Robert Fleck was leading scorer for four consecutive seasons for Norwich and player of the year in 1992. He had two spells at the club, making more than 250 appearances and scoring 84 times. His contribution to the second volume of the Tales From The City trilogy was perhaps the most surprising of all 33 ‘tales’. First published in 2016, it is reproduced here with the permission of Tales From publishing and editor Mick Dennis.
MY JOURNEY TO SCHOOL
I don’t know why people were surprised when it was reported that I work as a classroom assistant at a school for children with complex needs. Why is it surprising? Because I was a footballer? But footballers are just human beings. I would say 99 per cent of footballers give money to charity, or go into schools and hospitals without being asked and without people knowing. They don’t do it for publicity and they don’t want publicity about it.
Football was a big part of my life: a hobby that I was lucky enough to get paid well for. But there came a time when it was over and I just had to get on with the rest of my life. And now my working life is at Parkside School in Norwich. I seldom talk about the football part now, and don’t often give interviews, but the fact that Dave Stringer was contributing to this book made me think, ‘If it’s good enough for him …’
Dave was the manager who signed me for Norwich from Glasgow Rangers and became like a father to me in some ways. But the first game I played for Norwich was such a shock that I flew home to Scotland and told people I wasn’t going back south again.
I had known about the Norwich interest for some time. Chris Woods, the Rangers goalkeeper, had been at Norwich and so I spoke about the club and the city long and hard to Chris and his wife. They sold the idea of going to Carrow Road to me.
But Leeds and Newcastle were interested as well and I had talks with Dave Bassett, the manager at Watford. He was offering more money than Norwich, but something didn’t feel right when I spoke to him. He more or less said I was his last throw of the dice. I thought, ‘Hold on. If the last throw doesn’t work, I’m going to get the flack and the next manager might want to get rid of me.’ I was 22 years of age and if I was going to play in England I wanted to be at a club with some stability.
On the Tuesday evening, a few days after I’d spoken with Watford, I played for Rangers against Dunfermline at Ibrox. There were 36,000 people there and they were singing for me not to leave, but after the game I was told Norwich had come to sign me. I talked to Dave Stringer and the chairman, Robert Chase, and the next morning I was on a flight with them to Norwich.
That was the Wednesday. On the Friday we played Wimbledon at Plough Lane and seven or eight of my friends came down to watch. The crowd was just over 4,000. It was a bit different from Ibrox just three nights before. I had been to some bad places in my time in Glasgow but Plough Lane was the worst. It was awful and Norwich lost 1-0. I flew back to Scotland for the weekend and said, ‘I am not going back south.’
My dad said, ‘You are not a quitter and you are not going to quit now. Go back and make the most of it’. So I went back to Norwich.
I was a single lad and I stayed with Bryan Gunn for three months while I had a house built. In those three months, I think he cooked once. We went out every night and there would be a toss of the coin to see who would buy dinner. He only paid about once. I checked his coin all the time, but he kept winning the toss.
It was OK for players to go out in Norwich. As with every club at that time, there was alcohol involved. We worked hard — boy, did we work hard at training, and on the pitch — but we played hard as well. That was the culture at the time but nobody got into any trouble. We knew where we could go and where not to go and I can’t remember anyone getting into fights or arguments anything.
I was a lucky man. My face fitted at most of the clubs I went to and I think that, sometimes, if your face fits you get the job. There were kids who were better than me but got released by Glasgow Rangers. I wasn’t the most gifted of footballers, but coming from a working class family in Glasgow, you had to work hard to get what you had, and so I had a work ethic.
My attitude was that I would go out and show the club that I was working for that I would give as much as I could: running about, trying to win the ball, trying to get it back if you lost it, trying to get goals and — instead of walking back or getting frustrated — always running from the opposition half to get back.
It was just a working class thing. And I knew it was what the fans wanted to see because I’d been a fan myself. As a kid I had paid to watch Glasgow Rangers play. I knew what it was like to pay good money to watch football, and I knew the fans were the people who were paying my wages, so I thought I had to give something back.
At Rangers I had played under John Greig, Jock Wallace and Graeme Souness: all men who respected hard work. Then, when I got to Norwich, Dave Stringer was a man from a working background and so it wasn’t hard for me to give everything in training and practice games to say, ‘This is what I am about’.
I had been quite fortunate with the players I played alongside at Glasgow Rangers. I had Trevor Francis, Ray Wilkins, Graham Roberts, Terry Butcher, Ally McCoist, Souness and people like that. But Norwich played the sort of football I like as well. When I got there, Bryan Gunn was in goal and we had Ian Culverhouse, Ian Crook, Mark Bowen, Dale Gordon and Ruel Fox: intelligent players, and a team who wanted to play football instead of humping it and running.
