clad in T-Shirts, jeans and casual jackets, those one-time working class heroes were seen boarding a coach; tantalising glimpses of the likes of Strachan, Beardsley and Wark (and, ever so briefly, Ian Butterworth, the one sighting of a Norwich player in the whole advert!) chatting, teasing, a bit of banter, then a dressing room, a team line up – with them all wearing football shirts with a ‘Sky’ logo on.
And, as the lyrics of the song commenced (“You turn me on…” – no really, I know it sounds preposterous, but this is really how they were marketing the game!) the viewer observed the glamorous Anders Limpar, then of Norwich’s opening day opponents, stirring in his glamorous bed within his glamorous house, dutifully being offered early morning refreshments by his glamorous wife.
Indeed, as the advert treacled its way to a conclusion, the viewer might have been confused as to quite who the football coverage is being aimed at, such was the proliferation of scenes in the gym, the changing room, and the shower – quite clearly not the average football fan!
Football had clearly been ‘sexed up’ with players portrayed as laughing, loving family men; characters with lives of their own far away from the sweat and mud of the pitch. Likewise the supporters had been equally sanitised, happy family groups, mixed and laughing their way to the game as a jolly policeman hitches a small girl up onto his horse.
It’s football Jim (or should that be Rick?), but not as we know it.
All of this, of course, was a million miles away from the reality of Norwich’s opening fixture at Arsenal. Highbury resembled was a building site, with an infamous mural of fans replacing the real ones (though it is argued that the mural offered more atmosphere) at one end whilst the travelling Norwich support were shoe-horned into another.
Oh the glamour of an antiquated ground/building site with barely enough room to move once you had taken your seat. If football really was being perceived as ‘sexy’ that season, then the reality of travel to away games and the facilities on offer weren’t portraying it.
Small seats with minimal legroom, expensive, largely inedible food and toilets that might have featured on a list of UN chemical weapon factories. The reality of ‘going to the football’ was nothing like the Disney-like fantasy that Sky were promoting but, of course, they were promoting a game to people who had absolutely no intention of ever attending one themselves.
Speaking before the game, City manager Mike Walker looked back on the previous seasons efforts from his new charges, hinting at where he thought improvement and change was needed: “…we have a reputation as a good passing team and we will build on that. However, John (Deehan) and I have emphasised our play in the last third of the field. We were lacking there last season. We need to deliver more crosses and improve our finishing. There has been a tendency to make one pass too many…we also need to be more effective when we lose possession. Norwich sides have never closed opponents down enough, so we’re also working hard in that area.”
Surprisingly to many, Walker did not select new signing Mark Robins in starting line up at Highbury, opting to play Rob Newman in attack alongside Chris Sutton, no doubt hoping that the duo’s physical presence (Newman was 6’ 0’’, Sutton 6’ 3”) would upset the Arsenal defence.
There was also the expectation that the two of them would be able to make the very best of the crosses that Ruel Fox and David Phillips would be sending their way. Walker had bemoaned his sides’ brevity in the crossing department during the previous season; he now had, in Fox and Phillips, two men with more than enough ability to send a series of threatening deliveries into the Arsenal penalty area.
Whether or not Arsenal would actually be bullied into submission by Walker’s seemingly most English of tactics remained to be seen. It was, however, a positive objective and one that showed that he was coming to Highbury with the intention of getting a result; his pre-match quote of wanting to make the most of an early visit to Arsenal before they had been able to settle into a rhythm now waiting to be proven.
Both Norwich fans and ex-players have since admitted to me that, at half-time in that opening match, they had thoughts of nothing more than damage limitation. The Gunners had looked comfortable from the off and, after half an hour, had begun to realise that their opponents really did have little to offer as an attacking threat.
So, when a free kick was awarded, which Nigel Winterburn delivered towards the far post, it was perhaps no surprise to see Steve Bould make a quick run into the penalty area and head home the opening goal, despite the very personal attention given by Ian Butterworth.
Barely ten minutes later, Arsenal were two up, this time Lee Dixon had made a run into the opposition half, and, with little or no attempt to close him down made, played the ball into an almost identical area to where Bould had been successful earlier on. This time his low pass found Kevin Campbell who turned and beat the unfortunate Butterworth before calmly slotting the ball past Gunn.
2-0 and game over already? Norwich City were alive but they weren’t doing a lot of kicking.
Arsenal comfortably held on to their lead until half-time and into the second half. And, with around half an hour to go, all seemed as it should be in English football. Arsenal were winning whilst ‘plucky’ Norwich were losing. Rick Parry’s brave new world seemed, to Norwich fans, as looking like nothing more than the preservation of the status quo, albeit in shiny new wrapping paper. Wrapping paper that was red and white.
And then, at about 4:15pm on that hot Saturday afternoon, Mike Walker gave Robins his debut. Perhaps he was sent on with the instructions to loosen up and to get some match time, prior to the Canaries next league game, at home to Chelsea (for whom Fleck was making his debut)?
