By kind agreement with the publishers, Tales From Ltd, MyFootballWriter today begins the serialisation of the three Tales From The City books, which were put together by our own Mick Dennis.
Each chapter in the books is a personal account of one person’s association with Norwich City. They are “Tales” from ex-players, former managers, directors and prominent fans.
We start today with Bryan Gunn: City’s player of the year twice and the keeper of our dreams. Following his playing career, he worked for the club in a variety of roles until, after 21 years as an NCFC man, he stepped up and stepped forward when the club was without a manager.
The first time he talked about what happened next was in the first Tales From The City, published in 2015. So here is that honest, highly personal account of how his 22 years at Carrow Road ended.
This is the final chapter. I don’t know where it will be in the book, but it’s my last chapter. I’ve told the story of my goalkeeping career, and of growing up on a farm in Thurso and so on, in my autobiography, In Where It Hurts, which I wrote with Kevin Piper over a decade ago. So this has to be about what happened next: about when, in one sense, I hurt the most.
But, for those who don’t know, I played 477 games for Norwich and they included some very successful seasons for the club. Then, in February 1998, I moved to Hibernian but only lasted a year because I broke my leg.
I actually applied for the job of managing Norwich when Mike Walker left the second time. I also applied to be Colchester manager. I applied by fax both times – younger readers will have to ask someone what a fax is! The reply from Colchester chairman Peter Heard said, ‘Thank you for your application, but please note how my name is spelled.’ I’d got it wrong. But Mel Henderson, an Ipswich-based journalist who had encouraged me to make the application, was the one who had told me how the chairman’s name was spelled and he had got it wrong. Never trust a journalist!
Then Norwich chief executive Gordon Bennett, and Andy Cullum, who was the director of sales and marketing, offered me the chance to go back to Carrow Road and work in the commercial department, which they had set out to revitalise. So, from 1999 to 2007 I had a variety of roles within the club, all of which I really enjoyed and all of which were worthwhile.
But when Peter Grant became manager at the start of 2007 he wanted me to be part of his backroom team. He wanted someone who knew all about the club to be in the offices at the training ground to deal with scouts, agents, players and so on when he was out on the pitch taking training. That got me into the football department.
While I was working under Granty I explained that I wanted to resume my coaching qualifications courses. I’d got my B licence and started my A licence as a 23-year-old in Aberdeen and thought now would be an opportunity to get studying again. Granty okayed it for me to go to Warwick University for a refresher course for the A licence and he also agreed that I should do some coaching with the kids to get the hours on the training pitch that the licence required.
But then Granty lost his job. The results weren’t good and after a particularly awful performance at QPR, when Norwich became the first team to lose there that season, Granty resigned. Glenn Roeder got the job, and he did not want me involved in the coaching at first. I knocked on his door at the training ground and said, ‘I’m the liaison guy, but I need to do some coaching hours for my A licence.’ He told me to forget about the coaching because he wanted me to concentrate on the liaison. He had his own coaching guys, as many managers do.
But he was happy for me to do recruitment. One of the first things he did was get rid of chief scout Alan Wood, who had worked for Mike Walker at Everton and had then come to Carrow Road when Mike returned for his second spell. Glenn was having a shake-up of coaching and scouting and I began basically running the scouting from the training ground.
It was a worthwhile and important role; a proper involvement. It meant that I was part of Glenn’s inner circle and, eventually, he asked me to work as goalkeeping coach, on top of my other duties, for six months. That meant I was coaching David Marshall and Matt Gilks. Joe Lewis was out on loan to Peterborough, but Declan Rudd and Jed Steer were coming through from the youth system and I even coached my son, Angus, during the summer.
I was very much involved in the football side, and it went well, because we stayed up, which had been very much in doubt at one time. We were bottom when Granty left.
The last game of the season was at Sheffield Wednesday, and we were safe by the time we played that game. Dion Dublin had announced that he was retiring, and got a massive send-off from the travelling Norwich fans, but Darren Huckerby got nothing like the same amount of cheering and chanting.
