Today we said goodbye to one of the greats. One of our greats. And it’s fitting that his final journey included a funeral service at Carrow Road.
Mick Dennis, who was a reporter on the Pink Un when Duncan Forbes was in his pomp, was asked by the family to give a eulogy, an honour he of course accepted.
Here are Mick’s words:
You have to consider Duncan Forbes both as a man and as a footballer to understand why he is revered so much by the Norwich City family.
Only by evaluating his peerless qualities both on the pitch and off it can we appreciate why he will be remembered with such affection as well as with such admiration.
Forbes the footballer and Forbes the man were contradictions. As a player, his team-mates knew he would give everything, and his opponents knew he would give them nothing. He was a serious competitor.
But with Forbes the man, you soon realised that, off the football pitch, the best policy was never to take him seriously. Whatever he was saying, despite the poker face and solemn tone, was almost certainly a joke – a quite daft one that others had heard him tell, and with which you would also become familiar through repetition.
Forbes the footballer looked if he was hewn from granite. He was the defender who defined defending and the natural leader who captained the club at a momentous time.
It was with Forbes as captain that this club lifted its horizons, dared to aspire, and refused to be Little Old Norwich. How could we be little with Big Dunc leading us?
Forbes the man had a wicked sense of humour. It was deployed with a unique, potent mixture of cheek, brashness and gusto.
When he arrived anywhere, he caused complete chaos, and as he made his progress through a building, or along a street, he left a wake of people who were startled or laughing … and usually both.
And so, although this is a crushingly sad time for his family and friends — and for this great club in this fine city — so many people have been recalling their memories of Duncan Forbes and finding themselves smiling.
The tribute we heard in this service by his son Scott mentioned the story about Duncan going into Barclay’s Bank and calling out: “This is a stick-up”. In the version I heard, one woman customer became overwrought with fear. But, as the staff explained to her, “That’s just Duncan Forbes”.
There’s the fabulous yarn about when Duncan was working for the club’s commercial department and taking charge of coaches travelling to away games. Noticing an empty seat on one bus he asked who was missing and was told it was someone who couldn’t get time off from his job at the Boulton and Paul works, which used to be over there on Riverside.
So Forbsey marched into Boulton and Paul, found the missing supporter, then found his boss and demanded that the guy should be allowed to come and take his seat on the bus. The boss complied. Of course he did. It was Duncan Forbes telling him he had to.
Roger Smith, who compiled the marvellous Canary Companion book of statistics and facts, reminded me that Duncan wrote the foreword to the first edition. It began like this: “When this book was brought to my attention and I was asked to ‘Do the Forward’, I replied ‘Yes, I had plenty of experience of that’.”
Dave Stringer told me about a train trip. The players used to travel by rail to away games and if they were going into Liverpool Street on a Friday night the train was usually very busy. People sat where they could. And so, one evening, a young woman English teacher sat next to Duncan. He told her he’d got a question about English for her.
I can’t do his rich, bass, Scots accent, so you’ll have to imagine, but this is what he said:
“Which is correct? The yoke of an egg are white or the yoke of an egg is white?”
She answered: “It’s the yoke of an egg is white.”
“No!” roared Duncan, “the yoke of an egg is yellow!”
With Duncan, Yellow was always the colour.
Many years later, when Duncan was chief scout and Dave Stringer was manager, they would often drive together to an evening game to watch a particular player. Duncan would take four Murray Mints. Never more than four. For both of them. He always told Dave: “You can have one on the way to the game and one on the way back”. It was his continuing joke that to have, perhaps, three sweets each would be an extravagant over-indulgence.
After the game they’d have a long journey back and finally drive home in the small hours via Rouen Road. If there were working girls walking the street, Forbes would wind down his window and bellow: “Hello Ladies!”
Stringer would sink down into his seat and pretend not to be there.
Dave Stringer was the Ernie Wise to Duncan’s Eric Morecambe off the pitch. On it they were the best centre-back pairing ever to pull on the yellow and green.
Dave quietly went about his business. Duncan never did anything quietly. Together, they formed a formidable football alliance and from their playing partnership there grew an enduring friendship.
This is what Forbsey said about how that pairing worked.
