Watching the tall figure in black being followed around by a horde of little yellow characters, you could have been forgiven for thinking that Norwich City’s lap of appreciation was actually a trailer for the new ‘Despicable Me’ movie.
The ‘minions’ who accompanied John Ruddy on his final circuit of Carrow Road, were the assorted offspring of his soon-to-be-former teammates – and there were LOADS of them.
With the curtain falling on the 2016/17 season, those of us who lingered in the stands witnessed a full-scale (albeit pint-sized) child pitch invasion and also got to see a wholly different side to the players.
Wes Hoolahan – newly crowned Player of the season and tormenter-in-chief of championship defenders – was simply being Daddy (and goalkeeper), delighting the kids by diving full length but just failing to keep out their shots.
Alex Pritchard found himself in the unfamiliar position of both towering over his ‘opposition’ and then ‘gifting’ them possession.
There were kids running around with a ball at their feet under the careful watch of proud fathers; scenes that many parents would recognise from their back gardens or local parks being played out on the Carrow Road turf.
It was lovely to watch and a reminder of the human element behind the names on the team-sheet.
Norwich City is often referred to as being a good family club. Having had the same season tickets for well over 15 years, I’ve grown up / old alongside many familiar faces and seen the next generation – including my own son – join the ranks.
Kids, who wore the full-kit on their first visits to Carrow Road and who were bored rigid by the hour mark, have become teenagers who happily give the officials and away supporters all manner of abuse in between texting their mates.
It’s sometimes easy to forget that the sense of family extends and applies equally to the playing staff.
Since Stuart Webber’s arrival the focus has been on reducing the age profile of our playing squad and with an average age of 28.4 years – the second highest in the division behind Brighton- it’s clear to see why. (Although Hughton’s band of seasoned pros and elder statesmen didn’t serve him too badly).
With so many players in their late twenties or early thirties, it’s no surprise that most have young families. But the age and make-up of the squad may actually reflect the appeal that Norfolk holds for those at a ‘certain point in their lives’.
It’s traditionally been far easier for the club to attract and retain players whose priorities are on finding family homes and decent local primary schools, rather than those looking for the bright lights and nightlife of say London or Manchester.
If testimony was needed on the long-lasting appeal of the area, you only have to ask Darren Huckerby, Dean Ashton, Iwan Roberts or Darren Eadie.
And you can – because they live here.
Despite seeing out their playing careers elsewhere, all returned ‘home’ once it was time to put the boots away.
It’s a city and a region where it’s easy to settle, raise a family and lay down long-lasting roots – things that perhaps we don’t immediately associate with professional footballers.
After all, in relative terms, a playing career is short and that brings a certain pressure to make the most of it financially; a pressure to move to where the money is regardless of location; a pressure to up-sticks as quickly as you can say “season-long loan”.
There’s no problem for those starting out in the game with few ties, but a different proposition for those with a young family to consider.
Take Steven Naismith and his protracted move to City which spanned two transfer windows. Not a simple case of signing on the dotted line to secure more playing time and a three-and-a-half-year deal. It was a decision made with his pregnant wife to relocate the family to Norfolk and yet twelve months later they were facing the prospect of packing their bags for Sunderland.
As fans, we tend to treat players as little more than trading cards.
We run polls on which players we’d get rid of and who should be replaced by someone younger, better or cheaper. We talk of stripping out the ‘dead wood’; those on the fringes who are seemingly happy to pick up their wages without pushing for the first team.
And the club, like any other business, has to make those same decisions without sentiment or regard for the impact on the players’ families.
Not that you’ll hear the players complain – it goes with the territory. The life of your average footballer is by nature a fairly nomadic existence.
And most of us would happily swap positions if we had the same talent for kicking a ball about whilst earning as much in a week as we currently do in a year.
But spare a thought for those who haven’t made it to the higher echelons of the game and don’t command Premier League sized salaries.
Whatever the financial rewards, they are set against the emotional cost of either moving your loved ones away from their friends, their schools and their family home or living separate lives from a distant hotel room.
Football is a ruthless industry with increasingly little room for either loyalty or sentiment.
Stuart Webber has a job to do. He has to be dispassionate and calculated. He has to overhaul a squad which has a core of players who have been part of the club and the community for a long time.
It needs doing but I’m happy to confess I felt more than a twinge of emotion as Big John said his farewells while flanked by his son and daughter.
Because it’s not just the players, but also their nearest and dearest who are facing uncertainty and new challenges away from the place they call home.