After narrowly escaping relegation at the end of their first ever season in the top flight of English football, contemporary thought suggests that Ron Saunders would have spent the summer of 1973 adding to his keen but limited squad, bringing in the sort of players who would add both experience and quality; enough to give Norwich a fighting chance of staying up for a second consecutive season.
Yet, for the third summer running he kept his faith in the same players, something that frustrated many Norwich fans and which would have had many a Canary messageboard and social media site self combust in indignation had it happened today.
His policy of remaining true to those he knew and trusted had, perhaps, been understandable a year earlier. That squad had got them promoted and deserved their chance. However, after a promising start, limitations had become obvious and relegation had only been avoided thanks to Dave Stringer’s last moment heroics against Crystal Palace.
If he hadn’t have scored that injury time goal Norwich would have been relegated, so footballing logic seemed to decree that changes had to be made to the playing personnel if another struggle was to be avoided. As it turned out, Saunders made just the one significant signing that pre-season: Colin Prophett a defender from Sheffield Wednesday who brought with him a reputation – unusual for a defender at that time – that he could “play a bit”.
In a back-four that relied primarily on the honest talents of Stringer and Duncan Forbes, this was a welcome development.
With Prophett in at right-back (replacing Clive Payne) and youngster Steve Govier deputising for the suspended Duncan Forbes, Saunders selected a team that continued to mirror his own outlook on football for the opening league fixture at Wolves. This meant a five-man midfield, one designed to stifle the game and look to, as the saying goes, “nick a result”.
But the result only demonstrated the limitations of this approach. Wolves, a side that wasn’t short of players with natural ability – and included Jim McCalliog, Alan Sunderland, John Richards, Derek Dougan and Ken Wagstaffe – played Norwich off the pitch, securing a convincing 3-1 victory that immediately had alarm bells ringing at Carrow Road.
Norwich had never even been close to giving their opponents a game with only, as was often the case, Keelan’s heroics preventing a much bigger defeat. [In an effort to keep out Dougan’s second goal for Wolves, Keelan got tangled in the netting with the end result of the goal collapsing and falling on him. After repairs to both goal and goalkeeper, he got on with the game].
Post-match, Saunders identified Govier as the weak link in the side, replacing him in Norwich’s next game with 18 year old former apprentice Andy Rollings making his debut against QPR at Carrow Road. In hindsight, the decision looks more one that the manager made to make an example of Govier, rather than place his faith in Rollings. However, and maybe fortuitously, with Stringer alongside him offering constant help and advice, Rollings and the rest of the Norwich side held firm with the game ending 0-0.
Norwich eventually got their first win of that league season in their sixth game, a 2-0 Carrow Road success over Southampton. And, with Forbes back in the side as well as attacking options strengthened with the acquisition of Billy Kellock from Cardiff City, it looked as if things were going to settle down at Carrow Road.
Not so. Arsenal then won 4-0 at Carrow Road in a game that was a watershed in Saunders reign. The six league games that followed saw three draws and three defeats, and, by the time Leicester City arrived at Carrow Road on November 3, Saunders was ready for a few seasonal fireworks, making five changes to the team that had capitulated 3-0 at Chelsea a week earlier, including dropping summer signing Prophett and replacing him with Payne – previously thought surplus to requirements.
What must Prophett and Payne have both thought? Or, come to that, Doug Livermore, a near ever present the previous two seasons who was dumped in favour of Trevor Howard. All symptoms of a manager who seemed as if he was running out of ideas and instigating change for the sake of change, else, as with Govier, to prove a point – if not to his players, then to himself.
Whatever the motivation, it seems clear now that Saunders reign at Carrow Road was coming to an end. A fortuitous win in that Leicester game – thanks to an own goal from Denis Rofe – was followed by more personnel changes and two more defeats and after the second one, a 3-1 home loss to Everton that saw Norwich sink to 20th place in the league, the fans had had enough, with cushions being thrown into the pitch in response to Everton’s third goal.
The resultant post-match bonhomie between the respective teams’ directors and guests was punctuated by a fierce row involving Saunders and Norwich chairman Arthur South. Saunders, who, less than a week earlier had, against his wishes, seen his chairman sanction the move of David Cross to West Ham was already, justifiably angry.
Realising his authority to manage the side had now been usurped, Saunders resigned on the spot.
It says a lot for the Norwich board’s opinion of Saunders that little effort seems to have been made to appease him or get him to change his mind. In truth, maybe each knew that they had gone as far with the other as they could, and this sudden break was just what was needed; a decisive action that suited both parties.