“We clicked. Dave always used to mark the small, little chap. I used to get the big chap and I must have broken my nose seven or eight times; I was continually going up to the hospital to get it straightened and fixed. I used to complain to Stringer and say, ‘You’re not making any challenges!’”
Here’s how Dave remembers it:
“We didn’t play similarly, Duncan and me. Our personalities were very different, too. But the similarity between us was that we didn’t want to lose — at anything we did.
“And I knew Duncan’s game. He loved to man-mark. I knew that, whether the main striker was on the left or the right, Duncan would challenge him and I would work off that, going around behind to cover, or being ready to win the second ball, or picking up the second striker”.
Dave added this about Duncan: “The reason Duncan loved man-marking was that he wanted to know what his job was and wanted to get on with that job and give it everything”.
I think that is very telling. It’s a perfect precis of Duncan’s approach on the field: he had a job to do — stopping the main opposition striker from scoring — and he dedicated everything to that assignment.
It also explains Duncan’s approach to training: he knew his job was to get himself in peak condition, so he got on with it and gave it everything.
He carried that attitude into all the roles he fulfilled at Norwich in the 33 years he was on the staff. The first 13 were as a player, of course, and the last 13 were as chief scout, and the bit in between was when he was working for the commercial department — when he learned and remembered the names of supporters, and when they never quite got over the fact that he addressed them by those names.
Dave Stringer said this about the years Duncan Forbes spent as a scout:
“Wherever he went he would meet people he knew. Some of them had been his adversaries on the pitch – deadly enemies – but everyone respected Forbesy, and as a Scout, he could get anyone talking and telling him things.”
That is another very revealing comment: “Everyone respected Forbesy”. I’d actually say, everybody loved Forbesy. Except opponents.
For its first 70 years, Norwich City never seriously threatened to be more than a decent, provincial second-tier team. Then two very different managers, with very different philosophies, altered everything. And both of them entrusted their plans, and our dreams, to Duncan Forbes.
Ron Saunders was the manager who made our players fitter and better drilled than any other team in the second tier.
And Forbes was the captain who personified the Saunders side and who led Norwich City into the top division for the very first time and to their first Wembley appearance – a League Cup Final.
Then, John Bond became manager and wanted finesse instead of just fitness, enterprise as well as effort. But he too relied on Forbes to captain the team. There was a relegation but, with Forbes leading once more, there was a second promotion to the top tier and a second Wembley final.
And so of course the fans adored Forbes.
When our captain strode out onto this pitch, with his sleeves rolled up and his chest out, we knew that whatever happened, whatever the opposition did, whatever the ref did, whatever unfolded … Big Dunc would give every last ounce of his endeavour, would never once shirk, would always strive, always battle.
And so Carrow Road sang: “Six foot two, eyes of blue, Duncan Forbes is after you!”
It was a war cry: a statement of intent by us and for us. And it was a threat to the opposition striker which Dunc always turned into a promise.
Here’s what he said about his own playing style:
“Every player you played against then, you had a battle. If they saw you were weak, you’d be finished. So, early on, you would just go through them; let them know you were there. I wouldn’t go out to kick a player and get him injured, but I was able to tackle from the back — kind of take the man and the ball at the same time.”
It would have been interesting if Duncan were playing in today’s modern football. I’d like to see the conversation in which Daniel Farke tries to convince Duncan to play out from the back, or to pass sideways, back and forth to Stringer, two or three times.
But, actually, Daniel would value Duncan’s utter commitment and treasure his unshakeable determination to do the very best he could for Norwich City.
And so, although the years have marched on and the decades have become a procession, today Norwich City Football Club is doing the best it can for Duncan Forbes. This is a unique service, and I know from talking to his son Elliott, that the family appreciate the respect and gratitude which this service represents. How appropriate it is that we are remembering Duncan at Carrow Road, and at the Barclay end.
I am standing very close to the spot where Duncan Forbes scored his last League goal for Norwich City.
That was in April 1978, the last home fixture of the season, a top division game against West Brom. City were trailing 1-0 until the 90th minute. Big Dunc thumped in a shot. Bang. 1-1. Cue barmy celebrations from supporters where you’re all sitting and Forbesy clenching his fist in satisfaction. Job done, one more time.
I remember that goal particularly well, because that match was the last I reported for the Pink Un and the EDP.