Those of us inside the club knew that Hucks was finishing as a Norwich player too that day, but it hadn’t been announced and, in theory, there was still a possibility that he would be offered a new contract – but that wasn’t a real likelihood, because there was quite a personality clash between Hucks and Glenn. I thought it was a shame that the crowd didn’t know that it was farewell to Hucks and didn’t really chant his name or anything.
That summer, while I was head of recruitment, Glenn’s signings included Wes Hoolahan and Sammy Clingan. We brought in two centre-backs, John Kennedy on loan from Celtic and Dejan Stefanovic from Fulham for a million. We thought we had the makings of a decent team, but we looked a bit short of goals. In an attempt to solve that, on the last day of the summer transfer window Glenn signed Antoine Sibierski, who had played for him at Newcastle, on loan from Wigan.
Both the centre-backs got crocked. Kennedy suffered bad ankle ligament damage and then an old knee injury flared up as well. He returned to Celtic. Stefanovic ruptured his cruciate knee ligaments after 12 games and never kicked a ball for us again. But it was the Sibierski deal that really hurt us. He only scored twice in 16 games and then got injured. I don’t know if we had to pay all his wages or half of them, but he was on £25,000 a week at Wigan, so signing him and then not being able to use him made a big dent in our budget for not much return.
Meanwhile, I was scouting players in the lower divisions. In the November (of 2008), the first team had a Saturday evening game at Nottingham Forest, which we won 2-1. On the afternoon before that game, I went along to Lincoln to see them play Shrewsbury. That game ended 0-0, but I got my first sight of a decent striker who was playing for Shrewsbury. His strike partner, Richard Walker, was sent off very early on for a late challenge on the goalkeeper, and so the other guy had to play up front on his own.
He looked a bit of a lump, but whenever a ball came forward, none of the defenders got a touch. He knocked them about, won the header, controlled the ball and brought someone else into play. I marked down his name: Grant Holt.
The win at Forest that day was only the fifth of the season, and we had played 19 games. That sort of form – occasional wins spread thinly among some really bad results – continued. In January we lost a Tuesday night home FA Cup replay against Charlton 1-0. The fans were understandably in a black mood and there were demonstrations against Glenn. The next day, at Colney, I was the only member of staff left in the building besides Glenn when it all ended for him.
Chairman Roger Munby and chief executive Neil Doncaster went into Glenn’s room and came out a while later. My office was over the way from the manager’s office, so they came and stood in my office to keep out of the way, but Glenn came over and shook my hand to say goodbye.
When that happens at a football club it’s horrible: like a funeral. The run of results and performances created the situation, but it meant that others went as well. Lee Clark had left two months early to become Huddersfield manager, but when Glenn was sacked Paul Stephenson went and so too did Adam Sadler – no, not the actor – who had only joined about a week earlier to oversee the reserves.
When the chairman and chief exec were still at Colney I said, ‘If you want someone to take the team at the weekend, I’ll do it, if it will help the club.’ They did a second take but I said, ‘Yes, I’ll do it. Ricky Martin (the academy manager and youth team coach) and Tommy Wright (goalkeeping coach) can take the training sessions and I’ll do everything else.’
I didn’t even think about it really before making that offer. It was something that needed to be done, and so I offered. It was the least I could do after what the club had meant to me over the years. In my mind at that stage, I assumed it would be a short-term thing, but I wanted to do it to the best of my ability.
So we made sure the preparation for the next game went well. Glenn’s sacking was on the Wednesday. That meant we had two days prep for the Saturday match at home to Barnsley. We needed to change the mood and lift spirits and we did that. Then I had to decide upon a team and that meant leaving some people out.
I had never been in that situation before as manager, but I’d been involved in enough matches to know what it was like for players, and so I wanted to talk individually to those I was leaving out, rather than just read out the team list.
