Dale Gordon is one of our own. He first trained with the club at eight, made his debut at 17 and was in City teams who finished fifth and fourth in the top division.
The story of the kid from Caister who became a Norwich Hall of Famer is reproduced here from the third volume of the Tales From The City trilogy, with the kind permission of @adamleventhal for the publishers, and Mick Dennis, the editor.
Where should I start? I know some Norwich fans still use my nickname, ‘Disco’ if they mention me. And I know there’s the story about when my Norwich teammate Robert Rosario and I got into trouble for breaking a curfew while we were away with England under-21s. To be honest, that night was like a scene from the film Mike Bassett England Manager, and I will tell you about it. But I did play a bit of football too! So can I start there?
Growing up in Caister, I used to drive my mum and dad mad because they had to re-seed the back garden two or three times a year. From age six I used to wear the grass away by playing with a football. I was out in the back garden with a ball all the time — when I wasn’t using the playing field in the middle of Caister.
The playing field is still there to this day. A group of my mates would turn up and it was literally ‘jumpers for goalposts’ until it got dark. Caister F.C. used to play there on a proper pitch. And at half-time in their games, me and my mates would be on the pitch smashing balls into the back of their net.
In all the kick-about games I played with guys who were a couple of years older than me, and when I started playing for my school, I always played in an age-group one or two years older than I actually was. At Caister Middle School, the PE teacher was Cameron Newark — a big Norwich City fan — and he was a big influence on my career.
My dad was so passionate about my career too. People said he was too pushy with me, but it worked both ways because I wanted always to impress him with my football.
At my middle school, I was in a team who didn’t lose a game for two years. We got to a cup final, against Peterhouse School from Great Yarmouth. Ken Brown, who was assistant manager at Norwich City, came to watch the final and I scored a hat-trick, including one straight from a corner.
When Ken did the presentations, he invited our whole team for trials at the old training ground at Trowse — so my first Norwich trial was when I was eight. I turned up in an Ipswich Town kit. Yeah, I know. But they were my team then.
There used to be benches against the wall, either side of the door to the changing rooms. I sat there in my Ipswich kit and John Bond, the manager, drove more or less right up to the door and he saw me sitting there in the classic Ipswich Adidas kit.
My dad’s family lived in Suffolk, my dad used to take me to watch Ipswich. We’d get a coach from Lowestoft. This was the era of Paul Cooper, George Burley, John Wark, Paul Mariner and so on. I remember sitting at home watching the 1978 Cup Final, Ipswich against Arsenal, and crying with joy when Ipswich won.
But it was Norwich who gave me that trial and they asked me to go to Trowse once a week. Ronnie Brooks was the chief scout, and he used to pick me up and take me home because my dad didn’t drive.
I played for England schoolboys, and again was from a younger age-group than most of the boys in the team. I got sort of growing pains in my knee though, when I was 13, and missed a year in the England team. But a lot of clubs wanted to sign me.
It was when I was 13, in 1980, that John Bond went from Norwich to Manchester City, and took youth team coach John Sainty with him. They tried to sign me to take me to Maine Road. Chelsea and West Ham wanted me too. So did QPR, who were a good side in those days.
Manchester City offered my parents £35,000 and a house to re-locate to Manchester. But Norwich had a good youth system and a reputation for giving youngsters a chance. They’d had Justin Fashanu and his brother John come through the ranks. And they pulled out all the stops to keep me.
For me, it wasn’t about money. It was about my dad’s job, and about my brothers and sisters. My family was settled and I was happy, so I stayed. Ken Brown, who seen me in that schools cup final, took over from Bond as manager and Dave Stringer became youth team coach.
I signed schoolboy forms at 14 and then at 16 signed apprentice forms. I had to clean Martin O’Neill’s boots. I remember they were the Pony brand.
At 16 I was playing for England under-18s. We played Wales at Doncaster and I wore Martin O’Neill’s boots. Don’t ask too many questions! He wasn’t best pleased because he had no boots to wear in training.
By 1984, when I turned 17, I didn’t spend a lot of time with the youth team. I was around the first team all the time. Being an apprentice meant I still had to do chores, like sweeping the stands at Carrow Road after matches. But in the summer that year the first team went on tour to Sweden, and I went along as the kit skip boy.
I trained with the first team on that tour. This was the time when they had Steve Bruce, Dave Watson, Chris Woods, Peter Mendham, John Deehan and the like. And I actually played in a first-team match in Sweden.
I also picked up my nickname on that tour. After every game, the team we played put on a little celebration. There would be a nice buffet and the likes of myself and Louie Donowa would do a little bit of dancing. Louie fancied himself as a bit of a DJ and would do hip-hop dancing and the lads would say, ‘Come on Dale, show us what moves you have got’. So I would be leaping about like an idiot and it was Tim Sheppard, the physio, who Christened me ‘Disco’.
