Ken Brown was manager for more games than anyone in Norwich City history — 367 competitive matches — and his spell in charge followed seven years and 340 games as assistant manager to Jon Bond.
Yet, despite serving and surviving for so long in a fiercely competitive industry, he was known for his almost constant smile. It was one of the reasons why he became, and remains, among the club’s best-loved figures.
My Norwich City Tale started because I more or less had to come and work at the club, or I wouldn’t have had a job! I’m glad I did end up at Norwich, though.
When I arrived in November 1973, it was as assistant manager to John Bond and I think people know that we’d been players together at West Ham. I played alongside him in the back four and we got on well — but we weren’t best mates or anything as players, just teammates who shared some great moments on the pitch.
It was a decent West Ham side. I got into the team when Malcolm Allison was injured. He had a lot of influence at the club and I was half expecting to be dropped when he got fit, but he said, ‘No, don’t drop him.’ So we ended up playing alongside each other. I was the orthodox centre-back, Malcolm played alongside me, and Bondy was at right-back. Malcolm was the slowest mover you’d ever come across, but he was powerful and strong.
Later on, I played alongside Bobby Moore. I was the centre-back and he was in that role that Malcolm had developed. I can’t say that any of us thought from day one that Mooro would go on and captain England and become one of the game’s greatest names. He was the most quiet-natured youngster who’d come into the team. He kept himself smart and well turned out, but he just got on with his job. Of course, as he progressed he became a very special defender, but he still always played in that same way — nothing showy or outlandish, just doing his job. He was a great feller to be with and to have a night out with, but as a footballer, everything he did was sort of controlled.
As far as me and Bondy were concerned, we didn’t get to know each other really well until we both went to Torquay as players in 1967. We were still training at West Ham but joining up with Torquay for games, and we used to travel to those games together.
John opened a sweet shop in Torquay, and we’d go down there on the Friday so that John could look in at the shop, and we’d play on the Saturday. It was a long old drive — this was in the days before motorways, don’t forget. We became good friends (which was just as well considering how long we were in cars together!) and our families all got to know each other from then on. I used to get on really well with John and Jan’s children: their daughter Toni and their son Kevin — who went on to play for Norwich, of course. Lovely people.
When John became manager of Bournemouth, in May 1970, he asked me to go there with him as the trainer, which is what teams had in those days. We had a lot of success and got some really good players together — and then took most of them to Norwich when we went there in 1973: players like Ted MacDougall, Phil Boyer, David Jones, Tony Powell, Mel Machin, John Benson. And there was Kevin Reeves, who was an apprentice with us at Bournemouth and then we signed him for Norwich. He went on to earn Norwich their first £1 million fee.
In 2017, when Bournemouth played West Ham in the Premier League, the Bournemouth chairman, Jeff Mostyn, invited me to go along as his guest, which was a nice thing because both those clubs played a big part in my life. In fact, and I have got to be honest, I didn’t want to leave Bournemouth when John got the Norwich job. I thought it was lovely down there on the South Coast. I liked everything about it. John said, ‘Come to Norwich with me. It’s gone well here and we can do it again there.’ But I said, ‘They might give me the manager’s job here at Bournemouth.’ But John said, ‘You ain’t going to get the job.’ So I more or less had to go to Norwich because I didn’t want to be out of work. But, although I’d been reluctant, my family soon settled in Norfolk and I had a bigger role and the formal title of assistant manager at Norwich.
It wasn’t the first time I’d lived in Norfolk though. In the Second World War I’d been evacuated from Dagenham to Burlingham, a village near Acle. We came with another Dagenham family, the Smiths. So the Browns and the Smiths descended on rural Norfolk. The locals probably thought the names were aliases! My dad had to stay put in Dagenham and two of my brothers, Ron and Jack, were in the army. So it was just my mum, me, and my younger brother, Alan, who found ourselves in Norfolk. It was all very different but it was a relief too, because in Dagenham we’d been watching bombs being dropped and had seen aeroplanes shot down.
