A disappointing crowd of just 10,729 made their way to Portman Road for Norwich City’s Third Division (South) match against Ipswich Town on September 2nd, 1939, a typically rumbustious and end-to-end local derby that ended with honours even in a 1-1 draw.
The Norwich scorer on the day, Billy Furness was, at the time, perhaps the club’s most well-known player. Considered good enough to play for England, the one cap he’d won, during his time with Leeds United, had been against Italy in another 1-1 draw.
Team mates of Furness for that match had included some of the genuine footballing luminaries of the day, including Arsenal’s Eddie Hapgood and Cliff Bastin as well as Harry Hibbs, the latest in a long line of goalkeepers called up to play for England in what had become a rather problematic position for the national side, Hibbs being the 22nd man entrusted with the number one shirt for the Three Lions in a little under a decade.
Norwich’s signing of Furness in the summer of 1937 was something of a coup for the club as there would, make no mistake about it, been quite a few teams interested in acquiring a man who had scored 66 goals for Leeds in 257 matches as an inside forward. Norwich manager Bob Young had certainly had to push the financial boat out in order to secure him, a fee of £2,700 sealing the deal, one that left Leeds, who had signed him from a local team for just £50, in receipt of a considerable profit.
The Canaries were on something of an upward trajectory at the time. They’d won the Division Three South title in 1934 by a margin of seven points, a happy denouement to a season that had seen Jack Vinall and Billy Warnes scored 42 league goals between them, a total that had included four for Vinall in a 7-2 win over Bristol City whilst Warnes had distinguished himself by scoring eight goals in seven games that Autumn, including a hat-trick in a 3-0 win over Charlton Athletic. Promotion had swiftly been followed by the move to Carrow Road in time for the first match of the 1935/36 season, one that had began with a thrilling 4-3 win over West Ham at the new ground in front of just under 30,000 fans, with, predictably, Vinall (2) and Warnes (1) contributing on the day.
Heady times up Norfolk way.
The man who had initially been given the onerous responsibility of getting an upwardly mobile Canaries to the First Division was Tom Parker. He, like Furness, had won just the one solitary England cap, an honour afforded to him at Southampton who he’d joined shortly after the end of World War One. His performances for the Saints eventually attracted the attentions of Arsenal for whom he played in the 1932 FA Cup final as well as, a year earlier, winning a First Division title winning medal with them.
He’d made an immediate impact at Norwich and was, in time, fully expected to lead the club to football’s Promised Land. His sudden departure for Southampton therefore came as something of a shock, one that, in hindsight, you now feel was equalled by Norwich appointing Young as his successor. Young’s war-interrupted playing career had meant he made just 50 appearances for Sunderland before, in 1926, he’d joined the Canaries as a player.
After one year and zero playing appearances for the club, Young drifted out of the game, so his appointment as Parker’s successor, a decade later, would have come as quite a surprise to most of the club’s supporters. It seems likely that the signing of Furness was partially a PR effort by the club’s board, one that was carried out with the intention of getting the fans onboard and making a renewed statement about the club’s ambitions.
Young and Furness’ first season at the club was a wholly unremarkable one that saw Norwich end the 1937/38 season in 14th place but, on a finishing total of 39 points, just three ahead of relegated Barnsley in 21st. Those relegation fears had come very much to the fore at the club towards the end of the season as Norwich went on a run that saw just three wins in their last ten league games with only six goals scored. Things then went from bad to worse as City ended the following (1938/39) season in 21st which meant, of course, a return to the relative obscurity of Division Three South football.
It was not something Furness had expected when he joined the club, and certainly not what the club had expected of Young who, far from building on the foundations that Parker had put into place, had rather undermined them and seen, in the process, Norwich head in the opposite direction to one he had been expected to take them.
Norwich’s return to the lower leagues had, after that 1-1 draw at Ipswich, seen them start the 1939/40 season with one win, one draw and one defeat (at home to Cardiff City on the opening day, Furness scored) from their opening three games. Too soon to make any snap decisions on how the season might progress, or, indeed, if Young was the right man to take them forward?
Less than 24 hours after the game at Ipswich, none of that mattered anymore as, on Sunday 3rd September 1939, Britain declared war on Hitler’s Germany.
Yet, even if organised football didn’t return until the summer of 1946, the game never completely disappeared.