They made me feel very welcome, so it was quite easy to fit in. Up front with me was Robert Rosario. He was the most unselfish player I ever played alongside and he didn’t get the credit for what he did. In fact he took a lot of criticism, but he was fantastic to have in the dressing room and on the pitch. Fans make quick judgements sometimes and I thought the criticism was unfair.
My first Norwich goal was against Manchester United, and that would be one of my highlights. It was at Carrow Road and it was against a team whose fans didn’t like me because they align themselves with Celtic. So it gave me great pleasure to score that goal.
People seem to remember the winner at Millwall, in my first full season: 1988-89. It was a Sunday game and was live on ITV and, from my point of view, it was one of the most exciting matches I have ever been involved in.
We were two-nil up in the first seven minutes, both from Dale Gordon corners. The first was from the left. I got my head to it to flick it on and Ian Butterworth scored at the far post with a shot. The second corner, from the right, was cleared but Andy Linighan hit a shot that was saved. I got to the rebound and turned the ball to Robert Rosario. His shot hit somebody and ricocheted to Mark Bowen who tapped it in. They got two back before half time, and Gunny had a phenomenal game as we came under pressure. He was definitely man-of-the-match, although on TV Ian St John gave it to a Millwall player.
My winner came in time added on. It was a volley on the half-turn from the edge of the penalty box. My legs were really tired, but fortunately the ball went over the goalkeeper’s head.
During my time at Norwich under Dave Stringer the two FA Cup semi-finals we reached stood out — but definitely not for good reasons.
In 1989, on the day before our semi-final against Everton at Villa Park, I spoke to my dad on the phone after lunch and some of the boys had gone out but I was just relaxing in the hotel. Then, at about four o’clock, there was a big bang on my door and it was the gaffer who wanted me to go and talk to him. We walked along the corridor and he looked so serious that I thought, ‘If I am not playing tomorrow I am going home’.
I couldn’t think of anything else he would want to talk to me about other than that for some reason he was going to leave me out for the semi-final. But then he told me it was bad news. My dad, John, had died, aged 46. He’d had a heart attack, not that long after I had spoken to him on the phone.
My first thought was for my mum. I phoned her and said, ‘Right I’m on the first flight up to you’. She told me I should stay and play but I wanted to be with her. It was when I was on the plane from Birmingham that I thought I should have stayed and played, just for my dad. The fact that I didn’t is the one big regret I have about my football choices.
I spent the next day at home in Glasgow with my mum and my family. We knew Norwich had lost, but that was also the day when the Hillsborough disaster happened at the other semi-final, and that put football in perspective. But I do wish I had played for Norwich against Everton for my dad.
Three years later, we reached the semi-final again. I got my ribs broken by Glenn Cockerill of Southampton at our place in a quarter-final replay. It happened in the first five minutes but the doctor gave me an injection and I stayed on and then Matt Le Tissier got sent off for kicking me. We got through to the semi-final and I spent time in an oxygen chamber to help my recovery.
This time our semi-final was at Hillsborough, against Sunderland. I asked the gaffer if I could play in a reserve game on the Tuesday before we travelled for the semi. I needed a half-hour run out. But he said, ‘No, because I want to make out you will not be fit for Saturday.’ He was trying kidology.
I was desperate to play at Hillsborough, because I had missed the 1989 one and I thought I owed the fans, myself and my dad. I did play. It was one of my worst days in football. We were the better team and had chances to win the game. But John Byrne, who had scored in every round, got the only goal. It was my biggest heartbreak in football. I just sat by a post at the end and cried.
The defeat was crushing because, if I am honest, we all choked. We had been favourites but we didn’t turn up. And the other reason it was crushing was that semi-finals had a connection in my mind with my dad.
I have some much happier memories. The most important goal I scored for Norwich was probably against Wimbledon, in 1990-91. We were struggling and my goal gave us a 1-1 draw that more or less kept us up.
Throughout that period when Dave Stringer was manager we stayed in the top division and that was a great achievement for ‘Little Norwich’, as people wanted to keep calling us. We finished fourth one season.
The manager was such a gentle, loveable person. Dave Williams was first team coach, and very good, but Dave Stringer was the manager, and everyone knew where they stood.
In the team, we all knew what we had to do but we had a freedom to express ourselves within the system. The fullbacks were allowed to join in the attacks, for instance, because they knew full well that someone would cover for them. Everyone knows the goals that Mark Bowen scored over the years from left back for Norwich, which shows the sort of team we were, but he would have someone like Trevor Putney tucking in behind to cover.
There were thinkers in the team and all good footballers. Micky Phelan, for example, was great for us and then you think what he went on to achieve as a coach at Manchester United. It shows the calibre of person we had in the Norwich team.
