“…YEAOAHHHHHH WHAT A GOALLLL!!”
The date: 5th March 2017, the place: Hillsborough. The time: 14 minutes into the first half. John Ruddy scrambles back towards a flailing Russell Martin who attempts to make a goal line clearance from Ross Wallace’s shot from 40 yards out. Instead he passed it to Wednesday’s Wallace who stuck the ball into the back of the net. 1- 0 to the Owls but it was to get worse, much worse….
Next trip: 6th May 2018. Last day of the season, players on the beach and an opportunity for James Maddison, Reed and Gunn to say goodbye to the faithful City fans. At the final whistle James Maddison hobbled over to wave a farewell crutch at the away fans, and Harrison Reed and Gunny stood there applauding. Our son Jacob, having been assured a 5-1 would never happen again, had the mother of all meltdowns/overloads as the players trudged down the tunnel. In Jacob’s mind the blueprint had been set and history was repeating itself.
As some of you know, Jacob is nearly 24 now and is autistic. Those few minutes in Sheffield back in 2017 had a profound effect on him. The YouTube clip of Ruddy’s calamitous error, and the five goals that followed, have been played back to us over and over again the last couple of years.
It became a metaphor for that was foremost in Jacob’s mind at the time: His overwhelming anxiety and that negative intrusive thoughts can actually come true. The team that he loved didn’t seem to care, his worry about the fans’ hostility to them, and a manager on the ropes all added to his sense that some type of catastrophe was looming.
Less than a week after that, Alex Neil lost his job, and Jacob was in hospital after suffering from a seizure when we got home after the Bristol City away 1-1 no-show. Lots of things conspired at the time to make all our lives feel pretty grim. It sounds odd to those “neurotypicals” (the rest of us who are not autistic), but Jacob used that YouTube footage as a way of explaining and communicating his feelings.
After Jacob’s seizure we took him to a specialist neurologist in London for investigation. The lovely Professor Koepp (himself from Dortmund, and a Dortmund fan who loved talking football with him) explained that Jacob has a very different memory to most of us. The upside of this is that he can instantly recall detailed information relating to football, trains and the UK road network. A sort of photographic memory plus, which is very handy for away-days.
The downside is that Jacob can not only remember events vividly but can relive them as if it were the present time, in a way similar to the Post Traumatic Shock Disorder experienced by victims of horrendous disasters (this is actually a common thing those with autism have to deal with). The main difference with Jacob is that the “traumatic events” that can terrorise him would to most people seem trivial. That first goal at Hillsborough is one such example.
The week before Saturday’s game was difficult for Jacob. Memories of March 2017 weighed heavily on his mind. We repeated the mantra to Jacob that “fortune favours the brave, and dragons are made to be slayed”, and just hoped that our incredible form would continue at Hillsborough, or even just that we would not suffer another footballing “ignominy” as Jacob calls them.
So on Saturday morning, as we packed our stuff into Wes the campervan, you can understand a certain degree of nervousness in the Bowles camp. Jacob had predicted a 3-1 win for Norwich. No one else seemed to share his optimism. He was six-years-old the last time we won at Hillsborough and it has been ten years since we won an away game in November.
The day started in a pretty standard way. We work to a “Cabbage plus one” departure time, so seeing that Club Canary was leaving Carrow Road at 09.30am we set off just after 10.30. The first decision of the day was made – A47 or A11? Stuck behind a lorry, or stuck in the roadworks at Cambridge? Well it was a nice bright crisp November morning, and far too nice to be stuck behind a FreshLinc truck for 2 hours, so we went for the A11.
It turned out to be a good choice, as we had a great journey and arrived at Herries Road, just next to the ground just after 1.30pm.
Just a word about matchday parking. Car parking at football grounds is a rare thing now, so we rely on a map, Jacob’s memory and the JustPark app to find a suitable spot. For those of you who think “what could go wrong with a car park?” probably haven’t had to find a space at an away game.
Public/municipal car parks, after all, are maintained and have regard to people’s health and safety. They are well lit, and if you trip up on uneven ground in one then you can sue the local council if you get injured.
Not so for “matchday” parking facilities, which tend to be at the Wild West end of the parking spectrum. These are usually located in weird and wonderful spaces close to the ground, usually an industrial estate, or even waste ground (the best one was at Villa, where we were surrounded by rubble, fly-tipped sofas and the like).
They have stewards though, (who make sure you are parked so close to the car next to you that you have to hold your breath to get out of your own vehicle). On Saturday we parked in a scaffolding lot, surrounded by random metal piping and assorted detritus. A scaffold yard is not a picturesque picnic spot, but at least a place to eat our pre-match lunch.
A trip to the blue side of Sheffield is an altogether more pleasant outing than its red counterpart. Owls fans are open, friendly and the ground and the area generally does not have the lurking menace, which seems to be a feature of a visit to the United ground, where the possibility of violence always seems to be somewhere in the air (at our 1-0 victory there last season, we were confronted by a raised-fisted fan who casually came up to ask if we “wanted some”).
Wednesday fans, by contrast, seem much chilled and friendlier. Perhaps together they balance each other out to provide an equilibrium in the city, for every negative there is a positive, for every Ying there is a Yang, for every Barry Fry there’s a Stephen Fry, that sort of thing.
