He used to stand on the terraces. Then came the time he needed to stand by the club.
After four decades as a fan, Michael Wynn Jones and his wife, Delia Smith, stepped in to save Norwich City. This third excerpt from the trilogy of Tales from the City was first published in 2015. It is reproduced now with the permission of Tales From publishing and editor Mick Dennis.
I would say it’s been a game of two unequal halves, the first spanning some 40 years or so, the second a mere 20 so far. In Norfolk it’s no big deal, but I have been going to Carrow Road for more than 60 years, years that have spanned playing Newport County in the Third Division South to playing Inter Milan in Europe, that have witnessed the surrender of open terraces to corporate hospitality, and the escalation of players’ wages by 10,000 per cent.
It’s progress of a sort, I suppose, but part of me is still nostalgic for those uncomplicated, less commercial days that helped to fashion my footballing passion.
The first half
I went to my first football match with my father in Aldershot where he was vicar and whose parish encompassed the football ground (The Rec, where the best view was on the hill behind the turnstiles which in desperation they would open at half-time and let you in for free). He became a Norfolk vicar a few years later, a football-mad Norfolk vicar.
Just how football-mad he was my mother had discovered (if she didn’t already know) when the big treat of her honeymoon in London was a ticket for the Boxing Day match between Charlton Athletic and Chelsea. It is true parishioners had an annoying habit of getting married at three on a Saturday afternoon, but it didn’t inconvenience him too much in Norfolk as at that time he had care of only 250 souls most of whom were already married.
So it was that, on a freezing cold day in April 1955, we battled our way for the first time along the riverside and up the mound that was then the River End, and squeezed ourselves into the heaving mass.
‘Look on the bright side’ said my father. ‘We won’t have to worry about Charlie Billington here’. Charlie Billington was the then Aldershot defender, whose turning circle had been compared to that of a World War 1 battleship. Except he wasn’t any more! He was the Canaries’ latest signing and had made his way to Norfolk at exactly the same time as us.
Charlie lasted till the following season, as I recall, at which point Norwich (teetering on the brink of bankruptcy) had to apply for re-election to the Football League. It was very ungentlemanly to vote anyone out of the League in those days, so the Canaries survived to celebrate three years later what was, certainly at that point, their greatest moment – ‘The 1959 Cup Run’ (forever celebrated with capital letters and inverted commas).
My own memories of it are, at best, eclectic: the snow-covered pitch with only the white lines cleared, on which we, and Terry Bly in particular, dispatched Man U with ease; the legend of Ken Nethercott who played the last half-hour against Sheffield United with one arm hanging uselessly at his side after dislocating his shoulder; and the excitement of that opening goal at White Hart Lane from Terry Allcock, who was burying defenders long before he became a funeral director.
Above all, though, I still picture the sea of rosettes and cacophony of rattles – and that was just all over the city in the days leading up to a match. Mind you, so tightly packed in were we at Carrow Road, all 38,000 of us, that no-one could hope to wield a rattle, that curious instrument that had originally been issued during the war (so my father confided to me) to warn of gas attacks by the Germans.
There was no scope for movement of any kind in those crowds; even those who had brought their own plastic bottles to cope with the consequence of six pre-match pints were paralysed. Nevertheless the crowds had a kind of internal momentum, usually a collective surge forward as a dangerous attack on goal developed. You very quickly learnt to find a spot in front of the crush barrier.
Certain rituals were as engrained into the fabric of a match-day as the wafting aromas of fried onions over the River End that signaled there was a maximum of five more minutes to play. There was the regal progress around the ground of Captain Canary, decked out in those days with top hat, waistcoat, white gloves and a cigar, a somewhat ambivalent contrast to the terraces where flat caps were still de rigueur (though the odd bobble-hat here and there gave hints of what was to come).