In any case, Norwich were now without a manager and were a club in some disarray. Sixteen games had been played with only 12 goals scored, two wins and a total of 21 different players used; only two fewer than had been used for the whole of the previous league season.
And, as if that wasn’t bad enough, gates had plummeted. Only 19,825 had witnessed the defeat against Everton, whereas the same fixture the previous season, one born of optimism and self belief, had seen nearly an additional 10,000 pack themselves into Carrow Road.
The Norwich board were unanimous in their choice as a successor to Saunders. His disciplined and sometimes dour football had got results, admittedly, but there was very little joy on the pitch at Carrow Road with it, very few goals and even fewer entertainers, save Keelan, and he was there to prevent goals rather than them.
Even the popular Jimmy Bone had been traded by Saunders after just 39 league appearances, and that in exchange for another man able to play the Saunders way in the warrior-like Trevor Hockey, the Robbie Savage of his day – except that Hockey really was a hard man.
Cushions on pitches, a lack of goals and, more worryingly, disappearing fans. The club needed someone who would liven the place up and get things moving again.
The man the Norwich board eventually chose to succeed Saunders was John Bond. He had rivals for the post – Jimmy Frizzell had been working wonders at Oldham Athletic, whilst George Petchey had taken Orient, the smallest team in London, to the fringes of Divison One as well as an FA Cup semi-final, and up in Scotland, Jimmy Bonthrone at Aberdeen had admirers.
However, Bond stood out. His Bournemouth side were drawing rave reviews; a talented team playing entertaining football and looking good for promotion. On the day Saunders quit, they had drawn 1-1 at Grimsby, finding themselves handily placed in 4th place in the old Division Three.
Some might even have feared that, had things progressed as they might, the two sides might both be meeting, on equal terms, back in Division Two the following season, a thought that must have set a collective shudder around the Carrow Road boardroom. The decision was therefore made and, after a mighty battle of wills with his opposite number at Dean Court, South was able to announce Bond as the club’s new manager, his arrival at Carrow Road coming seven years after he had been close to accepting an offer from Lol Morgan to join the coaching staff at Carrow Road.
The difference between Bond and his predecessor could not have been more obvious. Saunders had revelled in the image of an old fashioned sergeant-major – strict, unyielding, disciplined and uncomfortable with the media. Bond, on the other hand, was a journalist’s dream. Always ready to give a quote or two, he had been schooled in the West Ham way and wanted his players and teams to express themselves the Hammers had always done; by playing a fast, passing game with the emphasis on goals and entertainment.
It is unlikely that he would have considered the job however had the Norwich board, admittedly used to the relatively modest demands of Saunders, not agreed to provide funds. He certainly went about spending the money.
His first match in charge saw a debut for the striker who had blossomed under him at Bournemouth, Ted MacDougall who arrived at Carrow Road in a swap deal with West Ham that had finally seen Graham Paddon given the chance to perform on a bigger stage.
The Canaries lost that game at Burnley 1-0, but the performance had been encouraging, more so because Bond peppered the side with attacking players, as well as having one, Howard, on the bench. That loss dropped Norwich to bottom place, but there was renewed optimism around Carrow Road and with Ken Brown following Bond to Carrow Road from Bournemouth, a managerial duo that would have representation at the club for the next fourteen years was in place and ready to do the impossible – keep City up.
By the time Liverpool arrived at Carrow Road for Bond’s first home match in charge, two more new players had arrived at Carrow Road, both of them Bournemouth old boys in Mel Machin and John Benson, both defenders with Benson formally Bond’s captain at Dean Court.
Three new players and barely a fortnight into his tenure. It had been evolution under Saunders, but was most definitely a Carrow Road revolution with Bond.
The side he picked to play Liverpool was packed with attacking flair. Machin was selected at right back but wasn’t shy about going forward and in addition to that youngster Paul Cheesley was given the nod to play alongside MacDougall in a side that also featured Terry Anderson on the right of midfield – his first start for three months.
Bond clearly wanted to take the game to Liverpool and, on an icy pitch, get at them with a mix of power and pace. It paid off spectacularly well, with Cheesley racing clear inside the first minute to slam the ball past Clemence with all the confidence of a seasoned pro – not a young lad who had just scored his first goal in 23 senior games.
Pandemonium at Carrow Road and the slightest sign of a smile from the new man in the home dugout, even after a Peter Cormack goal for Liverpool meant that the game ended up as a 1-1 draw. But the result mattered now. Because the next phase in the story of Norwich City was about to begin.