Back home in Caister, I was good friends with Ashley Dublin — Dion’s big brother — who was DJ-ing in Great Yarmouth clubs. Us two and a black guy called Winston were known as the Three Degrees, inevitably I suppose because there weren’t too many other black faces around. Actually my dad is South American and my mum is from East Dereham.
When we got back off the Sweden tour, the first-team had a few injuries and I played in pre-season games at Cambridge and Peterborough. And when the 1984-85 season started Ken Brown gave me the nod to play in the very first game, at home to Liverpool.
A few slightly older players made debuts that day too: Jan Molby and Paul Walsh for Liverpool and Steve Bruce for us. Steve headed an own goal and Kenny Dalglish put Liverpool 2-0 up but I put over a cross from the right that led to Peter Mendham scoring. John Deehan had a penalty saved but Keith Bertschin made it 2-2 early in the second half. Phil Neal’s penalty gave them the lead again, but we got a penalty in the very last minute and Mick Channon made it 3-3. I was 17 and seven months; it was quite a start.
My second game for the first-team was at Highfield Road against Coventry and the man-marking me was Stuart Pearce, who wasn’t nicknamed Psycho because he liked Hitchcock films. That experience left its mark on me. So did he.
But it didn’t phase me, playing in the top division as little more than a kid. I was completely used to playing with and against people who were older than me, so I didn’t really think about that element.
I played 27 games that season. Physically I was strong enough and I was quick. But mentally, it took its toll. It was very demanding. I signed my first pro contract and was taken off apprentice duties, and grew up really quickly.
I wasn’t in the side when they won the Milk Cup. But I was on the bench in my grey Pierre Cardin suit, with flared trousers that were about six inches too short.
Ken was a good manager. He was the calm one and his assistant, Mel Machin, was the one who would be throwing tea-cups about. Mel would put the fear of God into you and Ken would put his arm round you, if that was what you needed, and there was a mutual respect between them and for them from the players.
But although Norwich hadn’t hesitated to give me my chance in the first team, there is always a difficulty for local lads when the club is signing players for big fees and having to pay them big wages to attract them. I was a local and was already there, so they put me on the second level of wages, never the top.
Over the years I had to compete for my first-team place with midfield players like Andy Townsend and Micky Phelan, who they had paid money for.
After winning the Milk Cup, Norwich were relegated and I didn’t get too many games in the second tier — although I did score the goal that gave us the title, at Stoke.
Then I had a really good season in 1986-87 when I played 41 times and we finished fifth in the top division — the highest the club had ever been at that time — and it was a really good time to be around the club.
I genuinely think we might have won the league that season because away from home we were incredible. We lost fewer away games than the four who finished above us — Everton, Liverpool, Tottenham and Arsenal. We only lost two at home, and that was fewer than anyone other than Everton, the Champions. But we drew 10 home games and all the other four drew a lot less than that. If we could have turned some of those draws into victories …
Anyway, that summer, I was selected to go with the England under-21s to a tournament in Toulon. The manager of the under-21s was Dave Sexton — not Mike Bassett, despite what happened.
We drew 0-0 with Turkey and the manager gave us a curfew. We had to be in our hotel by 11. Me and Robert Rosario, my Norwich team-mate, obviously shared a room and we were sitting in it playing cards. We were joined by Mark Brennan and Jason Dozzell, both from Ipswich. Then Steve Sedgley of Spurs and a mad Geordie by the name of Paul Gascoigne came into our room too. Gazza, who was still a Newcastle player at that stage, had burst on to the scene at that tournament, playing really incredibly, and all the focus was on him.
Ok, so there were six of us in this one hotel room in Toulon. The hotel was near the marina and the room looked out on all the amazing yachts and all the people out for the evening. Gazza was saying, ‘Come on, let’s go out. Come on’. And in the end we did.
We just walked out in our England polo shirts and tracksuits. Of course, we just happened to see a little cocktail bar, and its lights were twinkling and it drew us in. A few Sambucas later we thought it was time to go back to the hotel, but Gazza and Sedge went off to get a kebab so the other four us strolled back without them.
So it’s me, Rob, Jason and Mark going back to our hotel. In the marina were lots of little rowing boats tied up and Jason decided to jump from boat to boat and we all knew nothing could possibly go wrong. How could it? But each time he jumped, the boat he landed in rocked wildly and the water was getting more and more disturbed. But Jason wasn’t at all disturbed — until, for some inexplicable reason, he misjudged one jump and went straight in the plonk. That was when he remembered that he couldn’t swim.