The chairman at Norwich, when me and Bondy arrived in 1973, was Sir Arthur South, and he idolised John. I don’t think that’s too strong a word. He thought John was great at his job and great for what he — Sir Arthur — wanted to achieve for the club.
We were following Ron Saunders, who had played a very different type of football to what we wanted. We wanted our team to play as we had at West Ham, and how we’d got the Bournemouth lads playing. People talked about ‘the West Ham way’, but we thought it was just the way football should be played — with skill and passing, and not kick and chase — and we wanted people to talk about ‘the Norwich way’.
When we first started taking training at Norwich, the players couldn’t believe that they didn’t have to do a great long run. We arrived in the November, so they were all supposed to be fit already, and we wanted to get them working with the ball. But on the very first day they started getting themselves ready for a run, and we said, ‘What are you doing?’ They said, ‘This is what we’ve got to do.’ And we said, ‘No you haven’t! Get over to the pitch and take as many balls as we’ve got here.’
Me and John looked at each other and sort of went, ‘What’s all that about?’ They couldn’t believe they weren’t going running for several miles and we couldn’t believe they thought that was what they should be doing in November. It was the opposite of what we wanted.
The training ground was at Trowse, and it needed some work doing on it. One of the first things John said to Sir Arthur was, ‘You’ve got to sort out the training ground.’ So he had a new changing pavilion built and spent some money trying to improve the pitches.
But I loved Trowse from the start — because it was such a short distance from my new home and was an easy drive. I lived in Postwick. John lived in Cringleford. It was certainly all a lot more convenient than when we’d both been commuting to Torquay from the London area!
As well as smartening up the training facilities, we wanted a proper youth set-up, which Norwich didn’t really have. They only had an A team, who played in the Eastern Counties League against men’s sides like Yarmouth and Lowestoft, so we applied to put a team in the South East Counties youth league, which is where all the professional clubs in London had their under-18s. But the London clubs said, ‘We can’t afford to go to Norwich every other week.’ So we said, ‘We’ll play all our games away from home.’ And that was what we did for a few seasons, till they accepted us.
Before John and me came along, Norwich didn’t have any real relationship with the schools. They used to send their best players to anywhere except Norwich City. So we appointed a schools liaison officer and I used to go regularly and talk to teachers who were involved with running school teams.
So one way and another we were spending quite a bit of the club’s money, but Sir Arthur was as good as gold about that. He could see what we were trying to do and he wanted the same sort of club as we did: a club trying to play good football on the pitch and trying to be as good as we could off it.
We thought, ‘You can’t just sit back and do nothing. You’ve got to keep trying to improve everything — the training ground, the scouting, the youth set-up, the players, the way we play. You’ve got to try and keep trying.’
There were some good people at the club already, though — people like Duncan Forbes and Dave Stringer, who had been at the heart of the defence for Ron Saunders. Duncan could sense danger and deal with it, and that allowed others around him to play. Dave has always been the most genuine bloke you could want to meet, and when I became Norwich manager a few years later, I was very happy to have Dave in charge of the youth team.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me tell you about the period when John was very much the boss and I was his assistant.
We signed some really good players. John used to do all the deals and there was hardly a day when he wasn’t trying to sign this player, or asking about that one. He used all his old West Ham connections really well, so that we were able to sign Martin Peters, who’d been a World Cup winner not many years before, and we had John Sissons for a while. We took Colin Suggett from West Brom. We sold Graham Paddon to West Ham but bought him back for less money three years later. We got Jimmy Neighbour from Spurs. And of course we signed nearly everyone who’d been with us at Bournemouth!
Every single one we signed had one thing in common: they could play. They’d all cost millions and millions these days.
John was always wheeling and dealing, always trying to improve the team. He was so intense about everything as well. He would get blooming angry with players if he thought they hadn’t tried hard enough during a game. John would set out beforehand what he expected and then if the player let the team down, John would be all, ‘I’m fining you!’