I made sure Wes was in the team. I felt he was a special player. He could be infuriating to managers, but if you got him playing and enjoying himself, you could be in business. I knew Darel Russell didn’t like being striker but I needed him there. So I sat down and explained, ‘Rusty I’ll try and get you back into midfield as soon as possible, but I need you to do a job in attack’. And I phoned Sir Alex Ferguson, who had been my manager at Aberdeen, and asked him for pointers for the team talk. He said, ‘Keep it simple.’
Susan and I had arranged a weekend away: not far, but we lived in Framingham Pigot, four miles outside the city, and we were due to go with pals to a hotel in north Norfolk to celebrate a good friend’s 50th birthday. We were due to be there for two nights, Friday and Saturday; I hadn’t been expecting to be managing a team in an important Championship match!
I couldn’t let people down, so Susan and I still went up on the Friday night but, of course, I was thinking only about the game. I stuck to sparkling water and I might have had a glass of diluted white wine.
When the time came to drive to the stadium the next day, I was ready. And, walking from the car, all the fans were wishing me well – ‘Good luck Gunny!’ –and the atmosphere was really positive, which was a big, big change from the demonstrations four days earlier.
I did have a special rapport with Norwich fans. It began in my playing days, and I think some of it was due to what had happened with Francesca. We found out she had leukaemia at the end of a season, in the May. I had been away for a week on an end of season club trip, and came back to learn that news.
Susan had taken her to hospital that day and the specialist actually came around to our house to tell us the prognosis. From the next day we were at a hospital in Cambridge and we spent all summer in hospitals: the regional centre at Cambridge or the Norfolk and Norwich every time there was an infection or anything.
We didn’t say anything about the situation publicly, but when all her hair fell out because of the chemo, I shaved my head completely so that she was like her daddy. Eventually, I had to explain why I had suddenly made myself bald and so the fans knew what was going on in our family.
Of course, the supporters were magnificent. I am not going to dwell on Francesca’s death in this essay, because this piece is about a different era and because I dealt with it fully in the book I wrote with Kevin Piper – but I do believe that the whole stadium was with me when I took to the pitch to keep goal a few days after our little girl died, and I think the Norwich fans stayed with me till the moment the final whistle went on my playing career at the club, and beyond. We had a connection.
I think as well, though, that goalkeepers often have a special relationship with fans, partly because of the proximity and partly because it is such an individual role in a team-game. And down the years Norwich have had special men in the role. Kevin Keelan was the one I got to know a little. Before him was Sandy Kennon. And I followed Chris Woods.
At the time I arrived, Jimmy Greaves was making jokes every weekend on TV about Scottish goalkeepers, but after a few dodgy games, I did OK for Norwich. We finished fifth in my first season, then fourth and two seasons later we were third in the Premier League. Fergie had told me I was a top six goalkeeper and said that, although I was going to Norwich, I should set my sights higher. I didn’t. I stayed at Norwich and helped them become a top six club.
Anyway, all those years later, I was manager and when I came out onto the pitch to give the crowd a wave before that first game, there was a terrific reception for me. But there was a job to be done. And boy, did they do it well. They won 4-0. I had paid special attention to Wes and Rusty in the build-up, so I was delighted that they played huge parts in the victory. Wes got the first goal and Rusty the last, but they did a lot more than score.
After the game, I was aware that there were conversations going on here and there involving the chairman, but I wasn’t worried about that because we’d done what we’d set out to do: steady the ship, change the mood and post a good performance and a great result.
At the press conference, one of the journalists asked, ‘Are you aware that the club are holding interviews on Monday for the new manager?’ Of course, I wasn’t so I told them. I said I was just going to relax, attend a birthday party and see what happens. And that’s what I did.
Lots of the people at the party in north Norfolk had been to the game to support me, and it turned into a hell of a party! There was even a huge food fight. Of course, I caught everything thrown at me.
At seven the next morning, I was woken by a call from Dion Dublin. ‘Gunny, you’ve got to go for it. I talked to some of the lads last night and they are for you. You’ve got to go for it – and I’ll come with you. I’ll be your number two.’