The Government, aware of the value the game had on morale as well as a natural inclination to want to live up to the wartime slogan ‘Keep Calm And Carry On’ met with representatives from the Football League in order to set up competitions that were based on the geographical regions clubs were based in. Hence the 1939/40 season for the Canaries meant membership of a ten team league, known as ‘Section A’ that, in addition to themselves, included Arsenal, Charlton Athletic, Clapton Orient, Crystal Palace, Millwall, Southend United, Tottenham, Watford and West Ham.
Our first game was a 1-1 draw (Furness scoring for Norwich) against Millwall at The Den. It was played in October 21st, 1939, a week after HMS Royal Oak had been torpedoed off Orkney by German U-Boat 47, an attack that led to over 800 men and boys who were serving onboard drowning.
Keep Calm and Carry On.
A week later, West Ham were the visitors to Carrow Road in an entertaining game that Norwich won 5-3.
Teams had, by now, the option of fielding guest players from other teams in order, as was often the case, to make up the sides on the day. Thus it was that Bill Shankly, later to become one of the most well known figures in the game as Liverpool manager, ended up playing a few games for Norwich during his war time service with the RAF, based, as he was at the time, at one of the air bases close to the city which may well have been RAF Coltishall.
Attendances for these games could be sparse. Just 1,018 were at Carrow Road for Norwich’s return match with Millwall on March 7th, 1940, whilst barely 1,000 turned up at White Hart Lane for the 2-2 draw with Tottenham on May 27th 1940. But then you suspect that people may, at this time, have had thoughts other than football on their minds as, the day before, the capitulation of Calais to German forces had seen the beginning of the Dunkirk evacuations.
Keep Calm. Somehow. And Carry On.
Which people, somehow, managed to do. Christmas Day 1940 saw Norwich entertain Brighton at Carrow Road, albeit a Brighton side that was so short of players, it had to make up numbers with volunteers from the crowd meaning that Norwich had things their own way and ended up winning 18-0, guest Canary ‘Chadwick’ scoring six of them.
On April 25th, 1942, a larger than usual attendance of 11,888 turned out at Carrow Road to see Norwich beat Grimsby Town 1-0 (Furness) in a Football League War Cup game. How many of them, one wonders, lost their lives just two days later, following the first of the two Baedeker air raids on the city that saw 229 residents of our fine city killed and over 1000 injured.
Yet life and football went on. Norwich made their way up to Grimsby the following week for the return game and lost 2-0.
A game due to be played at QPR earlier in 1942 had been stopped in its tracks when the air raid sirens had sounded just before kickoff. It was eventually abandoned.
By the summer of 1942, the situation, both at home and in Europe had become so serious that even the emergency war time football programme was brought to a halt. Yet Norwich were still able to play in friendly matches, primarily against sides that represented the armed forces, games that included an 8-4 win over an Army XI on January 2nd 1943 and a 1-0 win over the Suffolk Navy XI, at Ipswich, on September 25th 1943.
Norwich played 94 friendly matches from September 1942 through to April 1945 against opponents as diverse as the Norwich Fitness League XI, The Kings Own Rifles, a Minesweeper XI and the Royal Artillery.
Games that must have been as much a break from a dark day to day life for those opponents as it was the people who managed to see the games.
But what about Billy Furness?
He’d spent the war working in electrical engineering meaning that he was free to play for the Canaries throughout the conflict, ending it with 76 goals from a total of 187 semi-official and friendly games before resuming first-team duties on the first day of the 1946/47 season in a 2-1 win over Cardiff City at Carrow Road.
You won’t be surprised to hear that he was one of the scorers.
Bob Young, the man who had signed him had already left the club, departing on New Year’s Eve 1945 as the Norwich board set into place their plans for the post war years, plans that didn’t involve Young who was succeeded by another former Norwich player in Duggie Lochhead.
Lochhead’s first season in charge wasn’t too dissimilar to Young’s last as Norwich ended it joint bottom of the table and having to reapply for election to the Football League, one of four times that the club has found itself in this ignominious footballing position.
The Canaries then had to go through the whole process again at the end of the following (1947/48) season before, eventually, the club’s fortunes began to lift in the 1948/49 and 1949/50 seasons that saw safe, if mediocre, finishing places of 10th and 11th.
The seeds were being quietly sown. Ready for a man named Archie Macaulay who would end up propagating them to great effect.
But that is, as they say…another story for another day.