My job was to be a foil for all that. So if a player was fined, I would be all smiles and laughing and say, ‘That’s another few quid you’ve got to give us.’ And the other players would give the one who’d been fined some stick and it would turn into a sort of joke.
I definitely wasn’t undermining John in any way, shape or form. He was very, very good at what he did. I always backed him up 100 per cent. But I did see my job as being the one who was less intense — the one the players could talk to, the go-between.
John used to take things personally. If a player had a bad game, John would have a go at the player but would also think it was his fault: perhaps the coaching or the preparation hadn’t been right — something like that. He got so upset with himself. I used to watch him, see him take all the troubles and problems home with him and think, ‘That ain’t right.’ There was no point in trying to talk John round, though. He would just go into a blacker mood.
That was just his way, and it did bring the absolute best out of some players. It certainly brought some really great results to Norwich City. But I felt I had to help some of the lads cope with that intensity — without going against John in the slightest — by always having a smile ready. I didn’t find that hard because I think I am naturally a positive sort of person.
I did think, ‘If I’m ever a manager, I won’t be like John is. I’m not going to make myself ill by being that intense.’ But I was more than happy being John’s assistant, and I was very proud to have been alongside him at Bournemouth and Norwich.
In October 1980, John left to manage Manchester City and decided that he didn’t want me to go with him. He took John Benson and John Sainty, but not me and it was hard to take — I can’t pretend otherwise. So I had the same worry as I did when he left Bournemouth: that I’d be out of work. But I went to see Sir Arthur and said, ‘Can you give me an honest reason why I should not follow John as manager?’ And I was delighted when he thought about it and decided I should step up to the top job.
One of the candidates I considered for the role as my assistant was Ronnie Brooks. He worked with the juniors. He loved the club and could sell it to kids and parents as the sort of place they could trust. But I made Mel Machin my assistant because he was like John — somebody who would give the players a boot up the backside. I thought me and Mel could have the same sort of partnership as I’d had with John, and the pair of us would have the same sort of relationship with the players without me having to try to change my character to become more intense.
My wife, Elaine, and I visited Mel and his wife, Jo, in 2017 and she said that Mel had always taken the job home with him. If he had a bad day with the football club, he would have a bad evening at home. And that was like John.
I was never like that. Some people have a trick of telling themselves to turn off their work worries when they get in their car to go home, or when they reach a certain point of the journey. But I never had to do anything like that — and the journey was too short anyway! No, I don’t get too upset in the first place.
Elaine says she’s only seen me lose my temper twice in the last 18 years. She says it’s annoying sometimes that I don’t lose my temper — but I say, ‘Well let’s not argue about that either!’
That’s not to say that I didn’t hurt when my team lost. Of course I did. But if I thought the lads had given as much as they could, I was able to accept that sometimes you lose football matches. I didn’t feel pressure as such. I felt sorry for the players when we lost, and of course, I definitely didn’t want to lose either. But I was generally OK. I didn’t let any players take the mickey by misbehaving or not doing things properly. I could be strict when it was right to be strict. But I didn’t over do it.
So Mel and I worked well together. Mel would put on the training sessions and I would look at individual players while the sessions were taking place. Mel wouldn’t always be able to spot what was going on, but I’d spot someone shirking a bit and go up to him and say, ‘Listen, everyone else is getting something from this session, so you do it properly too.’ Or I would call someone out, saying, ‘Hey! You’re trying to hide. Get involved. Now!’ And, maybe, because I had this reputation for being all smiles, it made everyone take notice if I was giving a player a bollocking.
Some very good players joined the club on my watch. I signed Chris Woods, Mike Phelan, John Deehan, Keith Bertschin, Dave Watson, and Steve Bruce. I signed Martin O’Neill twice! And I signed the bulk of the side who did really great a while after I’d left: the team who finished third in the Premier League and did so well in Europe under Mike Walker. I’m talking about Bryan Gunn, Ian Culverhouse, Mark Bowen, and Ian Crook. Two more of that team who did so well for Mike — Jerry Goss and Ruel Fox — joined the club as kids while I was in charge and had the final say on who we took on. Louie Donowa, Dale Gordon, Peter Mendham, and Robert Rosario were others who graduated from the youth team to the first team while I was manager.