We were all quick to let one another know if someone wasn’t doing his job properly but there was never a case of anyone going in a huff or sulking. My attitude was that if someone told me I wasn’t doing something, I would think, ‘That must be right’, and if I had to tell someone the response was the same. It was a good team spirit, a good bond, a good understanding.
As a manager, Dave would fight your corner, but if you did anything wrong you would know about it. He would certainly tell you. I think if anyone sat down with him for a talk, they would know that he was taking the job personally. He wanted to be a winner and he didn’t want to let people down.
I scored that goal against Wimbledon that meant we were safe, and then, before the last game of the season, which was at Leeds, we found out that Dave was stepping down as manager. I was gutted because I thought he had a lot more to offer. But his decision was to stop, and he is a man who stands by his decisions.
Mike Walker took over and he tried to stamp his own authority on it, but I left that summer. I had nearly joined Chelsea the year before but for some reason it fell through but all through my last season in that first spell at Norwich I knew I would be leaving.
When I did, it gave Mike the money to go and buy Mark Robbins, who began with two goals at Arsenal and went on to prove what a good player and scorer he was.
It felt right for me to go to Chelsea because I’d been ready to do so a year before and I just felt I shouldn’t go somewhere else because they were offering me £500 a week more. I did speak to Terry Venables at Tottenham the night before I signed for Chelsea, and other clubs were interested, but I had a gut feeling that it should be Chelsea. Back in November 1991, Norwich had beaten them 3-0 away and I had scored a couple of goals. The whole Shed End at Stamford Bridge applauded me and that had stayed in my head.
Ian Porterfield was the Chelsea manager when I joined them, in the summer of 1992, and Don Howe was his assistant manager. The records show that Chelsea wasn’t my best spell, but they also show that in the first half of the season I went there I was top of the assists. Don Howe’s coaching meant we were told to play as Arsenal had played under him. That meant ‘defending from the front’, and it was a completely different style to what I had been used to at Norwich.
Ian Porterfield got the sack and Dave Webb came in. He was as honest as the day is long. He said, ‘If we get a bid for you Robert, we’ll let you go, because I am going to play with two big men up front: Tony Cascarino and Mick Harford’.
Then Glenn Hoddle came in as manager and that’s not worth talking about — except that he was the one who told me when Norwich came in for me. At first they wanted me on loan but I didn’t really believe in going back. It wasn’t about not wanting to play for Norwich again. If it had been any club I would still have thought, ‘I shouldn’t go back’.
Norwich first came in for me to return in the summer. They had been relegated and Martin O’Neill had been appointed manager. They went to Northern Ireland on a pre-season tour, and I went to see him at his hotel.
But another reason I wanted to stay at Chelsea was to mess Glenn about. I’d been out on loan at Bolton and Bristol and there had been a chance of me playing abroad, but he had messed that up, so I thought I would stay — because the longer I stayed the more it pi.ssed him off.
Then I thought about it some more and decided I would re-join Norwich. I didn’t really want it to be on loan though. My wife, Jayne, was a Norwich girl and I didn’t fancy getting my wife settled back in Norfolk and then have to leave again. So I said I would re-join Norwich if it would be a permanent move.
I’d had a problem with my right knee for about a year and the medical wasn’t perfect. Tim Sheppard was the Norwich physio, and was a good friend. He said, ‘If it was me buying him, I wouldn’t do it’. But Martin signed me and the joy on my wife’s face was a picture and made me sure it was the right decision.
Of course, Martin didn’t hang around long. The players had a little inkling that things weren’t right between him and the chairman, Mr Chase, because Martin wasn’t himself. The chairman wouldn’t give him the money to buy Dean Windass and Martin, being the proud man he is, said he would leave. If we had kept Martin there is not a shadow of doubt we would have got promoted that year.
There were demonstrations and protests about the chairman, but as a player you couldn’t let that interfere with your football on the training ground or on the pitch. At the end of the day, the football was your job and you had to do it to the best of your ability.
But for me personally, and some of the others, because we got on so well with Mr Chase, we were disappointed about the protests. We felt that he was hard done by, when you think what was achieved when he was at the club. He was fantastic for the players, too. But when results don’t go well, supporters are going to take it out on someone: probably the manager or the chairman. And in this case it was the chairman.
In that second period for me at Norwich, I didn’t play right up top. I played a little deeper, trying to link up play, but still get into the box. In the second tier you couldn’t play the type of football we had played in the top division, and a lot of good players had moved on. Time had taken its toll on some, and confidence had gone as well.
I left Norwich for the second time when they sold me to Reading in March 1998 but at the end of the following season, I retired from the professional game because my back wasn’t fit to keep going.
Dale Gordon was manager of Gorleston and Jimmy Jones, who had been on the Norwich board, was the chairman. Dale asked me to go along and help, and I said I would but I also said, ‘Don’t ever ask me to play because I am never going to’.