Alternately, he might really have said to the diminutive striker, who replaced Sutton, that phrase of football legend, ‘…two goals down son, half an hour to go, make a name for yourself, go and win it for us.’
Whatever he did say however, Robins’ arrival on the Highbury turf did lead to the game turning in such a significant and unexpected manner, for all parties concerned, that the final third of the game turned out to be, in my opinion, one of the most significant in the club’s history – a fact as relevant today as it was nearly twenty-five years ago.
Think about it. Had Robins not had the impact on the game that he did; had Norwich proceeded to their expected defeat, no-one would have said anything. Nothing was expected of the fixture or the players; they had turned up, done (undoubtedly) their very best, but succumbed to a better side.
Thus there was no momentum to take into the next game, one which could as easily ended in defeat as this one had done, thus precipitating another mediocre season that saw the club finish, at best, near to the bottom of the table.
No heroics, no European run the following season, no time in the sun for players like Jerry Goss and Bryan Gunn; no near canonisation of Mike Walker; no resultant high expectations from the fans in just about every season since that one.
Robins arrival on that pitch had the same sort of effect on the game and his team-mates that water gives to potassium when a little piece of it is dropped into it. It gave the game momentum and the Canaries some fizz.
69 minutes: Phillips takes a free kick for Norwich, close to where Winterburn had taken his in the first half. The lofted ball into the Arsenal penalty area is similar, as is the end result – Robins swiftly making his move between Smith and Dixon to place a diving header beyond Seaman. 2-1.
72 minutes: Goss plays a speculative high ball across the Arsenal penalty area, towards Seaman’s far post. The keeper should really collect, but he hesitates, leaving David Phillips to steal in and lift the ball past him and into the goal. 2-2.
82 minutes: Its Goss, again on the Arsenal right, this time he plays a through ball along the ground that Denis Bergkamp would have been proud to call his own, allowing Fox to dart in ahead of the lumbering Bould, beating Seaman at his near post. All four goals so far have originated in the same area of the pitch, with two of Norwich’s three down to goalkeeper errors – but who cares? 2-3.
84 minutes: Awarded a free kick on the edge of their penalty area, Seaman plays a long, high ball up to the edge of the Norwich area. Phillips and Smith challenge for the header, the ball is cleared and falls to Newman who lifts a high up and under back in the opposite direction. As the ball descends, it is Tony Adams’ to clear and he really ought to deal with it, but, inexplicably he fails to control the ball and it bounces off his chest and away, free of him and the watching Bould. Robins duly strikes, pouncing on the loose ball and lobs the ball over Seaman from nearly 30 yards for his second and Norwich’s fourth. At this point, the Arsenal fans, clearly confused, are simultaneously booing their own team whilst applauding Robins for the skill and anticipation shown. 2-4
Arsenal 2 Norwich 4
Norwich City sit atop the very first ever Premier League table, an honour and distinction that can never be taken away from us. A league table, of course, after just one game is an irrelevance, curiosity and certainly nothing to be taken seriously. Most football “people” say that no league table has any significance until Easter, so those fledgling Premier League stats for the first day are disregarded by most, nevertheless TV and newspapers alike produce that first league table and it duly does the rounds with Norwich City on top. And if it was such an irrelevance, then why bother printing it in the first place?
Needless to say, events at Highbury are the day’s talking point within the game. On Radio Five, the BBC’s Charlotte Nicholl brought shame to her profession by describing Robins second and the game’s final goal as a ‘hoof’.
The pass towards Robins may have been one, but the finish was not, it was sublime. Was she even watching the game?
As for Match of the Day? Admittedly, they had to break their previously unwritten code about ignoring Norwich with highlights all of the days games now being featured. Hence the action and goals were duly described by a bored sounding Ray Stubbs who, when describing Norwich’s third goal, said that Mark Robins had been sent on by Norwich Manager “Ian Walker” to score a couple of goals.
Yes, Ian Walker, the City manager’s son and Tottenham goalkeeper.
The corporation had featured the Norwich game (Stubbs called it the “shock result of the day by far” in the sort of tones you would normally expect at a funeral) but had, at least, swiftly resorted to type by demonstrating the sort of lazy research and journalism that Norwich fans have come to expect from the national media. At least they’d know who Mike Walker was by the middle of the season.
Meanwhile, after the game, and wearing a rather fetching terracotta blazer that might have come straight from the wardrobe of Sky presenter Richard Keys, Robins, in a brief interview, admitted that “…the pressure is on me now isn’t it? Hopefully the lads will keep on winning”.
The quiet smirk that could clearly be heard coming from the interviewer as Robins spoke was telling, as far as that presenter and, quite possibly, everyone else was concerned, Norwich had enjoyed their 15 minutes of fame and would now settle down to being anonymous again, their act of footballing blasphemy at Highbury tolerated, if not quite forgiven.