Bringing kids through was important to me. I made sure that anyone who got all the way through our system got at least one game in the senior team. Even if we didn’t think they had a big future in the game, we never cast them aside without giving them one Norwich City game to look back on. I had a wonderful career myself, and I realised how lucky I was, so I understood what a blow it was when a youngster was let go by a club.
Stevie Bruce came from Gillingham and we got him quite cheap because the fee was decided by a tribunal. I went back to Gillingham several months after we’d signed him and their chairman grabbed me by my jacket lapels and accused me of ‘stealing’ their best player. I said, ‘You can have him back then… but it’s going to cost you a million!’
Dave Watson was in Liverpool reserves. I got permission to talk to him and he came down from Merseyside with his dad on a coach. I think what clinched the deal was that I said I’d reimburse them for their tickets!
Watson and Bruce were centre-back partners when we won the League Cup — the Milk Cup as it was called then — at Wembley in 1985. So I must have been a fairly decent judge of a player, but I was interested in what sort of person I was signing as well. I was looking for an honest professional. In that Milk Cup team were two more of my signings. They’d been to a few clubs and weren’t exactly youngsters, but they were exactly the sort of player and sort of person I wanted for Norwich City: Asa Hartford and Micky Channon.
I used to go in to see the chairman, Sir Arthur, and say, ‘I’ve seen this player I’d like to buy.’ Sir Arthur would stick his bottom lip out, look me in the eye and say, ‘Can he play?’ I used to think to myself, ‘If he couldn’t I wouldn’t be standing here asking you for the money.’ But, out loud, I would say, ‘I think he’ll do well for us, chairman.’ And he never once refused me. Never once.
The season when I took over from Bondy, we were relegated. But Sir Arthur didn’t blame me and we bounced straight back, winning 13 of our last 17 games. And by the 1984-85 season, Mel and I knew we’d put a decent team together. You can never be sure what is going to happen with injuries and suspensions, bad luck, bad decisions and so on, but we knew we’d got a team who, on their day, would give anyone a game. That was the season when there was a fire in the old main stand, on the Carrow Road side of the ground, and it had to be left empty for the rest of the season.
To be honest, our early performances in the Milk Cup were nothing to write home about. We played lower division teams and nearly let ourselves down a couple of times. But we made our way to the semi-finals. And we were drawn to play Ipswich.
It was over two legs and we lost 1-0 at Portman Road. The second leg, under the Carrow Road lights on a Wednesday night in March, was one of those very special occasions for Norwich City. There were only three sides of the ground with people in, but those three were packed and I still have supporters come up to me and say that it was their all-time favourite match. In many ways, it was better than the final. There were a few naughty challenges flying about, and there were a couple of occasions when players squared up and it was really, really tense. Channon did some really clever work to set up ‘Dixie’ Deehan for a shot which deflected off a Town player’s knee and then ricocheted into the goal off the post. That was at the River End in the first half and it brought the tie level on aggregate.
So we were playing towards the Barclay in the second half and attacked and attacked. We kept going forward. We had about five corners and they cleared off their line once, but it got to a couple of minutes before the end of normal time and it was still 1-1 on aggregate. Then Marky Barham put a ball in from the left and it was deflected behind for another corner.
I was shouting to our midfield not to push up too far, because we always sent Watson and Bruce up for corners and so I wanted to make sure we had some midfielders ready to cover if the opposition broke out. I was much more concerned that we were organised properly than thinking, ‘This could be it!’
But Barham took a sweet corner and Brucie just timed his run and wasn’t picked up. He just ran, ducked down a little bit, and nodded the ball upwards into the roof of their net. He set off on a victory run that he’d probably still be on now if the lads hadn’t caught up with him and piled on top of him. Great stuff. A great night.