Susan was still sleeping but Dion had got me thinking. When she woke up, I told her about the call and that I was considering putting my hat into the ring. After breakfast, we all went for a walk along Holkham beach and after a while I said, ‘Susan, I’ve got to go for it.’
But I knew I’d got to put together a coaching team – a dream team – before I talked to the club. All the other candidates would turn up with lap-top presentations and speeches, but I’d never done this before, so I knew I needed to pull a rabbit out of the hat. My ‘rabbit’ would be a clutch of coaches with a special feel for Norwich City.
I thought straight away of Ian Crook, who was working in Australia, which is where he had finished his career. I knew he had admirers on the board. I got hold of his number and rang him. He was ready to jump on a plane already, so someone had already suggested it to him. So I had Dion and Crooky.
Next I thought of John Deehan, who had been a player, coach and then manager at Norwich. I knew he wasn’t doing much by then, but I also knew he was a great football man. So if I could have him as chief scout, it would also give me a wise head to talk things through with. He would be a good mentor as well as being a good chief scout.
Ian Butterworth was another who would be perfect. He was Hartlepool manager, which would make him more difficult to get to Norwich, but it would be worth the effort.
So, that same day, the Sunday, I phoned Neil Doncaster and said, ‘I believe you are holding interviews tomorrow’. I was able to tell him the hotel they were using for the interviews, so he could see I meant business. I said, ‘I want to be on your list.’ He phoned me back a few minutes later after talking to Delia and Michael I imagine. Yep, I would be the last person they saw the following afternoon.
But then Dion came back to me and said that he didn’t think he would be able to get out of his contract with Sky Sports, which was a blow. But when the interview went ahead I was full of passion, stoked by the response the previous day from the players and the crowd. The interview went well.
At 11 that night, I got a call saying, ‘Come to Carrow Road.’ When I got there, Mr Doncaster was on the phone trying to secure Ian Butterworth to work alongside me. But I was fully aware that someone else might be on a different line somewhere else in the offices talking to one or more of the other candidates for the top job. I know that Paul Ince, Ian Holloway and Iain Dowie were considered.
But about half an hour after I had walked in, things fell into place for the board. They knew they hadn’t got Dion, but they had sorted out Butterworth and knew they could get Crook. They had John Deehan. And they had me.
When I left the job a few short months later, some people said I had been a poor appointment because I was completely inexperienced. But I had wanted to be a manager or coach since I was 23 when I had started taking my coaching badges, and I had always tried to learn as I went along in my career.
At Aberdeen, I’d gone to matches in the evenings, travelling with Fergie. Him and Archie Knox, his right-hand man, used to go to games – anywhere a ball moved – and I went on quite a few of those trips, listening to them in the car and learning. All the time I was playing I used to watch what other teams did in their warm-ups, for instance, and how different managers changed things during games.
Then I did all that scouting and co-ordinating other scouts, so that I got detailed analyses of tactics and so on. Also, I had certainly played for some very good managers. And when my turn came to be a manager, I had a really good team of coaches. On the internet, people said we didn’t know what we were doing, but that could not be further from the truth. We were all experienced football people who all knew exactly what we were trying to do.
Paul Lambert, who replaced me, used to say, even when things were going really well, that he was always only three bad games away from the sack. Well, I think that during my time as Norwich manager, we were only a few results away from being a success.
In total, my Norwich record was six wins, five draws and ten defeats. But six of the defeats were by a single goal and if just three of them had gone slightly differently … All right, ‘if’ is a very big word in football, but honestly, we weren’t far away.
When we went to QPR on a filthy wet Tuesday night in March, showed grit and determination, had magnificent support and won 1-0, I felt we could do it. I thought that night that the lads were up for it and we would be all right. Rusty scored about 20 minutes from the end and, with our fans roaring their support, we dug in and held on.