But in one game an opponent stamped on the head of our kid striker. I said, ‘I bet you wouldn’t do that to me’. He was giving it the big one back. So I said, ‘The next time you play us I am going to hurt you like you hurt that kid’. So I got myself fit and in the team and I did play against him and I did hurt him: not too badly but just enough to make a point.
Dale left and Jimmy Jones, who I had got on well with when he was at Norwich, asked me to take over, which I did. The players were a great bunch of lads. They would be at work all day, and then get home, get changed and come training. It was back to the work ethic that I believed in and I thoroughly enjoyed it.
Next I went to Diss and was there for about three seasons, but I got the sack and I turned around and said to myself, ‘Right, I am not going to another club. That was the first time I have been sacked but it will be the last time I am sacked too’.
From that moment I have had no contact with local football.
I think I am lucky that my wife, Jayne, doesn’t like football. I have seen footballers’ wives in the players’ bar after a game talking as if they were the manager and telling their husbands what they’ve done wrong. With Jayne, I’d go home and tell her we’d won and she would say, ‘Well done’. Or I would tell her we’d lost and she would say, ‘Oh, not to worry’.
I would sit on my own in a room for an hour to calm down but, after that, Jayne would say, ‘Robert, come on, it’s family time again’. I was also lucky that I had friends outside the football as well. I can’t pretend there weren’t a few dark days when I first stopped playing, but because of Jayne I had a home life that didn’t include football I was able to move on. Because of how it had always been with Jayne, and some of our friends, I was able to say, ‘What has gone has gone and it is time to get on with the rest of my life’.
I went back to thinking that football had been a hobby and that I had been really fortunate. I had international caps and medals and had got a hell of a lot out of my hobby. I did some scouting for Norwich, and enjoyed that, but eventually gave up even that.
I still don’t take my work home to Jayne now. I don’t really speak to her about what happens at the school. There are some things that I am not allowed to speak about anyway. But I don’t talk about any of it because she would find some of it upsetting.
I used to hire the school’s hall to put on soccer schools on Wednesday evenings. I got to know the staff and got to know the set-up and they asked if I would do a day with their kids, who have special needs, in the summer. As a thank you for letting me use their hall, I did it. Obviously they must have seen that I was doing well with the kids, and a teacher there came up to me and told me there was a job going if I would be interested in applying for it. I thought, ‘Why not?’ It was the first interview I’d ever had for a job and I was really nervous, but thankfully it ended with me being taken on.
It is very rewarding. I’d say to anyone who thinks about getting involved at a school like Parkside you will enjoy it, that’s for sure. There are two teaching assistants in my class, some classes have three assistants and some have one. It depends on the needs of the children.
Every day is different. We could have young kids kicking off, biting you, kicking you or swearing at you. Obviously we have a word and get them back on the right road, and then when they come in the next morning you forget about the day before and it is a fresh start for them. We never hang on to what happened yesterday.
It is about getting to know the children and getting on with them. In the upper school, which is the years nine, ten and 11, the classes have mixed ages in them. That is something we started three or four years ago. Mine is an upper school class. I like working with the older children: helping them towards adulthood, helping them to go out into the big wide world.
We give the children breakfast in the morning and lunch later. We help them with putting clothes on, because they can’t do it. We do everything. But we interact with them too and so we see them smile. If you don’t feel good when you see a kid smile, there is something wrong with you. Whatever their difficulties, these kids have good hearts and have all got fun in them somewhere. We find how to get it out.
Russell Martin has been in two or three times. Wes Hoolahan donated some football tops to the school. It’s the sort of thing lots of footballers do, but the school were really grateful. Football has a great power to grab people and get them interested and, as I said at the start, footballers are humans who respond as humans when there is something they can do to help someone else.
And I would say to footballers who want to give something back, when you retire go to a little school like the one I work in and try volunteering for a few hours a week. It will bring you back to earth and show you that football is not the be-all and end-all. It makes you think of what you have got, not what you haven’t got.
When I first came down to Norwich, I got involved with helping a boy who was 15. Someone told me they were doing a sponsored walk for this boy who hadn’t got long to live. I did the walk and then did other things. It touched my heart. Unfortunately, he did die less than two years later, and I kept in touch with his mum and brother for a while.
I was lucky that I was running about but some of these kids have such a short lifespan. It wasn’t something I would really speak about at the time. It was just something personal that I did. I mention it now because there are plenty of footballers who do understand how lucky they are and how unfortunate some other people are.
When I arrived in Norwich as a 22-year-old, and had that game at Plough Lane, I could not have imagined that when I packed up football I would settle in Norwich. And a couple of years later, when I was still at Norwich, Ian Porterfield was manager of Aberdeen and he tried to take me back to Scotland. But I had promised my dad and myself that I would stick it out in England, and give it a right good go. So that is what I did.