I’d played at Wembley three times and won three times. I earned my only England cap there in a 2-1 win over Northern Ireland, and I won there twice with West Ham: the 1964 FA Cup final and then, the following year, the European Cup Winners’ Cup final. Then I went to the League Cup final with John and Norwich in 1975, when we lost.
To be able to go back, yet again, ten years on, as a manager was a really great thing to happen to me. I knew the people of Norwich and Norfolk would love the occasion, and I felt proud to be a part of giving them that experience again.
In 1975, the team had frozen at Wembley. And I knew they’d done the exact same thing two years earlier when they’d been there with Ron Saunders. So I had to try and make sure that didn’t happen to us in 1985. I tried to prepare the lads for the experience. Some wanted me to tell them everything I could. Some didn’t want to think too much about it. I treated them as individuals and, with the squad, tried to strike a balance. But on the way to the stadium on the day of the final, I got them all singing. We sang the same song over and over again. ‘It’s now or never!’
When the 1985 team was brought together by the club 20 years later for a big gala dinner, everybody was staying at Sprowston Manor and got picked up by coach, and as the driver turned the corner just before the ground, everyone burst into song again, ‘It’s now or never!’
That 1985 final wasn’t one of Wembley’s finest matches, but we beat Sunderland 1-0 and when the players put the cup in my hands afterwards, I looked around for Sir Arthur and gave it to him. I knew what it meant to him, and that was my thank you to him for giving me the chance to be manager.
The parade around the City with the trophy was a wonderful event as well. And the next game — a Carrow Road victory over Coventry — was a continuation of the celebration really.
But of the 12 remaining games that season, we lost eight and won only two. We were relegated, along with the team we had beaten at Wembley, Sunderland.
And, that summer, there was another big disappointment. As Milk Cup winners, we should have played in Europe — in the UEFA Cup. But a fortnight after our season finished, the final of the European Cup — which is now known as the Champions League — was played at the Heysel Stadium in Brussels, between Liverpool and Juventus. There was crowd trouble and a wall collapsed, killing 39 people, mostly Italians. Liverpool supporters were blamed by UEFA and English fans were banned from all European competitions from the following season — the one in which my Norwich side were due to make their European debut.
I’d gone on holiday by the time Heysel happened and the editor of this book, Mick Dennis, who was working for The Sun, rang me the next morning and said his newspaper had been told that the Government were going to stop English teams playing in Europe. So I knew before UEFA made it all official. It was a real disappointment, but it was something I couldn’t do anything about at all, and so I just got on with preparing for what turned out to be a successful season.
Before I’d gone on holiday I had called a meeting of all the players and told them they could all leave if they wanted to. I didn’t say that as a punishment. I wanted to do what was best for them. After winning the Milk Cup I thought they deserved my thanks, regardless of being relegated. People might think that I was wrong, but I felt that was the right way to treat those players, and I also needed to find out if they had the stomach for a fight in the second tier. So I told them all, ‘If you want to leave, I’ll put you on the list. You are all good enough to play in the top division, and if any one of you wants to leave, come and see me and I’ll see what I can sort out for you.’
Not one of them wanted to go. They still had the passion. But I freshened the squad up a bit, and signed Kevin Drinkell, a striker who’d averaged a goal every three games or so for Grimsby. He was another one I got a bit on the cheap with the help of a tribunal. And we bounced back as champions, with my new striker getting 22 goals to become the division’s top scorer and the club’s player-of-the-year. From the start of October, when we lost at home to Wimbledon, until March, when we lost at blooming Wimbledon, we didn’t lose a single league game in 18 matches. We won 10 on the spin in that run too.
But during the season, while we were winning the second tier, Sir Arthur South was replaced as chairman by Robert Chase and I never had the same relationship with him. Mr Chase wanted to know every little thing I was doing every day. Where was I going? Why are you going there? What are you doing that for? I didn’t think he knew much about football and so it got me really fed up that he seemed to be checking up on me all the time. For some unknown reason he didn’t like me, and to this day I can’t work out why for sure. Perhaps it was because I had got on so well with Sir Arthur.