We were playing at Blackpool the following Saturday and the players said they wanted to fly up to have the best possible preparation and that they would pay for their own tickets. That showed their intent. So I went to the board and they agreed to pay towards the flights, but the players did cough up some of their own cash too. We turned up, it was a terrible pitch, Charlie Adams scored one of his special goals and we ended up losing 2-0, which knocked us right back after the QPR performance. That was a killer.
Physically and mentally I stayed strong and didn’t let the pressure affect me. I worked as hard as was possible to improve a situation that was not exactly wonderful when I took over. And I thought, to the very last moment, that we were in with a chance. Even going to Charlton on the last day, I thought we could do it.
One of the factors was that I knew we would have absolutely massive support behind us. And so, in the dressing room before the game, I told them, ‘Don’t get your names in the history of Norwich for the wrong reason. Let’s get the result here, and then turn the page.’
When it was still at 0-0, we learned that Plymouth were winning at Barnsley, which meant that, at that moment, we were out of the relegation spots. The Norwich fans packed behind the goal away to my right went absolutely wild. Yet that moment seemed to make the players more tense. They went into hiding and it was one, two, three … the goals flew in.
At the finish, we had lost 4-2 and were relegated to the third tier. I was shell-shocked; the emptiest I have ever felt in a sporting or professional context. I’d had a very similar feeling as a player when we were relegated from the Premier League in 1995 in the last game of the season at Leeds, but that day at Charlton was even worse.
The directors went on the field to sort of face the fans and to thank them for their support and I had tears in my eyes when I saw Delia and Michael doing that. I told them how sorry I was. It was hard. So were the press interviews afterwards.
It was a horrible coach journey back. The lads who lived in the south stayed and didn’t come back with us, and I don’t think I said goodbye to them at all because I was numb.
The next day I learned that there were to be meetings at the club all day as Delia and Michael came to grips with what had happened and decided what to do. Towards me, there was an acknowledgement of some of the work I had done and an understanding that I had been striving all the time.
What they didn’t know – what nobody but Susan knew – was that relegation changed my mind about my own position. If we had stayed up, I would have stepped aside and sought a role as director of football. I would have told the board that I thought the club needed a restructure – which is what I did think – and that they should decide whether Ian Butterworth, Ian Crook or someone else entirely should be manager, but that I would like to take a new position.
Ultimately, as manager, you have to make the club your number one priority. It is a job that requires total commitment. You can’t have any time off. You are taking and making phone calls: to your chief exec, to agents, to players. And when you are not actually doing anything, you are thinking about doing something for the club, for the team. It is constant. That’s why managers get paid good wages.
And for every minute of every week when I was Norwich City manager, I gave the job everything I had to give. But from about six games from the end of that first season, I thought that once we had stayed up I would try for a job at the club that would allow me to give my family a bit more of my time.
As it was though, we had been relegated and there could be no question of me quitting if the club wanted me to try and right that wrong. Relegation was a failure and I felt I couldn’t quit then. I felt I had to do everything I could to put things right, if I was given the chance.
And I was. They told me to carry on. I believe their thought process was that I had stepped up when they needed someone and now I should be given a chance to assemble my own team, have a full pre-season and a proper go at it.
I talked to the players and asked them who was up for the challenge. Wes was one that I knew would be wanted by other clubs, but one that I needed to keep at Norwich city. He wanted to play at the highest level possible, but I sat down with him and had a big conversation with him. I said that if he stayed but things did not go well, I would guarantee he could leave in the January. That was what I had to say in the circumstances we were in.
Lee Croft was another I tried hard to persuade to stay. But he left for Derby and twice what we could pay. David Marshall left for Cardiff, Sammy Clingan went to Coventry. It was quite an exodus.
But I signed 12 players that summer, trying to bring in value and as much quality as I could afford but also players who would be prepared to scrap their way out of League One and bond together as a unit.
Matt Gill was the first. The Holty deal dragged on because the medical threw up a worry, but we got him. Chris Martin and Mickey Spillane had been outcasts under Glenn, but they were back from a loan at Luton and I told them they would have a fair chance with me.
