This’ll come round to Norwich City in the present, I promise, but today’s story starts back in 1972.
My guess is many of you weren’t around in 1972. You missed a few things.
It was the year I went to university, with all the physical and mental liberation that involves. There was an extra sense of freedom in the air too: it was a time of great music (the Beatles being succeeded by David Bowie and Pink Floyd); we had student grants that stretched to a fair amount of beer; the Pill was a much-appreciated innovation. Oh, and we studied a bit too.
Some of that liberation will be felt by everyone leaving home, of course, but for a Norwich fan 1972 held something unique. It was the year we first won promotion to the top division.
Our opponents that year in Division 2 (as we imagined it would always be called) were an interesting mix from today’s perspective. Sunderland, Burnley, Hull and Middlesbrough from today’s Premier League, together with the likes of Swindon, Portsmouth, Orient and Luton.
Ron Saunders’ team wasn’t pretty, but we were super-fit – and winners. On 29 April 1972 I was among the army of Norwich fans who figured out how to get to our final game at Watford (little knowing I’d eventually live there for 25 years). A 1-1 draw was enough to secure the title and send us home in delirium.
The words ‘great’ and ‘legend’ are horribly over-used in football, but our goalscorer that day fits the bill. Dave Stringer went to school at the Alderman Leach in Gorleston, almost opposite the house where I grew up. He wanted to play at the highest level, and to play for Norwich City; thanks to Ron Saunders, and of course to his own efforts, he achieved both together.
Stringer went on to make 499 appearances for City, then to become one of the most successful managers in our history.
All this (and more) is described in his chapter in the new Tales from the City Volume 2. The events make an absorbing read – but just as striking is the tone. No-one could have more reason to be proud and arrogant; no-one could actually be more modest. His summary of that amazing career and contribution to Norwich? “I think I didn’t do badly”
Dave Stringer was a right back converted to central defender. He played alongside Duncan Forbes, whose aggression and strength made him the eye-catching one. The combination worked, though, because of Stringer’s mobility and reading of the game. You barely noticed Stringer’s presence, because he did his job so effectively.
My kind of player: the Jonny Howson of his day (how we’re going to miss Jonny over the next few weeks.)
I’d draw two direct lessons from the 1971-72 City team for today’s – one positive, one negative.
I won’t put Russell Martin quite in the same bracket as Dave Stringer, but there are similarities. Stringer never enjoyed the same adoration as Big Dunc, and a section of fans always questioned his place in the team. His managers never questioned it, though: they could see (as Duncan did) the value of his unspectacular work.
Russ is not infallible, but he is emphatically not in the present team because of favouritism.
On the other hand, there’s a quality which shone in the 1972 team and where our present side pales in comparison. Mirroring its physical fitness, the Saunders team had a fierce mental resilience and determination. Call it character or whatever, an individual and collective leadership ran through that team.
Its tangible result was that we held onto leads and repeatedly won games with late goals, especially at the business end of that promotion season. For belief, the team resembled Paul Lambert’s Championship side of 2010-11.
If there’s one area I’d like to strengthen in January, therefore, it would a mental/motivational one rather than a physical one. An old hand, perhaps, who wouldn’t play every game but who’d bring encouragement and leadership to the pitch and the dressing room. Rather as Dion Dublin did for us a decade ago.
While my mind is drifting back to the late Sixties/early Seventies, two City games stick out – both at home to Derby under Brian Clough. In April 1969 they came and gave us a masterclass – the best opposition performance I’d ever seen at Carrow Road, an eye-opener equivalent to Hungary’s iconic demolition of England in 1953. They dispatched us 4-1 which could have been 8-1.
So there was a sense of apprehension at their next visit on 26 August 1972, when they came to newly-promoted Norwich as reigning champions. But our fears were unfounded; the belief and fitness instilled into us by Saunders carried City to a 1-0 win, our first ever home victory in the top division.
If we could inject some of that resilience and spirit into the present team, we’d be formidable. Unlike many callers to Canarycall, I don’t think it’ll require a change of manager. But it’s a higher priority than another central defender.