After winning the Milk Cup, getting relegated, and then bouncing back as champions of the second tier, our first season back in the top division saw us finish fifth — the club’s highest ever position at that time. We only lost one of our first 13 games and we had another good run at the turn of the year when we had one defeat in 17. We definitely had much smaller budgets than the teams who finished above us: Everton, Liverpool, Spurs, and Arsenal. Finishing fifth would have taken us into Europe if the ban had not been still in place.
But in the May at the end of that first season back in the top division, Mel left to become Manchester City manager. I couldn’t blame him for taking that opportunity and I felt I could build a good relationship with someone else as my assistant. Yet three months into the 1987-88 season, Mr Chase sacked me. It didn’t really surprise me. He’d never accepted me as his manager and it seemed to me that he didn’t want me anywhere near his club.
I’d ended up being in charge for longer than Bondy. I’d been manager for seven years and, in total, had worked at Carrow Road for 14. I’d been assistant manager and then manager for more than 700 matches. Somebody told me that nobody else has got anywhere near those figures.
I had a break from the game for a while. I went to Shrewsbury and had one game in charge, but didn’t want to move my family there and told them I didn’t want the job. In the summer of 1988, I took the Plymouth job and was there two years. That was another happy time, and my family and I moved down there.
But after Plymouth, I moved back to the Norwich area. A friend had offered me shares in, and a job at, Lakenham Leisure Centre. My wife, Joan, was very ill by this time, and she passed away back in Norfolk. I’ve stayed in the area ever since and later married Elaine, who had been a friend to both me and Joan.
When Terry Venables became England manager in 1994, he asked me to work for him for the FA. My job was to go and watch current England players and assess how they were playing for their clubs. I kept my FA position while Glenn Hoddle, Kevin Keegan, and Sven-Goran Eriksson managed the national team, although for them my role was changed so that I was principally running the rule over opposition teams.
For Sven, I went out to Japan for the 2002 World Cup. I flew out on the same plane as the team. During the flight, David Beckham came over with his dad to talk to me and they had a joke about me missing out on signing David. Apparently, when he was 11 and playing for a team from Enfield called Ridgeway Rovers, they trained at Norwich for a few days and played a game against one of our academy sides. This was while I was manager and David’s dad said I had watched a bit of the game. So I said to David, ‘So you could have signed for a decent club!’
Norwich was a very special part of my career — a learning stage when I moved from being the man who tried to keep players laughing to the man who had to decide whether they were dropped. And of all the places I could have gone, I’ve chosen Norfolk to live in. After all, I was evacuated here as a kid in the war, and just over 40 years later I was being driven around the city in an open-topped bus carrying the Milk Cup, so I think I’ve picked the right place.
In 2015 burglars broke in while Elaine and I were abroad and stole my medals: winners medals from the FA Cup and European Cup Winners’ Cup that I earned at West Ham, and the 1985 Milk Cup medal I won as Norwich manager. It hurt a hell of a lot. I wanted my grandchildren to have those medals. They can’t have meant anything to anyone else. Nobody else could say, ‘I won those.’ So, yes, it hurt me. But burglars can’t steal what I’ve done in the game or the friendships I made.
I get invited back to my four main former clubs from time to time — West Ham, Bournemouth, Norwich, and Plymouth — and they make me very welcome. I’m still in touch with lots of the chaps who played for me too. Kevin Keelan and Ted MacDougall are both in the States, but always look me up when they’re over in this country. I don’t seem to have made too many enemies during my career.
Before being a footballer, I worked for a couple of years as a wood machinist at a furniture factory. It meant getting up at six every morning and I chopped the top of my finger off one day, so I didn’t think I was cut out to spend my working life trying to make chair legs! I always understood that being a footballer, and then a manager, was a special privilege. So, if anyone wanted to talk to me about it, the very least I could do was to treat them courteously and be as friendly as I could. It’s not much to do in return, is it?
And people say, ‘You’re always smiling Ken.’ Well, I think I’ve got a lot to smile about.