Whatever activity there may or may not have been on the field before the interval, at half-time the pitch buzzed with energy. On came the corps of forkers and stampers attending to the furrows that invariably appeared on the pitch in those days. True there were no substitutes warming up because none were permitted, but the touchline swarmed with capped gents touring with the lucky lottery number chalked up on a blackboard, with others straining on a huge blanket to catch any donations for the charity of the day, and yet others with trays of chocolates and sweets which they would hurl into the crowd if the correct change had been hurled at them first.
But the main action came with the arrival of the Drayton Silver Marching Band, who would make stately advances up and down the pitch, with their medley of popular marches. They always contrived to be at the far end of the pitch when the referee and players returned for the second half, but resolutely refused to change step as they made for the exit, dodging the balls being lobbed about by the teams and thus ensuring their ovation as they finally disappeared through the gate.
For a few seasons it was the Dagenham Girl Pipers strutting their stuff round the pitch, I recall, with a massive ‘whoosh!’ echoing round the ground each time the majorette twirled her mace high into the air, followed by a collective wolf-whistle as she caught it safely above her head.
City’s stuttering progress through the Second Division during the sixties culminated in Ron Saunders’ team gaining promotion to the First in 1972, followed shortly afterwards by the agony of our first visit to Wembley for the League Cup final. Losing 1-0 to Spurs was bad enough, but the message on the illuminated scoreboard at the end – forever lasered onto my brain – offered no consolation.
It read, ‘Hard Luck Norwich. You Put Up A Brave Fight’. What I wanted it to say was, ‘If That Last-minute Lunge By Big Dunc Had Not Missed By Two Inches It Would Have Been A Very Different Story!’
Two years later another League Cup final and another 1-0 defeat, this time to Aston Villa, a score-line that undoubtedly saved Delia considerable indignity. Somehow or other she found herself at Wembley sitting in the middle of the Aston Villa supporters, somewhat conspicuous by her large yellow-and-green rosette.
During the game she might as well have been an alien from outer space for all the communication there was, but at the final whistle her neighbours launched a charm offensive, ‘Hard luck, luv!’ They might have patted her on the head, but at least they didn’t say we had put up a brave fight.
As we moved into the era of £1000-a-week footballers (though none of them at Norwich one suspects) so were they assuming the mantle of leaders of fashion. Players in the seventies and eighties scarcely matched the exotic coiffures, braids and dreadlocked hair of the modern game, but they certainly had more of it.
The shining exception (literally) was Bill Punton, whose glistening pate streaking down the wing for Norwich was a sight to wonder at. On the other hand Kevin Keelan’s immaculately manicured mop never seemed to have a strand out of place – except when the goalpost at Wolves fell on top of him and he was carried off.
Trevor Hockey epitomized the ‘Neanderthal’ look, which permitted only space for the eyes and reflected his primaeval approach to football. Then there was Graham Paddon: while football shorts got shorter and tighter, Graham’s golden locks got longer and looser. Defenders would have grabbed it by the handful if they could have got anywhere near him.
Then began the yo-yo years, in spite of the fact that John Bond and Ken Brown notched up 14 consistent years in the manager’s seat between them.
After the glory days of 1972 and our first promotion to the top division, there followed a spate of relegations (1974, 1980, 1985). But in each case the Canaries bounced back magnificently at the first attempt, leading to a mindset among us supporters that if it ever happened again we only had to turn up to regain our rightful place.
Of course, it did not happen like that in 1995, and whoever printed those posters at the beginning of the next season, ‘On Loan To The Endsleigh League’, found they had tempted fate once too often.
To celebrate our ascension to the First Division in 1972, my father, Delia and I decided season tickets in the City Stand were necessary. It was a whole new way of life. For a start there was free coffee or Bovril at half-time – rumour had it there were biscuits as well but we never got out in time to find out.
Hand-written team sheets were pinned up on a board before the match for our approval or otherwise. There were cushions too, for an extra 10p, until they were withdrawn because too often they finished up in the vicinity of linesmen who had incurred someone’s displeasure. Above all it was a different perspective on the game: within spitting distance of the dugout, we felt we could engage in the proceedings much more intimately.
