You never forget your first time. Football-wise anyway, because you were probably sober.
February 6th 1971. I was taken, as a wildly excited six year-old, to my first ever game. I can clearly recall the glamorous Kevin Keelan, looking like a cross between Peter Purves and the man from the Milk Tray advert, jogging purposefully towards his goalmouth.
I’ve had to look up some of the rest of it, but reassuringly the stalwarts Duncan Forbes and Dave Stringer were there, and most fans of a certain vintage could guess most of the other names. Line-ups didn’t change much for years on end back then.
Heady days. However, I grew up in Teesside, this was Ayresome Park, Middlesbrough, and Boro ran out 5-0 winners. Not only did this result – and the next one I saw, a 4-0 win v Swindon – give me a misleading picture of how the next 45 years would pan out, it’s left me with a permanent soft spot for Norwich.
What’s more, my junior school team, Oxbridge Lane in Stockton-on-Tees (I was admitted to Oxbridge aged seven) played in a yellow and green version of the Arsenal double-winning kit of the time. Green shirt with yellow round-neck collar, and yellow sleeves and shorts, no change kit was ever required. How could you not fall in love with those colours?
The play-off final and a certain 4-4 game I attended tested that affection a bit, but it’s still there. My university friend and teammate, Rick Waghorn – they still talk in hushed tones of a volleyed flick-on from him and first-time finish from me (well, we do) that lit up a poor standard of student football one hungover afternoon – was my host in January 2005.
You all know about that game, 4-1 down with 12 minutes to go, somehow fighting back with a headed equaliser from the smallest bloke in the history of football and possibly the world. I took a rare weekend off from BBC Football to come to Norfolk from London with my wife, spend quality time with my old mucker, and generally get a midwinter break. I feared the worst when some of our fans started to gloat at 4-1, and then a few even sarcastically cheered Norwich’s second goal.
Optimism and complacency have never panned out well on the rare occasions they’ve surfaced amongst the Boro support, and so it proved again. Rick was a gentleman about it, but a bloke I worked with in London who almost never calls me outside work by the name of Hansen decided to leave me an answerphone message which contained so much laughter and strange Scottish idiom, it was more or less unintelligible, luckily enough.
You might not think it, but he likes Norwich, too. He and his wife socialise with Michael and Delia having met them on a cruise, and the producer who usually prepared his analysis was Mark Golley, author of books on birds and ex-Anglia telly man who always kept us all posted on the Norwich scores. Even when you were down the divisions, there’d be a strangulated cry as he watched the scores update on the teleprinter when he was supposed to be logging Everton v Spurs.
As for the play-off final, Boro’s Wembley record consisted of three defeats in three different competitions to Chelsea (ZDS, FA and League Cups) and hideous 117th minute Emile Heskey equaliser with Leicester’s only shot in the 1997 League Cup Final. We lost the replay, lost the FA Cup Final and were relegated that same season having had three points deducted for failing to turn up at Blackburn. And you think you’ve had it bad.
We failed to turn up at Wembley last May, too, but at least you had the decency to put us out of our misery very early on the pitch, and unlike the Chelsea fans, didn’t crow or “large it” waving wads of money and using expressions like “norvern maankeys” on public transport all the way home.
So a year on, some mutual support is needed, as both clubs go thorough the most stomach-churning ends of seasons imaginable. We have three games left, starting with Ipswich at home. You’ll want us to win that, so why not stick with us for the last two?
Meanwhile, you can relegate Newcastle and Sunderland which would add the biggest slab of icing to our cake imaginable. I’m not one of those fans who’s obsessed with our rivals. For a start, unlike you and Ipswich, the feeling’s not really mutual. They’re much more bothered about each other. No-one’s ever punched a police horse after losing to Boro.
Even so, Mike Ashley and his money really do deserve a spell in the wilderness, and Sunderland might as well keep them company.
Boro and Norwich are each run by just about the last set of owners in the upper echelons of the game who are in it for the right reasons. We’ve both won the League Cup and nothing else, bounced up and down the divisions, produced loads of good players, had glorious runs in Europe and represent beautiful cathedral cities.
Actually, that last one’s just Norwich, but Teesside has glorious surrounding countryside, and the Sydney Harbour Bridge was built in Middlesbrough and shipped out there.
So, On The Ball City and Up The Boro, and I really hope we’re playing us other next season. But only if it’s in the Premier League.
PS I think I’ve discovered why Norwich capitulated like that at Ayresome Park back in 1971 – it appears you only had nine players!