Anyway, four different Owls fans came up to us on the way to the ground. “Hope your lot go easy on us”, said one. “If it’s 0-3 at half time I’m going home”, said another. “We’re in for a beating today”. We looked puzzled. We haven’t won here for 17 years, what are they on about? One thing was for sure, the home crowd were fragile, and an early City goal might turn them…
The few minutes before kick-off were suitably sombre as the stadium joined together in a minute’s silence for the victims of the tragic events in Leicester last week. It was also the last home game before Remembrance Sunday and the minutes’ silence was preceded by a lone bugler playing the last post, which was very poignant.
Kick off, and the home crowd were unusually quiet. They really were nervous. A fair few blue empty seats but this was no Portman Road.
“Penalty!!” after we had spent the opening ten minutes terrorising the Wednesday defence, and Vrancic had the opportunity to send the Owls fans into a spiral.
Having assured Jacob that missed penalties happen sometimes, and that the two Rhodes’ misses were unlikely to happen again, we felt confident when Vrancic stepped up to the plate. He takes our penalties and can score from them. Oh…
As an aside, a rule change from FIFA on penalties would be welcome. Many City fans would prefer the option of a cash prize or even a free raffle ticket rather than a penalty at the moment.
Still, the enthusiasm of the crowd was unabated, and they sang the usual favourites, including a new Paul Lambert one, which is now part of the repertoire. Halftime and somehow it was 0-0. A scoreline every City fan would have happily taken before the game but what now? We were clearly the better side but Wednesday were still in it. Surely not again…
There isn’t any half-time entertainment at Hillsborough, which actually makes a welcome change. Looking around, City fans looked a little reflective, but the mood was holding up. We reassured Jacob that this scoreline is better than the last two visits as it stands when we were 3-1 down and 2-0 down respectively. We tried not to think about Portman Road, where the hosts were 1-0 up to a poor Preston.
The second half starts… And six minutes later we were all bouncing. Pukki you beautiful man! Emi makes it two, Pukki again… And it doesn’t get better than this. Wait, it does! Off goes Teemu to rapturous applause, and on comes Dennis Srbeny… it’s four. They think it’s all over… It is now!
After the first City goal went in a few Owls fans were seen heading for the exits. After the second, the stand next to us started to clear. Chants of “Is this a fire drill?” ring out amongst the away end. By the fourth it looked like the drill was for real, and a full evacuation was underway.
At about 4.20pm the tide turned, and it’s our head coach who is riding the wave. Cries of “There’s only one Daniel Farke” rang out from the Norwich faithful, the first time we have heard this particular chant in a football stadium. The crowd have now taken him to their collective bosom. The ghost of Paul Lambert is laid to rest, and it could not have come at a better time.
No matter what happens, there is no way that Lambert’s name will ever be sung by City fans again except to the tune of “Daydream Believer”. Paul Lambert, whose presence on TV used to make our hearts leap in the same way it would when you saw the ex-lover who walked out on you, is now consigned to history and the fading photos have been thrown out of the attic.
Now we are in love with our new squeeze, the team, with Farke, with our fans, with the club, with everyone, and are full of the joy and hope that love brings. The cries of “Farke is our king” and “Only one Daniel Farke” were genuine, warm and heartfelt. Yes, we had a special time with Lambert. But this is our new very special time.
News then reaches us that Lewis Grabban had scored for Forest against the Blades. The same man who taunted us when he scored for Forest at the City Ground a few weeks earlier. Football karma now puts us top of the league.
Meanwhile, at Portman Road Alex Neil’s men equalise with Paul Gallagher doing a Cody McDonald in goal. Ipswich hold on to bottom place. We were top of the league, and even if only until Boro play, that evening. It doesn’t matter.
Chants of “We’re Norwich City, we’re top of the league” rang out (and continue until we leave the stadium). The final whistle sent City fans crazy, and the team and Farke made their way over to us rapturous fans.
We spoke to a few Owls fans on our way back to the scaffold depot/parking lot. They showed class and were full of praise for the City performance. Most were in despair at the way things are going, angry at Westwood being dropped, and generally disparaging of their team. We wonder if Lukahay’s time is over, but one thing we do know is that it should have been 5, 6 or even 7. We were just relieved it wasn’t 1-5 though.
If you want to see what that result meant to us, see Rob Butlers’ tweet (below) with the footage of the City fans chanting and clapping. (Sharon is in her “Farke Parka” holding her scarf to the heavens and belting out “On the ball City”. Last full time we were in the stands at Hillsborough she was in tears, too choked to sing “On the Ball City” as we clapped Maddison goodbye).
This is what it means.
TOP OF THE LEAGUE! pic.twitter.com/J7O3Ayrm7D
— Rob Butler (@BobRutler) November 3, 2018
We managed to get home before the Highways Agency closed the A11 and A14 (an occupational hazard for away fans, especially for those night games). It felt like we had flown home. We watched the goals on Colin Murray’s show and agreed that goal number three was a thing of beauty/sheer poetry/football pornography.
We have a Post-It on our fridge, one of many affirmation Post-Its we put all over our house for Jacob. “Fortune favours the brave,” it says. And yes, dragons are made to be slain.