Then one morning in October 1984 we woke up to learn it had all gone up in smoke, quite literally. In the early hours an electrical fault (reportedly) sparked a major conflagration in the City stand. The antiquated wooden structure didn’t stand a chance and our seats were cinders, along with the boardroom, changing rooms and trophy cabinet.
We were relocated to the upper tier of the recently completed River End stand, just above one of those new-fangled executive boxes. It was from this vantage point that we witnessed one of the most celebrated goals in the Canary canon: Stevie Bruce’s thundering header at the death to knock Ipswich out of the semi-final of the League Cup.
Which took us to Wembley yet again, for the Friendly Final against Sunderland, whom we had cunningly confused by letting them beat us the week before in the league. As it was, Asa Hartford’s deflected goal and Clive Walker’s heart-stopping penalty miss ensured us our first major trophy.
In truth I don’t recall how much camaraderie there was on the pitch but certainly both sets of fans stood out as beacons of decency in an era of hooliganism, engaging in impromptu kick-abouts on Wembley Way before the game. The other unifying factor, I suppose, was both of us getting relegated at the end of the season!
Does anyone remember the Super Cup, probably the most ill-fated competition of all time? It was devised to financially compensate those clubs who were barred from Europe in the aftermath of the Heysel tragedy: no-one would televise it, hardly anyone watched it, it only survived one year and even then the final had to be postponed till the next season.
Norwich qualified by virtue of their Wembley triumph, but the only significant fact that I can recall is that we drew twice with mighty Man U and put them out of the competition (and saw the beginning of my growing conviction of Norwich’s invincibility against the Reds at Carrow Road – which lasted for at least the next five years).
Once we were back in a spanking new City Stand we watched the plucky Canaries more than hold their own back in the top flight – indeed finishing high enough in two seasons to be robbed yet again of a European adventure.
Then in 1992-3 came the annus mirabilis when the club topped the Premier League from the end of August to the middle of March. Somewhere in one of the lobbies of the City Stand there used to be an engraved plaque of the league table on March 24 1993, the first line of which read:
1. Norwich City P36 W19 D8 L9 Pts 65
I rarely failed to stop and look at it when I passed although I knew it by heart. But for one gut-wrenching week at the beginning of April, when Man U finally beat us at home on the Monday (so much for my invincibility theory) and we shipped in five goals against Spurs on the Friday, we could have made it all the way. Couldn’t we?
As it was we made it to Munich and Milan on the UEFA trail instead. Delia and I were gutted to miss out on the Olympic Stadium, but our magazine had been nominated for an award in London the same night. However we returned home at two in the morning well-fuelled by champagne (we won the award) and sat down to watch our recording of the match armed, if necessary, with more champagne.
By the time dawn broke we were well over the moon and well over the limit. We also had the added pleasure of re-winding Jerry Goss’s sledgehammer volley over and over.
Curiously the San Siro was a bit of an anti-climax. In a half-empty stadium the Yellow Army did its best to raise the temperature and spur the team to overcoming the 1-0 deficit. God knows they tried, but the moment Dennis Bergkamp embarked on that breakaway down the left in the dying embers you knew it was over. Well, not quite.
Our abiding memory is of waking up at three in the morning in our hotel near the station and hearing repeated choruses of On The Ball City ringing out over the city. It almost made the journey worthwhile.
The sorry unfolding of events in 1996 is part of Canary folklore. The year began with a state of outright hostility between fans and chairman Robert Chase: he pointing out that under his aegis the club had enjoyed its greatest sustained success, they disillusioned with the subsequent exodus of treasured players and managers, and the mounting debts brought on by what seemed unnecessary expenditure (did we really need monogrammed carpets in the City stand, or our own radio station on match days?). In spite of that we still stood a comfortable seventh in the Premier at the turn of the year.
A few weeks later Delia and I happened to bump into Chase on the train to London just after we had just dumped Coventry out of the Cup. In spite of an already ominous slide down the table he was in bullish mood. Only two more wins were needed for safety, he explained, and then went on, without a hint of irony, to outline his hopes for floating the club on the stock market.