I had agreed a deal with Dartford for Cody McDonald the previous season, while Glenn was manager, and so that was another striker sorted. And I signed a goalkeeper, Michael Theoklitos. He was Australian but despite what people assumed later, he wasn’t just some bloke who came straight from the beach. He had been Australia’s top keeper and had been over in England the season before, training at Blackpool and then at Everton and then with us.
I spoke to Chris Woods at Everton about him and we had him training with us in the season before the summer in which he signed for us. We also signed Ben Alnwick, a good young keeper on loan from Spurs, so it wasn’t as if I was putting all my goalkeeping eggs in one basket for League One – which was just as well, because with the sort of day he had on his debut, Michael would have dropped them all.
We were not the best payers in League One, but we offered competitive wages with a good bonus structure, incentivised to get success, and we could promise players that they would be playing in front of a full house every week at Carrow Road because, fantastically, the fans had stayed incredibly loyal and all the season tickets had been sold.
Jens Berthel Askou, the Danish defender who could head the ball further than most could kick it, joined us while we were on a pre-season mini-tour of Scotland, based at the University of St Andrews, and the whole pre-season went well. It certainly wasn’t a holiday camp. The players were worked hard and everything looked good.
We knew that with so many new players the team would have to settle and evolve over the course of the season, but we thought we were in good shape for the first game of the campaign, at home to Colchester.
We did start well. For the first ten minutes, we were like Real Madrid. But after that we were real sh*t.
Michael had a poor game, but so did most of the others. We were 4-0 down after 20 minutes and 5-0 down at half-time. I ripped into them. But when I asked them what on earth had happened out there, Wes said, ‘We’re tired’.
I couldn’t believe it. Tired? After 45 minutes of the first game of season? I picked up Gary Doherty’s suntan cream and threw the bottle so that it smashed against the wall. The cream went over people’s suits. I told them to win the second half. But they couldn’t. They lost the half 2-1 and the game 7-1.
I told them they had to be at Colney the next day, and on that Sunday I made them sit and watch the game again in the TV room. I told them they had ruined my Sunday so I was ruining theirs – but I wanted them to look at things in the game and realise they could and must do a lot better.
We travelled down to Exeter on the Monday, trained at Exeter University and played at Yeovil in the League Cup on the Tuesday night.
I dropped the goalkeeper, Holty scored three and we won 4-0. There was a really big away contingent, which was typical for Norwich. They’d just seen their team thrashed 7-1 and it was only a cup game at the other end of the country, but they still turned up. I am glad I gave them something to cheer about that day because it was my last game as manager.
We stayed down because we were playing at Exeter on the Saturday. I got a call on the Thursday that David McNally was coming down to see me. While I waited for him, I came to the conclusion that he was coming to tell me I was out of a job. And I was right.
So I made my way back by train from Exeter on my own leaving the players behind and leaving my career at a club which had been a major part of my life. In total, I had spent 22 years at Carrow Road in just about every possible role. But it was over. That night I reached Norwich station after three trains, about six hours, dozens of calls from friends and more than one bottle of wine.
That’s a long time ago now and the world has moved on, the club has moved on, and so have I, with a new life and new career in the north-west.
I am still proud of the team I left behind that day – with Wes, Holty, Chrissy Martin and the rest – and I don’t think any of them have said anything derogatory about me. I am certainly not bitter. I can’t spend my life being bitter. So when Norwich won the play-off final at Wembley against Middlesbrough, I texted Delia and Michael Wynn-Jones to congratulate them. When I meet David McNally, we always shake hands.
My sadness is that there must be a generation of fans who only know me as the manager who lost 7-1 against Colchester. My own memories of Norwich are different, they include those 477 games, three top five finishes in the Premier League, and several rewarding roles after I finished playing.
My memories also include that special rapport I had with the fans when I was playing. I had no hair but they didn’t care!