And at the same time, he realised how much he had recently spent on a new watch. So he was shouting, ‘Save my watch’, and shoving his arm up in the air while he thrashed about and we tried to grab any bit of him to stop him going under and then to haul him out.
He was soaked through, and we had all made a tiny little bit of noise. The hotel was only about 60 yards away and Dave Sexton had watched it all from the window of his room.
We trained the next morning and nothing was said. But in the afternoon there was a meeting and we were reprimanded for letting down our country. We took it all without a murmur — and certainly didn’t let on that Gazza and Sedge had got away with breaking the curfew because they’d gone to find kebabs.
The team lost in the quarter-finals and when the next two under-21 squads were announced the East Anglian quartet — me, Rob, Jason and Mark — were all left out both times. Our non-selection wasn’t explained publicly for a while, but then a Sunday newspaper revealed that we had been banned for nine months for our extra-curricula activity in Toulon. The paper printed pictures of the four of us and superimposed bars in front of us, as if we were in prison.
Gazza went from strength to strength with England, though, so I don’t agree with all the people who say kebabs were bad for him!
I had played for my country at every level from schoolboy to under-21s, and the FA eventually forgave me enough to award me two England B caps. But I never got a full cap and I think that was because I went and played in Scotland. It was a weaker league up there and if I had stayed at Norwich I believe I would have got a call up to the full England team. That is a regret I have.
But, back at Norwich after the England under-21 adventure, Ken Brown was sacked just a few months into the 1987-88 season and Dave Stringer got the job.
As a player, Dave had experienced the same situation as me — being a local lad competing with big name signings. I think you have to work harder, or perhaps be better, to win everyone’s respect in those circumstances. Dave had certainly done that as a player, and then he was youth team manager when Norwich won the FA Youth Cup in 1983.
But it was a big step when he followed Ken as manager and, being a local lad, he had the same situation again of being known by everyone instead of being someone who’d been sort of ‘stolen’ from another club.
As manager, he had Dave Williams working with him, and Dave W was the calm one whereas Dave S was the tense one because he wanted so much for his local football club to succeed. It meant so much to him and he was Norwich City through and through. He didn’t want to let the club and people down.
Dave Stringer’s first full season in charge was 1988-89. We went top in September, were still there until December and were still on course for what would have been an incredible League and FA Cup double when we reached the FA Cup semi-final, in April.
I played in the semi, against Everton at Villa Park, but we didn’t have Robert Fleck because his father had died that week. We missed him massively, and it was a scrappy game, which we lost to a scrappy goal. A ball came over from our right and Ian Crook, facing his own goal, reached out a leg to stop it going past him but hit the ball against our bar. They got a shot from the rebound which was blocked, but the ball rebounded again and Pat Nevin, a foot or so out, scuffed his shot but scored.
The other semi-final that day was the Liverpool-Forest game which became the Hillsborough disaster, which put things in perspective for us. We’d only lost a football match. But it had an effect on us; we had six games left in the League, only won one of them, and finished fourth.
The one League game we won in that run-in was a home game against Everton, but it didn’t make up for losing to them in the semi. Finishing fourth meant we’d beaten the level set two seasons earlier, and had finished higher than any other Norwich team, but we were disappointed.
That season was the third time Norwich ‘qualified’ for Europe but were ruled out by the ban on English clubs. We should have earned a place in Europe by winning the Milk Cup in 1985 and for our league positions in 1987 and 1989.
But I did win Player Of The Season for Norwich in 1989 and that is something I look back on with pride.
The 1989-90 season didn’t go so well for the team and the following November, 1991, I left Norwich for Glasgow Rangers. They were a massive club at that time, and they looked at me six times before making a move for me, but then they sold Mark Walters to Liverpool and needed a replacement.
So then I knew the move was on but Norwich had a home game against Forest and I was up against Stuart Pearce again. After two minutes I swapped wings and Dave Stringer asked me what I was doing. I didn’t want to get kicked up in the air and end up in hospital instead of on my way to Glasgow and Dave was probably the only person who didn’t know.
In fact, I didn’t go to Glasgow after the game. I had to wait until the following day. Robert Chase, the Norwich chairman, wanted £1.5 million for me and Rangers had offered £1.2 million. In the end, they shook hands on £1.25 million. I left with a bit of a heavy heart because I’d signed a new, four-year contract with Norwich that year but I had people like Robert Fleck and Andy Townsend telling me that I wouldn’t understand or believe how big a club Rangers were until I started playing for them.
So the only real doubt in my mind about joining them was that I would hamper my chances of playing for England. It seemed the right step for Dale Gordon, though, and I immediately knew the difference. At Norwich, if I was interviewed by the press, there’d be one or two of them and I would be wearing a dodgy shell-suit. When I did my press conference in Glasgow for my signing, it was in a special room, there were at least 30 media people there and I had to be in a shirt and tie.