The truth is that, apart from beating a virtually relegated, ten-man Ipswich side, we failed to win any of our last nineteen games. Add to that the fact that this was the season that four clubs, not three, were relegated (to bring the Premier down to 20) and the impossible became the inevitable.
So in one of those twists of footballing fate, my first 40 years began and ended under the same dark clouds, with City struggling on the pitch and close to extinction off it.
Back in 1956 the crisis was averted by a new board under Geoffrey Watling and a public fund orchestrated by Arthur South. In 1996 the issues were more complicated. The debts this time were in a different league, the club was in a state of civil war, and the bank would offer no leeway while the old regime was in place.
Chase agreed to sell his shares but could come to no arrangement with the one or two consortia that had been hastily assembled. Finally the president, Geoffrey Watling, stepped in – yet again – and salvaged the wreckage with an undisclosed offer, which Chase accepted.
While this opened the door to a settlement, the crippling debt remained, of course. Martin Armstrong, chief executive of the Norwich and Peterborough Building Society, had joined the emergency board and was tirelessly scouring the City for any kind of help, but football clubs were definitely not flavour of the month with financial institutions just then; they surveyed the wave of administrations lapping over the League (Hartlepool, Exeter, Gillingham, with Millwall and Bournemouth teetering on the brink).
With a matter of days to spare, Martin invited Delia and myself out to dinner (Thai, if you want to know) to ask if we could help. If we could make the required loan we would get two seats on the board. We’d think about it, we said.
So we did for a few minutes. We thought of all the things we would prefer to do with the money than help to safeguard Norwich City’s future and, do you know, we couldn’t come up with a single one, even though we honestly never expected to see the cash again.
That was a conclusion reinforced by our very first board meeting: the scale of the economies was draconian – redundancies and job-sharing throughout the club, all meals for the squad at Colney cancelled, no expenditure over £5 permitted unless signed off by the new chief executive, Gordon Bennett … and so it went on.
A year later, with Geoffrey Watling well into his eighties and in indifferent health, we were urged by Martin Armstrong to try to buy his shareholding, which proved easier said than done.
Courteous as ever, Geoffrey invited Delia and myself to dinner, served us with sherry and escorted us into his study. Facing him across an enormous desk, containing a solitary notepad, it felt for all the world like an interview with the headmaster (which I suppose it was in a way).
We mentioned a figure, he scribbled a note, then stood up impassively and said ‘let us dine’. Was that all then? As it happened, yes it was, apart from a tour of his Norwich City museum at the top of the house, which contained among many other things ancient and forgotten trophies, a gilded music-box with a revolving canary on top and – most perplexing of all – silver replicas of Duncan Forbes’ football boots.
Then he went off on a cruise, but not before writing to inform us he was not selling his shares at this time. So we were staggered to receive another letter a week or two later saying he would sell the shares to us after all. The reasons for this change of heart he took to his grave, but we remained on excellent terms with him for the rest of his life.
On the field, Norwich were still struggling to play their way out of the bottom half of the division; off the field the finances were, if anything, even more precarious. The board’s response was to sanction the issue of a shedful more shares and to embark on a one-for-one share subscription.
For legal reasons (Norwich City at that time being a private company) this was restricted to existing shareholders who, in effect, would have to buy their shares all over again to maintain their percentage shareholding – which included ourselves as newly-fledged 30 per cent shareholders!
In what feels in retrospect like a somewhat cavalier moment, Delia and I also agreed to underwrite the share issue, and hope that enough shareholders would take the altruistic view and pay up.
In the event many did, but quite a few, including some with significant shareholdings, did not and the unforeseen outcome was that by the end of 1998 our own percentage had increased to 63 per cent!
It has always been an article of faith with us that a football club, any football club, belongs to the fans and that owners and directors are at best only trustees and caretakers for a finite period – though I appreciate this may not be the universal view among Russian oligarchs, American entrepreneurs or Middle Eastern sheikhs.