I couldn’t imagine, of course, that 41 years later I’d be here, so close to the spot from which he scored, standing at his memorial service, tasked with delivering his eulogy.
It is the toughest gig I’ve ever had. I could have done with one of his pep talks, and he’d definitely have given me a stiff talking to if he could see the state I’m in. But I want to thank Janette and the rest of the family for asking me. It is a huge honour, and a privilege.
That game, at the end of the 77-78 season wasn’t the end of Duncan’s career as a player. I am indebted to club historian James Woodrow for looking up what came next.
Duncan had ten more first-team appearances, eked out over three seasons during which Forbes was principally in the reserves where he mentored youngsters. And when I say “mentored”, I mean “shouted at”.
His final competitive match for the City first team was in October 1980 (a 1-1 draw here against Wolves). He was 39 years and 114 days old. Only two players from the very different, pre-war era represented Norwich at a greater age.
After City he played for Yarmouth for a while, and for Unity Emeralds in the Norwich and District Sunday Football League.
I just love the thought of a Sunday League forward finishing his fag, jogging out on to the pitch and spotting Duncan Forbes sizing him up and smiling.
The fact that Forbesy played for the first team at very nearly 40 — in the top division, don’t forget — was a testimony to his fitness and to the work he put in to maintain that fitness.
To those of us who watched him, he seemed indestructible. So it was sad beyond words to learn that in the years when he should have been enjoying retirement — and causing havoc among friends and strangers he encountered — he was being perniciously diminished by one of the cruellest illnesses.
I cannot bear that thought, but I do want to report what Dave Stringer said about Duncan’s Alzheimer’s:
“The person who is ill like that doesn’t have the concerns and heartbreak that the family and friends have but Duncan’s family supported him brilliantly”.
I’d add that Dave Stringer was a true friend until the very end.
And so the only appropriate way to end this eulogy is with some more words from Duncan’s playing partner and friend.
Dave Stringer said this:
“How will we remember Duncan Forbes?
Loyal, popular, a winner … All of these things.
Most of all loyal. Loyal to his family, friends and to Norwich City Football Club.
From the moment he joined the Canaries, it was obvious he was a hard competitor whose will to win was infectious.
He demanded of himself 100 per cent effort – and expected the same of his team-mates.
His drive and encouragement spurred us on. He didn’t allow anyone to slack.
Even when we were 3-0 down with minutes to go, he would say: ‘Come on! We can still win this’.
Ever the optimist.
His and our reward for our efforts was to get to the top division for the first time. Duncan had the privilege of receiving the cup on the balcony of City Hall – an honour he justly deserved.
This was the beginning in the rise in achievements that the football club have enjoyed since.
Duncan went on to serve the club in several roles. All the people he came into contact with have a story to tell. His humour is well-documented. In his own words, he could cause a riot in an empty house.
Duncan’s memory will live on for ever in the history of Norwich City Football Club.
Rest in peace, Duncan.”
Tracey Rix says
Big Duncan always in thoughts of everyone forever and ever Rip big man
Dorset Canary says
Lovely to be able to read this. A truly fitting tribute to one of our greatest. Thank you for publishing.
Keith Fuller says
Lovely stuff Mick, Thank you
Neil Pearce says
Fitting tributes to a great man and Norwich City legend. Fine words and he deserves all the accolades that have been passed on from family, friends and fans. R.I.P ‘Big Dunc’.
Gary Gowers says
Lovely stuff, Mick.
RIP Big Dunc.
Great Mick, thank you.
Duncan was a true legend when the word is bandied around far too easily nowadays……..and he was also the purveyor of some of the worst jokes in history.
Sadly missed……never ever forgotten!
O T B C
Tim Ball says
Wonderful tribute to the Great Man, Mick.
Dave H says
Absolute pleasure to read this.
Paul Richmond says
This tribute meets all the characteristics that this great Canary icon had in abundance. The mould was the last to be broken when they made this great ambassador to Norwich City Football Club. He took the club to one of its finest hours and we started to become noticed by the football elite teams. In my years watching Football I cannot remember many GREAT centre backs as was epitomised by our Duncan. Thank you Duncan for every you did for this lovely club of ours – you deserve to Rest in Peace
One of the greats
A true legend