The reason we had been successful at Norwich was that we had no stars. Or, rather, none of us regarded ourselves as superstars. But when I walked into the changing room at Ibrox, every peg was taken by someone with a huge reputation: Mark Hateley, Ally McCoist … guys like that. And of course, for me, I was no longer the local lad. I was someone they had paid good money for.
On my debut, against Dunfermline, I scored two, had one disallowed and set up two, so I had set myself a high standard. But it continued to go well and I have the medals to show for it. I won the title twice up there, plus the Scottish Cup and the League Cup.
And, at last, I had the unbelievable experience of playing in the European Cup — the competition that was to become the Champions League. The ban on English clubs was lifted in 1992 and that year I played in one of the biggest matches Rangers have ever played: the ‘Battle of Britain’ against Leeds.
Walter Smith, the Rangers manager, had introduced team rotation and I didn’t play in the home leg — but I got my turn in the second leg at Elland Road. Away supporters were banned because the police feared trouble, but there was an incredible atmosphere. Eric Cantona came on for them as a sub but we repeated the score from the first leg and won 2-1.
Oh, and I played in five ‘Old Firm’ derbies against Celtic and never lost. In fact, I only played in one defeat at all in my two years at Rangers. So I should have stayed with them. But I wasn’t selected for the 1992 cup final and that cheesed me off. Then West Ham came in for me during the summer and I remembered how much I had enjoyed playing against them for Norwich.
Chadwell Heath, where West Ham train, was only a couple of hours by road from Norwich because the roads were getting better and I had family reasons for moving back to England. It wasn’t too long since my son, Remi, had been born. Harry Redknapp offered me better terms at West Ham than I was on in Glasgow, and so I decided to make the move.
I played about seven games for West Ham and then picked up a straightforward injury to my left knee and had a routine cartilage operation. But, because I was a £1 million signing, I felt under pressure to get fit quickly and I kept trying it too soon. Every time I tried to get training again, I kept breaking down and the injury escalated so that I had two more operations. I was never the same and in three years I only made 11 appearances.
They loaned me out to Peterborough and to Millwall and eventually I went to Bournemouth, where I met up with Mel Machin again. I went there as his first-team coach, but the club were in terrible financial trouble and things were so bad that one day someone working for the receivers jumped in my club car and drove it away.
I loved the coaching part of my six months in Bournemouth and so I went home to the Great Yarmouth area and set up an academy. I managed Great Yarmouth and then Gorleston, where I got Robert Fleck to play for me. I ran an academy for Ipswich (sorry!) in Lowestoft and had a bar in Yarmouth and then in 2013 the opportunity came to work in Dubai, in the sun.
I joined a football coaching company in Dubai as director of football and was with them for about three years. Then I had to have a hip replacement — as you do! It was my left hip. I think all the years of playing and training took their toll. And I still run a lot. I’m out running all the time and I think it all caught up with me — which is something not many could do when I was a bit younger!
Or perhaps jumping off too many tables after nice lunches. Either way, the old hip was really messed up; one bone was grinding against another and it got to a point when it was too uncomfortable.
In 2016 I joined a radio station called Dubai Eye. When Euro 2016 was on in France, I was the station’s voice of the tournament and thoroughly enjoyed it. We were based at the Jumeirah Beach Hotel, which is one of the famous Dubai landmarks, and I’ve been with Dubai Eye ever since. I do a Monday night show on football and contribute to other shows during the week.
In September 2016 I got back to coaching as well. I set up my own club DG Pro FC. It’s a youth football club for children aged seven to 12. It’s gone really, really well and in 2017 the under-11s won the league and cup double. I have kids from all over: Egyptians, Russians, French, Danes, Hungarians, Slovakians.
My philosophy for youth football is, first and foremost, to let the kids enjoy themselves and learn from making mistakes. I know the game has moved on from when I played but I think that when kids go to pro clubs too many of them become regimented. The spark they had that caused them to get noticed is drilled out of them.
That wasn’t what happened to me, and I am very grateful for that. These days it feels as if I’ve come a long way, in every sense, from Caister and I have certainly done a lot of things since leaving Norwich City — in the game at Rangers in Scotland, for instance, and outside the game since retiring. But I think of Norwich as the place and the club where I was given the opportunity. I had some great team-mates too.
My biggest regret was getting injured almost as soon as I joined West Ham from Rangers in 1993. I was 26, with so much more to offer and with the way the game was going — with all the razzamatazz of Sky and the Premier League — it was precisely the wrong time to get crocked.
It was a blow in another way too. When I left Carrow Road after that final game, against Forest, I felt as if I had unfinished business at Norwich and might go back some day. That just didn’t happen though. The injury made that impossible.