Nonetheless it is a sobering thought that a lifetime on the terraces does not automatically qualify you to run a football club or to be immune from mistakes, and there were a few of them!
When Mike Walker left after two seasons that never threatened to match his first tenure, the board decided to interview and do due-diligence on at least 14 candidates (there may have been more but we lost count).
There were plenty of familiar faces among them and, as you might expect, each one of them had something of his own to contribute – apart from one who turned up along with his agent as if negotiations could start on the spot.
It was a protracted and unenlightening process, tantalisingly nurturing the hope that next time Supermanager would come crashing though the door. He didn’t of course, and we swore never to repeat the process.
In the end the board were obliged to hold a formal ballot of the directors – the only time I can recall that happening in 20 years – and Bruce Rioch duly arrived in his custom-registered car R1 OCH.
Running a football club, we very soon discovered, is like running no other business in the world: conventional models go out of the window. Market forces may still apply but nowhere else are they subject to such unpredictables as injuries and refereeing decisions, or such intangibles as ‘losing the dressing-room’.
We were very fortunate to be able to spend time learning from the likes of Roy Hodgson and Bobby Robson (then with Barcelona) and even Guy Roux, the legendary coach at Auxerre whose edicts included the rule that his players should only ever drink water – and that in spite of Auxerre’s principal sponsor being the leading Chablis producer in the region!
It was patently obvious that the club needed to revisit some basic principles, one of which was that the principal purpose of the club was football, not business.
But without a healthy commercial base there would be no football, and so countless hours were spent debating the merits of a club shop in Castle Mall, in identifying new sponsors, and in restructuring the kitchens and creating new restaurants, which gave rise to dark mutterings among fans and journalists that we were more interested in hot-plates than points. But the fact of the matter was that before long the catering operation was contributing the best part of £1million to the squad, and now rather more.
Meanwhile the flirtation with relegation continued. When Bryan Hamilton, who had briefly succeeded Rioch, fell on his sword at the beginning of December 2000 City were 20th in the table. His natural successor was Nigel Worthington, his assistant manager, but somewhat cautiously the board gave him just six matches over the Christmas period to make an impact.
Armed with two wins and three draws in the New Year though, he presented a persuasive case for leading City to safety, as indeed he did. His first full season, however, began with a 4-0 mullering away at Millwall and the expectations raised by an unusually good pre-season melted away. But this was Norwich, don’t forget, and as I recall we won the next four games without conceding a goal, which sent the stattos diving for their record books.
They would have been at it again for the final match of the season, with the Canaries in seventh place but on the same points as Burnley in sixth and just one goal behind on goal difference. You could touch the tension in the ground as we kicked off for our game with Stockport, only slightly eased when their goalie was sent off in the second minute.
Then word came through that Burnley had scored – hell and damnation! But then Phil Mulryne puts us ahead in the second half – blessed relief! Finally Malky cracks one past the deputy goalkeeper – bliss beyond compare – and the whistle goes with City in the play-offs.
But hang on. They are still playing at Turf Moor and Paul Gascoigne, no less, is about to take a free kick on the edge of the area, deep into injury time. The silence around Carrow Road is stifling, a frozen tableau of faces, with trannies sealed to ears. Suddenly, bedlam. Gazza’s low free kick has been tipped round the post!
The subsequent passage to the Millenium Stadium was no less fraught, in particular the final buttock-clenching 15 minutes at Molineux as City desperately hung on to their one-goal lead against Wolves, but we survived.
On May 12th, then, convoy after convoy of balloon-festooned cars crossed the Severn Bridge and converged on Cardiff. Three hours before kick-off every street leading to the Norwich end of the stadium was a raucous sea of green and yellow as far as the eye could see, one of the most emotional sights – Delia and I agreed – we had ever witnessed.
In those days the play-off final was not yet billed as the Richest Match In The World (though it probably was, because the truly eye-watering rewards were still over the horizon), but it did strike us as something of an anomaly that the winner should qualify for their share of the takings on top of the millions they would earn from the Premier League.
In the minutes leading up to the kick-off our chief executive, Neil Doncaster, circumvented the Football League and reached an arrangement with the Gold brothers at Birmingham that the winning side would cede its share to the losers. It is a precedent followed ever since.
In the event that did nothing to assuage the desolation of losing the penalty shoot-out, nor dampen the fire-fighting that was now a constant feature of board meetings. The sale of some land for development and a moderately successful public share issue helped to stabilise the squad for the time being, but a report at the beginning of 2003 that the South Stand – the only original structure left – was to all intents and purposes condemned and would cost a fortune simply to get a safety certificate came as a body-blow.
To pay for a new stand the board voted to seek a ‘securatisation’ from Axa. In other words, a mortgage secured on future season-ticket sales – a form of loan that had previously only been offered to Premier League clubs. It was a calculated risk but one that appeared to be paying off when, even as the spanking new Jarrold Stand opened its doors for business in February 2004, the team were cementing a five-point lead at the top of League One (as what is now the Championship was then called).
When we clinched the title away at Sunderland – even though we lost – the friendship forged between the clubs in 1985 at Wembley was reaffirmed when they broke open the champagne.
There was more champagne to follow in July when, courtesy of our sponsors Proton, the team landed in Kuala Lumpur for a pre-season tour in Malaysia, (a far cry from playing friendlies on rugby pitches in Ireland, which is what had occurred soon after Delia and I joined the board).
It was so hot that the players were told to immerse themselves in barrels of ice after training, apart from one (nameless) player who refused to take that option under any circumstances. Hundreds of Canary fans painted the city centre green and yellow, along with hundreds more locals whom they had recruited into a newly-formed Malaysian supporters club.
For the board rather more diplomacy was required. At a regal banquet hosted by the Crown Prince, we noticed that the only settings without wine glasses were ours and his. We did not summon the wine-waiter to complain!
However, beware the beautiful game.
Norwich were warmly welcomed back into the Premier, because we were a team who ‘liked to play football’, or was it because we might be easy pickings?, you just couldn’t tell.
For most of the season we were both, until a wonderful rally at the end left us only needing to win our final game to stay in the Premier. I can hardly bear to dwell on that 6-0 capitulation at Craven Cottage but for the fact that it had such far-reaching consequences. It was as if a set of dominoes was collapsing: relegation fomenting a hangover that spread from the pitch to the terraces, leading to protest marches and vitriol on the message-boards – PS, no, we didn’t filch the money.
What money anyway? Now the loan repayments were weighing down on the club like a millstone, and with no prospect whatsoever of any further corporate backing, there only remained the directors to throw a lifeline. Mike Foulger (who has invariably stepped up to the plate in times of crisis over the past 20 years), Andrew and Sharon Turner and we ourselves provided the funds to keep the club’s head above water.
Not surprisingly the vultures were now circling. There was no shortage of opportunists offering ‘to take the debt off our hands’ armed with the romantic notion that they could negotiate it down with Axa. Delia and I issued a statement – somewhat against our better judgment – that we wouldn’t rule out foreign investment if it were in the club’s best interests, but there was a deafening silence from Dubai and Wall Street.
One credible suitor, however, appeared with the zealous backing of a local paper. Peter Cullum had made a huge reputation in the City by bucking the financial trends and hovering up scores of small companies into his megalithic Towergate Partnership.
Via the press Cullum offered ‘ to put £20million into the squad’ in return for ownership, though this does not entirely accord with our recollection of discussions with him. It proved irrelevant anyway, because at our last meeting the bid was withdrawn, which may or may not have had anything to do with the fact that by then he was reported to be renegotiating his own banking covenants.
Three managerial departures, Nigel Worthington, Peter Grant and Glenn Roeder, over the next two and a half years underlined the increasingly tenuous grip City had on the Championship (as it had become). The coup de grace came on May 3rd 2009 at Charlton, who had themselves already been relegated, and we found ourselves back in the third tier of English football for the first time in 50 years and facing the imminent arrival of the administrators.
If Delia and I, and every other fan, thought this was the worst day of our lives, there was worse to follow. But in the meantime two straws appeared within our grasp.
First, our amazing supporters rallied to the cause by purchasing more season tickets than ever before, and secondly, in the inevitable restructuring that had to follow relegation, we were able to appoint – persuade might be more appropriate – Alan Bowkett as chairman and David McNally as chief executive.
If they had misgivings about the task ahead these could only have deepened on the opening day of the new season when 4-0 down to Colchester after 20 minutes saw supporters tearing up their season-tickets in front of poor Bryan Gunn. The final 7-1 score-line was undoubtedly the nadir, the least wanted record of all time… but also as it turned out to be the ashes from which a phoenix might yet rise.
Alan, whose reputation in the City went before him, somehow convinced our creditors of the benefits of a moratorium on interest and a restructuring of capital repayments that would give the club breathing space. David, tapping into a profound knowledge of the game honed at Celtic and Fulham, found and installed Paul Lambert as manager, the very man who had inflicted the 7-1 defeat on us!
How inspired this appointment was rapidly dawned on us as the Canaries flew from rock bottom of the league to displacing a rampant Leeds at the top by mid-January, and never looked back.
As it happens, Delia and I found our acquaintance with the third tier of the game very refreshing. We were a million miles from the plush boardrooms of the Premier, with their waiters in white gloves and food supposedly finer than the proverbial prawn sandwiches.
Apart from the opportunity to visit grounds we had never set foot in (and even coming away with points), we were lucky to get to know so many directors who are the backbone of league football in this country – the very antithesis of Simon Jordan’s description of some boardroom incumbents as ‘tossers drinking Chardonnay’.
Here were life-long fans of their club, rooted in the community, struggling from game to game with the financial inequalities of lower-league football. It certainly helped to put our own issues into a wider context.
Back in the Championship, the phoenix completed its ascent at Portsmouth on the evening of May 2nd 2011, when the news greeted us at Fratton Park that our nearest rivals Cardiff had imploded in their early game and a win would seal promotion.
It seemed an eternity before Simeon Jackson headed his ninth goal in seven games. It was ten years since any team had achieved back-to-back promotions to the Premiership. The roars rang around Norfolk and probably around a few accountants’ offices as well.
By now the external debt, with accrued interest, topped £25million, but two relatively settled years in the Premier and prudent housekeeping saw it paid off in full, every penny of it. But equally important for us has been to keep enshrined the principles of ‘football and community first’.
One immediate target was to achieve Category One status for the Academy under the new regulations, which clearly paid off when, much to Chelsea’s irritation, the under-18s won the FA Youth Cup.
Recruitment, sports science, analysis, nutrition, all of which had once seemed something of a luxury, are now top of the agenda. The club’s Community Sports Foundation – which has worked unsung wonders in schools, with the homeless, the old, the very young and those with disabilities – gains momentum each year.
When I started writing these random recollections I wondered how they would end up. Delia and I scarcely dared to believe I would be able to conclude what I have no doubt is the greatest day in the club’s history.
Some may say we are simply basking in the euphoria of having won a play-off final, others may argue the case for earlier triumphs recounted here – ‘The 1959 Cup Run’, the Milk Cup, Bayern Munich. But consider the context of the 2015 Wembley victory: the inspirational surge up the table under Alex Neil (unbeaten away in 12 consecutive matches), the small matter of defeating Ipswich in the semi-finals, the global audience of hundreds of millions, the awesome rewards at stake and, above all, the manner of the victory.
Even to our untutored eyes the tactics and quality of the football were immaculate. Even the ’Boro fans , so gracious in defeat, made the day unforgettable.
Anyone who has shared a glass of wine with Delia and myself from time to time will know – even to the point of boredom – we have one recurring toast. It is not to the richest, most galactic, most trophy-laden club in the world; it is to, in all the things that give football its heart, ‘the best football club in the world’.